As waves of tributes continued to flow across social and legacy media honoring legendary actor Sidney Poitier, who broke color barriers when he became the first Black performer to win an Oscar for a leading role and paved the way for generations of Black actors who followed, his family added their personal remembrance.
“There are no words to convey the deep sense of loss and sadness we are feeling right now,” Poitier’s family said in a statement last Friday. “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.”
Poitier, 94, died Jan. 6, according to the Bahamian Minister of Foreign Affairs. No information was released on the cause of death, but Poitier had been diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1993.
Born in Miami but raised in the Bahamas, Poitier won the best actor Academy Award for his work in “Lilies of the Field” in 1963, and went on to become a major box office draw, a notion that was unheard of for a Black performer in the 1960s.
He cemented his legendary status with a trio of iconic 1967 roles: as Mark Thackeray in “To Sir With Love,” Detective Virgil Tibbs in “In the Heat of the Night” and as John Prentice—fiance to a White woman—in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”
Two scenes from “In the Heat of the Night” symbolized Poitier’s status as a trailblazer: One where he slaps a White southern aristocrat who slapped him after questioning his authority to investigate a murder in Mississippi and another where he refused to be called “boy” by exclaiming “They call me Mr. Tibbs.”’
Poitier later said he insisted on responding after his character is slapped, “I said to [the producers], ‘In my life, whether I’m a detective or not, and I don’t care where I am, if such a thing happened to me, the likelihood is I would respond.’”
The film’s director, Norman Jewison, called it “the slap heard round the world.” On Friday, Jewison remembered his friend of more than 50 years.
“I was heartbroken. I knew he wasn’t well,” Jewison told The Hollywood Reporter. “He was a personal friend as well as an actor. He was probably one of the most intelligent actors I ever worked with.”
Poitier’s films and roles directly attacked racial divides, and his emergence as a Hollywood star served as a beacon for Black performers that they could do more than portray servants, maids or musicians on screen.
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.
Poitier’s films included “No Way Out,” “The Defiant Ones,” “Blackboard Jungle,” “Porgy and Bess,” “A Raisin in the Sun,” “A Patch of Blue,” “Edge of the City,” and “Sneakers.”
As a director, he made history as the first Black to helm a film that earned $100 million dollars at the box office with the success of the 1980 film “Stir Crazy”’ starring Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder.
Poitier directed eight other films including “Buck and the Preacher,” “Uptown Saturday Night” and “A Piece of the Action.”
He 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.”
Although he broke the Academy Awards color barrier in the early 1960s, it was decades later until any 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.” It was Washington who presented Poitier with the honorary Oscar earlier in the awards telecast.
Poitier was also a civil rights activist who was among the scores of celebrities who participated in the 1963 March on Washington. In 2009, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom 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 Friday. “He also opened doors for a generation of actors. Michelle and I send our love to his family and legion of fans.”
From 1997 to 2007, Poitier, who had dual citizenship in the United States and the Bahamas, served as the Bahamian ambassador to Japan.
“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.”
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.”
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.”
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 is survived by his wife of 45 years, Joanna, five daughters, eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. A sixth daughter, Gina, died in 2018.