Sidney Poitier, the Oscar-winning actor who brought quiet dignity to his on-screen characters and helped break the color barrier in Hollywood, has passed away. He was 94 years old.
Poitier’s death was confirmed by two ministers from the Bahamas. Deputy Prime Minister Chester Cooper told ABC News he was “gripped with great sadness and a sense of joy when I learned of the passing of Sir Sidney Poitier”.
“Sadness that he is no longer there to tell him how much he means to us, but celebration that he has done so much to show the world that those of the most humble can change the world and that we gave him his flowers so that he was with us, ”he said.
Foreign Minister Fred Mitchell also told ABC News: “We have lost a great Bahamian and I have lost a personal friend”.
Poitier became the first black man to win the Oscar for Best Actor in 1964 for his role in “Les lis des champs”. He was perhaps best known for his role as a black doctor engaged to a white woman in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” in 1967, in which he starred alongside Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy.
That same year, he portrayed his most successful character, Philadelphia Detective Virgil Tibbs in the Southern crime drama “In the Heat of the Night”. It was a role he would reprise in two sequels. He played a downtown teacher in “To Sir, with Love”, his third film in 1967.
Born on February 20, 1927 in Miami during a visit from his Bahamian parents, Poitier spent most of his childhood in the Bahamas. As a teenager he was sent to live with one of his brothers in Miami and at 16 he moved to New York on his own. After holding a series of odd jobs and a brief stint in the military, he eventually landed a seat at the American Negro Theater in Harlem.
He made his film debut in 1950 in “No Way Out”, as a doctor treating a white fanatic. His decisive role came in 1955 playing a student at a downtown school in “Blackboard Jungle”. He won his first Oscar nomination for starring in the 1958 crime drama “The Defiant Ones” with Tony Curtis.
Other memorable roles included the musical “Porgy and Bess”, the film adaptation of “A Raisin in the Sun” and “A Patch of Blue”.
From the 1970s, Poitier made several films, including “Uptown Saturday Night” and “Let’s Do It Again” with Bill Cosby. In 1980, he directed the hit comedy “Stir Crazy”, starring Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder.
After retiring from acting in 1997, he served as the Bahamas’ non-resident Ambassador to Japan until 2007.
In 2002, 38 years after receiving his Oscar for Best Actor, Poitier received an Honorary Oscar for his “remarkable achievements as an artist and as a human being”. In 2009, President Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States.
Poitier is survived by six daughters, four of them with his first wife Juanita Hardy. He is also survived by his current wife Joanna Shimkus, mother of two of his daughters, including actress Sydney Tamiia Poitier.
Hollywood mourned the passing of such an influential figure, with tributes from Whoopi Goldberg, Jeffrey Wright and Debbie Allen.
“He showed us how to reach for the stars”, Goldberg noted in part. “My condolences to his family and to all of us as well.”
Wright called Poitier “a historic player” and “unique in its kind”. He added, “What a beautiful, gracious, warm, and truly royal man. RIP, sir. With love.”
“#SidneyPoitier, your last sunset with us is the dawn of many generations rising up on the path of light you blazed”, Allen noted. “We will always keep you in our hearts and speak your name forever.”