DEATH OF A LEGEND: Iconic actor Sidney Poitier dies at 94

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Wave Staff and Wire Report

LOS ANGELES — Heartfelt tributes and testimonials continued to pour in Jan. 7 for Sidney Poitier, the acting pioneer who transcended racial barriers in the entertainment community

In 1963, Poitier became the first Black man to win the Oscar and Golden Globe for Best Lead Actor for his role as handyman Homer Smith in the 1963 film “Lilies of the Field.”

Poitier died at his home in Los Angeles at the age of 94. His death was reported by the Bahamian Minister of Foreign Affairs and early reports said Poitier died in the Bahamas.

In a statement, President Joe Biden said Poitier’s performances “held a mirror up to America’s racial attitudes in the 1950s and 1960s. With unflinching grandeur and poise — his singular warmth, depth and stature on screen — Sidney helped open the hearts of millions and changed the way America saw itself.

“The son of tomato farmers in the Bahamas, Sidney became the first Black man to win the Academy Award for best actor — but the trail he blazed extended leaps and bounds beyond his background or profession. He blazed a path for our nation to follow, and a legacy that touches every part of our society today,” Biden said.

During his career, Poitier was honored more than 25 times. His peak may have come in the 1960s when, in addition to “Lily of the Fields,” he starred in “In the Heat of the Night,” “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” and “To Sir, With Love.”

In the groundbreaking drama, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” Poitier played a man in a relationship with a white woman, played by actress Katherine Houghton, who brings her fiance home to meet her parents, played by Spemcer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn. The film was one of the first to depict a positive interracial marriage.

The film was released in December 1967, six months after interracial marriage had become legalized throughout the United States.

In most of his films, Poitier’s characters dealt with social and racial divides that, although successful and timeless, came with mixed reviews. The passion for his career was clear as he didn’t let the opinions of critics slow his purpose to inspire change.

Although he broke the Academy Awards color barrier in the early 1960s, it was decades later before other Black performers received such honors.

It wasn’t until 2002 – the year Poitier received an honorary Oscar — that the Academy Awards made history by giving its top acting awards to two Black performers, Denzel Washington for “Training Day” and Halle Berry for “Monster’s Ball.”

Poitier’s film resume included “The Defiant Ones,” “Porgy and Bess,” “A Raisin in the Sun,” “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” “A Patch of Blue,” “Uptown Saturday Night,” “Buck and the Preacher,” “Sneakers” and “A Piece of the Action.”

He directed nine films, beginning with “Buck and the Preachers” and including “Uptown Saturday Night” and the Richard Pryor-Gene Wilder comedy “Stir Crazy.”

Poitier also received acclaim on the small screen, portraying Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in the miniseries “Separate But Equal” and Nelson Mandela in the TV film “Mandela and de Klerk.”

Following his Academy Award, Poitier recorded an album with composer Fred Katz, entitled “Poitier Meets Plato,” in which he recited some of Plato’s passages. A true philosopher of his time, one of Poitier’s best known quotes was, “Acting isn’t a game of pretend. It’s an exercise in being real.”

Away from the cameras, Poitier, who had dual citizenship in the United States and the Bahamas, served as the Bahamian ambassador to Japan from 1997 to 2007.

Poitier was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009 by President Barack Obama.

“Through his groundbreaking roles and singular talent, Sidney Poitier epitomized dignity and grace, revealing the power of movies to bring us closer together,” Obama said in a statement Jan. 7. “He also opened doors for a generation of actors. Michelle and I send our love to his family and legion of fans.”

“For me, the greatest of the ‘Great Trees’ has fallen: Sidney Poitier,” Oprah Winfrey said in a statement. “My honor to have loved him as a mentor. Friend. Brother. Confidant. Wisdom teacher. The utmost, highest regard and praise for his most magnificent, gracious, eloquent life.

“I treasured him. I adored him. He had an enormous soul I will forever cherish. Blessings to Joanna and his world of beautiful daughters.”

Actor and entertainment executive Forest Whitaker took to Twitter, tweeting, “#SidneyPoitier was an inspiration. His grace and his work opened the door for me and so many. He was a candle who illuminated the darkness and touched us from his soul. Such a loss. I’ll forever be grateful to what he’s given me, and to the world.”

Debbie Allen tweeted Friday evening, “You opened the door for us all. We will forever speak your name.”

Whoopi Goldberg added, “If you wanted the sky I would write across the sky in letters that would soar a thousand feet high. To Sir, with Love. Sir Sidney Poitier RIP. He showed us how to reach for the stars.”

Laker legend Magic Johnson also lamented the loss of his friend.

“Sidney was incredibly talented, professional and so distinguished,” Johnson wrote. “I still watch his movies today like ‘To Sir, With Love,’ ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,’ ‘They Call Me Mr. Tibbs’ and one of my favorites, ‘In the Heat of the Night.’

“A great friend, I learned a lot from watching Sidney and how he carried himself with such grace and class. May he rest in peace.”

Oscar winner Marlee Matlin said, “So sad to read of the passing of Sidney Poitier. Thank you for gracing us with your brilliance.”

Ex-Walt Disney Co. CEO Robert Iger also hailed him, writing on Twitter, “Former Disney board member Sidney Poitier was the most dignified man I’ve ever met. Towering, gentle, passionate, bold, kind, altogether special.”

Actor/director Ron Howard called Poitier “one of cinema’s greatest leading men ever.”

“Riveting to watch,” he wrote. “Also an excellent director and from the couple of times I had the honor of meeting him, an extraordinarily intelligent and gracious man. Watch a Poitier movie or two this week.”

Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz noted that Poitier “bore a responsibility no other actor of his era had to carry.”

“He didn’t choose to represent all Black men, but as the sole Black leading man in a business uncomfortable with more than one, such was his lot. Still, he delivered nuance, charm and honesty to each role,” Mankiewicz tweeted.

Poitier was the youngest of seven children, born two months premature in Miami in 1927. After spending months in the hospital, Poitier moved back to Cat Island in the Bahamas where he spent the remainder of his childhood.

Upon moving back to the United States at 15, he eventually landed in New York to pursue a career in acting, he made a deal with the American Negro Theater to receive acting lessons in exchange for working as a janitor for the theater. His humble beginnings as an actor eventually paid off when he landed his first lead role in the 1955 film “Blackboard Jungle.”

Over the course of his lifetime career in theater film and television, Poitier was married twice. His first marriage was to Juanita Harvey in 1950 and ended in 1965 after he began an affair with the acclaimed late actress, Diahann Carroll that lasted nine years.

Poitier married Canadian actress Joanna Shimkus in 1976. Poitier is survived by Shimkus and six daughters; four from his first marriage and two from his second.

Kayla Rodgers contributed to this report.

 

 

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