AFP/Reuters Los Angeles
Sidney Poitier, Hollywood’s first major black movie star and the first black man to win the best actor Oscar, has died at 94, prompting an outpouring of grief from the entertainment industry and beyond.
Poitier was “an icon, a hero, a mentor, a fighter, a national treasure”, said Chester Cooper, Deputy Prime Minister of the Bahamas, confirming yesterday the passing of the dual US-Bahamian citizen.
Stars including Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey led emotional tributes as news broke of the death of the celebrated thespian.
“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 R.I.P. He showed us how to reach for the stars,” Whoopi Goldberg, award winning actor and TV host, wrote on Twitter.
“For me, the greatest of the ‘Great Trees’ has fallen: Sidney Poitier,” wrote Winfrey.
Poitier played a teacher in a tough London school year in 1967’s To Sir, With Love.
Poitier was born in Miami on February 20, 1927, and raised on a tomato farm in the Bahamas, and had just one year of formal schooling.
He struggled against poverty, illiteracy and prejudice to become one of the first black actors to be known and accepted in major roles by mainstream audiences.
Poitier picked his roles with care, burying the old Hollywood idea that black actors could appear only in demeaning contexts as shoeshine boys, train conductors and maids.
“I love you, I respect you, I imitate you,” Denzel Washington, another Oscar winner, once told Poitier at a public ceremony.
Poitier became the first male black star nominated for an Academy Award with 1958’s The Defiant Ones and, six years later, won his groundbreaking Oscar for Lilies of the Field.
At a time of serious racial tension in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s, Poitier balanced success with a sense of duty, choosing projects that tackled bigotry and stereotypes, including his 1967 classics Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and In the Heat of the Night.
“There is no man in this business who has been more of a North Star for me than Sidney Poitier,” said entertainment mogul Tyler Perry.
Another Oscar-winning actress, Viola Davis, said Poitier’s “dignity, normalcy, strength, excellence and sheer electricity ... showed us that we, as black folks, mattered!!!”
Poitier was awarded an honorary Oscar in 2002 for his “extraordinary performances” on the silver screen and his “dignity, style and intelligence” off of it.
On television, he portrayed icons of history such as South Africa’s first black president Nelson Mandela and the first black justice on the US Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall.
And in 1997, he took up a ceremonial post as Bahamian ambassador to Japan.
He was awarded the US Presidential Medal of Freedom – the country’s highest civilian honour – by Barack Obama in 2009.
“I was conflicted with great sadness and a sense of celebration when I learned of the passing of Sir Sidney Poitier,” Deputy Prime Minister Cooper said.
“Sadness that he would no longer be here to tell him how much he means to us, but celebration that he did so much to show the world that those from the humblest beginnings can change the world,” he added. “He will be missed sorely, but his is a legacy that will never be forgotten.”
Poitier was married to his second wife Joanna since 1976, and had six children as well as numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Others such as Star Trek actor George Takei paid tribute to “a trailblazer who will be mourned by so many for whom he opened the very doors of Hollywood”.
“Sidney Poitier. What a landmark actor. One of a kind,” said Westworld star Jeffrey Wright.
“He blazed a tremendous path for thespians such as me. I am forever grateful,” said veteran actor Colman Domingo.
And messages poured in from beyond Hollywood, with Bollywood star Anil Kapoor praising “my childhood idol, lifelong inspiration & star of some of my favourite films”.
“A great friend, I learned a lot from watching Sidney and how he carried himself with such grace and class,” tweeted basketball legend Magic Johnson. “May he rest in peace.”
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