Sidney Poitier, a Hollywood diversity pioneer and winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, has died at 94.
Poitier died Thursday in the Bahamas, the 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 the Poitier representative for more information.
Poitier’s legacy in film history is that of an icon – many of his most memorable roles dealt with race in major Hollywood movies before others chose to do so. One biographer dubbed him the “Martin Luther King of movies.”
The 1967 film “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” in which Poitier played the love interest alongside Katharine Houghton, offered a positive depiction of interracial dating during a time when more than a handful of states still had laws prohibiting interracial marriage.
“Before Sydney, African American actors had to take on supporting roles in major studio movies that were easy to cut out in certain parts of the country. But you couldn’t get Sidney Poitier out of a Sidney Poitier movie,” Denzel Washington said in the 2002 Academy Awards, presenting Poitier with an honorary Oscar. “He was the reason a movie was made – the first solo African-American movie star, above the title.”
Hollywood remembers Sidney Poitier: ‘He showed us how to reach for the stars’
Sidney Poitier was the first black man to win an Academy Award for best actor
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 he became the first black man in win an Academy Award for best actor. actor, this time for “Lilies of the Field”.
In Poiter’s acceptance speech, he acknowledged the “long journey up to this point” and said he was “in debt to countless people,” including members of the Academy. With heavy breaths and big smiles, he finished, “All I can say is a very special thank you.”
The American Film Institute included him in its 1999 list of Hollywood’s Greatest Male Stars, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1974, and he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2009.
“It’s been said that Sidney Poitier doesn’t make movies, he makes milestones, milestones of artistic excellence, milestones of America’s progress,” Obama said before awarding the actor the highest civilian honor in the nation. “
“Poitier not only entertained, but enlightened, changing attitudes, widening hearts, revealing the power of the big screen to bring us closer,” he continued. “Poitier once called on his passion for driving to become a better person. He did it. And it made us all a little better along the way.”
The Museum of the Academy of Cinematography, which opened in 2021, honored Poitier with its 10,000-square-foot lobby, nicknamed the Sidney Poitier Grand Lobby.
In January 2021, Arizona State University named its new film school in his honor. The new Sidney Poitier American film school was inaugurated in a virtual ceremony.
The decision to name the school in honor of Poitier was much more than his achievements and legacy, but because he “embodies in himself what we strive to be: the combination of excellence, drive and passion with social purpose and results. social, all things that has really represented his career, “said Michael M. Crow, president of the university.
At the time, his daughter Beverly Poitier-Henderson told The Associated Press that her father was “doing well and enjoying his family,” and considered it an honor to be the namesake of the new film school.
Denzel Washington on Poitier’s legacy: ‘I will always follow in your footsteps’
In 2001, 38 years after Poitier’s groundbreaking Oscar victory, Washington became the second African-American to receive the best actor award for his role in “Training Day.” 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 him (an award) the same night. I’ll always chase you, Sidney,” Washington said during his acceptance speech, as the two waved. each other with their respective trophies. “I will always be following in your footsteps. There is nothing I prefer to do, sir.”
“I was thankful, because (Washington) following me, as he did, had brought the concept of African-Americans in movies to a place where I couldn’t, didn’t,” Poitier later said in an interview with the Academy. .
“His victory represented progress, it represented the dimensionalization of the film industry,” added Poitier. “It was an example of the perseverance, 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 Hollywood icons
How Sidney Poitier became an actor
Born in Miami on February 20, 1927, to Bahamian tomato growers who traveled to the U.S. to sell crops, Poitier grew up on Cat Island in the Bahamas before moving alone to New York City at 16. years.
“They taught me that I had basic rights as a human being. They taught me that I was someone,” he told Oprah Winfrey in 2015 about how his upbringing helped him navigate an industry that he didn’t always accept. “I knew we had no money; still, they taught me that I was someone. We had no electricity or running water; still, they taught me that I was someone.”
His acting career began with the American Negro Theater and five years later he starred in his first feature film: “No Way Out,” a hospital drama about a doctor (Poitier) faced with racism by a white patient he works to save for. . He then starred in movies like “To Sir, With Love” and “In the Heat of the Night.” Over the years, he earned a reputation for playing gentle, kind, and intelligent 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 really hard as an actor to make that brand,” Houghton, co-star of Poitier’s “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” told Vanity Fair in 2017.
“We didn’t use that word then, but okay then who do I want to be? I want to be heroic; I want to be smart; 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. “
Children, wives of Sidney Poitier
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 greatest integrity that I have ever met in my life,” Joanna told The Hollywood Reporter in 2017.
Poitier served on Disney’s board of directors from 1995 to 2003 and wrote three autobiographical books: the last, published in 2008, was a series of life-lesson-filled letters written to one of his great-granddaughters, Ayele.
“Each generation must be responsible for itself and there is no way to escape from that,” wrote Poitier in “Life without measure: Letters to my great-granddaughter.”
“Even so, dear Ayele, it can be useful at crucial moments to listen to the murmurs of the ancestors whose footsteps we follow … That is to say, little one, that although your great-great-grandfather and the elders of my time are sadly no longer with us, the we keep them alive in part by honoring the questions they have sought to answer throughout their lives. From what we know about them and the other people in our collective family tree, we can better understand where we came from and where we are going. “
Contributing: The Associated Press