Sidney Poitier, a trailblazer for Hollywood diversity and a Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, has died at 94.
Poitier died Thursday in the Bahamas, acting director general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the Bahamas Eugene Torchon-Newry confirmed to the Associated Press.
USA TODAY has reached out to the Prime Minister of the Bahamas and Poitier’s rep for more information.
Poitier’s legacy in film history is that of an icon: Many of his most memorable roles dealt with race in mainstream Hollywood films before others opted to do so. One biographer dubbed him the “Martin Luther King of the movies.”
The 1967 film “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” in which Poitier starred in as the love interest opposite Katharine Houghton, offered a positive depiction of interracial couples during a time when more than a handful of states still had laws prohibiting interracial marriage.
“Before Sidney, African American actors had to take supporting roles in major studio films that were easy to cut out in certain parts of the country. But you couldn’t cut Sidney Poitier out of a Sidney Poitier picture,” Denzel Washington said at the 2002 Academy Awards, presenting Poitier with an honorary Oscar. “He was the reason a movie got made: the first solo, above-the-title African American movie star.”
Hollywood remembers Sidney Poitier: ‘He showed us how to reach for the stars’
Among his long list of accolades, Poitier became the first African American actor to be nominated for an Academy Award for best actor (for “The Defiant Ones” in 1958) and six years later became the first Black man to win an Academy Award for best actor, this time for “Lilies of the Field.”
In Poiter’s acceptance speech, he acknowledged the “long journey to this moment” and said he was “indebted to countless numbers of people” including the members of the Academy. Through overwhelmed breaths and big smiles, he ended: “All I can say is a very special thank you.”
1964: Sidney Poitier’s Oscars acceptance speech after he became the first Black man to win an Academy Award for Best Actor
The American Film Institute included him on its 1999 list of greatest male Hollywood stars, Queen Elizabeth II knighted him in 1974 and President Barack Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009.
“It’s been said the Sidney Poitier does not make movies, he makes milestones – milestones of artistic excellence, milestones of America’s progress,” Obama said before bestowing the actor with the nation’s highest civilian honor. “
“Poitier not only entertained, but enlightened, shifting attitudes, broadening hearts, revealing the power of the silver screen to bring us closer together,” he continued. “Poitier once called his driving passion to make himself a better person. He did. And he made us all a little bit better along the way.”
The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, which opened in 2021, honored Poitier with its 10,000-square-foot lobby, dubbed the Sidney Poitier Grand Lobby.
In January 2021, Arizona State University named its new film school after him. The Sidney Poitier New American Film School was unveiled at a virtual ceremony .
The decision to name the school after Poitier was about much more than his achievements and legacy, but because he “embodies in his very person that which we strive to be — the matching of excellence and drive and passion with social purpose and social outcomes, all things that his career has really stood for,” said Michael M. Crow, president of the university.
At the time, his daughter Beverly Poitier-Henderson told The Associated Press her father was “doing well and enjoying his family,” and considered it an honor to be the namesake of the new film school.
In 2001, 38 years after Poitier’s pioneering Oscars win, Washington became just the second African American to receive the award for best actor for his role in “Training Day.” On that same night, Poitier accepted an honorary Oscar for his contributions to the film industry.
“Forty years, I’ve been chasing Sidney – what do they do? They give (an award) to him the same night. I’ll always be chasing you, Sidney,” Washington said during his acceptance speech, as the two saluted each other with their respective trophies. “I’ll always be following in your footsteps. There’s nothing I’d rather do, sir.”
“I was grateful, because (Washington) following me, as he did, he had taken the concept of African Americans in films to a place where I couldn’t – I didn’t,” Poitier later said in an interview with the Academy.
“His win represented progress, it represented the dimensionalizing of the film industry,” Poitier added. “It was an example of the persistence and effort and determination of young people of color. … It was a spectacular, spectacular evening.”
Sidney Poitier and Denzel Washington: Read USA TODAY’s rare joint interview with the Hollywood icons
Born in Miami on Feb. 20, 1927, to Bahamian tomato farmers traveling in the U.S. to sell crops, Poitier grew up on Cat Island in the Bahamas before moving to New York City alone at age 16.
“I was taught that I had basic rights as a human being. I was taught that I was someone,” he told Oprah Winfrey in 2015 of how his upbringing later helped in navigating an industry that wasn’t always accepting. “I knew we had no money – still, I was taught that I was someone. We had no electricity and no running water – still, I was taught that I was someone.”
His acting career began with the American Negro Theater and five years later, he was starring in his first feature film: “No Way Out,” a hospital drama about a doctor (Poitier) confronted with racism by a white patient he is working to save. He went on to star in films such as “To Sir, With Love” and “In the Heat of the Night.” Over the years, he built up a reputation for playing gentle, kind and smart characters.
Sidney Poitier movies: His most notable films, from ‘Lilies of the Field’ to ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’
“A star like Sidney has a brand and Sidney worked very hard as an actor to make that brand,” Houghton, Poitier’s “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” co-star, told Vanity Fair in 2017.
“We didn’t use that word then, but OK, so who do I want to be? I want to be heroic; I want to be intelligent; I want to be noble; I want to be sensitive. As a Black man, he was going to be judged. He knew this. He had to be better than a white man. And that was his great gift to America. He chose to be the perfect man.”
Poitier had four daughters with his first wife, Juanita Hardy: Beverly, Pamela, Sherri and Gina. The couple divorced after five years of marriage. Poitier later married former actress Joanna Shimkus in 1976 and had two more daughters, Anika and Sydney.
“He is the most wonderful, generous, kind, honest man with the most integrity that I’ve ever known in my life,” Joanna told The Hollywood Reporter in 2017.
Poitier served on the board of directors for Disney from 1995 to 2003 and wrote three autobiographical books: The last, published in 2008, was a series of letters filled with his own life lessons, written to one of his great-granddaughters, Ayele.
“Each generation must be responsible for itself, and there is no escaping that,” Poitier wrote in “Life Beyond Measure: Letters to My Great-Granddaughter.”
“Even so, dearest Ayele, it can be helpful at crucial moments to listen to the murmurings of ancestors in whose footsteps we follow. … This is to say, little one, that though your great-great-grandfather and the elders from my time are sadly not with us anymore, we keep them alive in part by honoring the questions they searched their whole lives to answer. From the bits we can know of them and the other individuals from our collective family tree, we can better understand where we come from and where we’re headed.”
The Poitier family mourned the actor in a joint statement to USA TODAY on Friday. Here it is in full:
There are no words to convey the deep sense of loss and sadness we are feeling right now. We are so grateful he was able to spend his last day surrounded by his family and friends. To us Sidney Poitier was not only a brilliant actor, activist, and a man of incredible grace and moral fortitude, he was also a devoted and loving husband, a supportive and adoring father, and a man who always put family first. He is our guiding light who lit up our lives with infinite love and wonder. His smile was healing, his hugs the warmest refuge, and his laughter was infectious. We could always turn to him for wisdom and solace and his absence feels like a giant hole in our family and our hearts. Although he is no longer here with us in this realm, his beautiful soul will continue to guide and inspire us. He will live on in us, his grandchildren and great-grandchildren—in every belly laugh, every curious inquiry, every act of compassion and kindness. His legacy will live on in the world, continuing to inspire not only with his incredible body of work, but even more so with his humanity.
We would like to extend our deepest appreciation to every single one of you for the outpouring of love from around the world. So many have been touched by our dad’s extraordinary life, his unwavering sense of decency and respect for his fellow man. His faith in humanity never faltered, so know that for all the love you’ve shown him, he loved you back.
Contributing: The Associated Press