The legendary star who was the first black man to win the Best Actor Oscar has died at the age of 94, Bahamas Chancellor Fred Mitchell confirmed Friday to CBS News. The family informed Mitchell of Poitier’s death, but had no other details.
Poitier, who had dual American and Bahamian nationality, was “an icon, a hero, a mentor, a fighter, a national treasure,” Deputy Prime Minister Chester Cooper said on his official Facebook page.
Poitier’s life was a series of “firsts”. In 1958, he was the first black actor to be nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his role as a fugitive convict chained to Tony Curtis in “The Defiant Ones.”
When he was nominated again in 1964 for “Lilies of the Field,” he took home the Academy Award. Not only was he the first black actor to do so, but he remained the only one until 2002.
He was also the first black man to kiss a white woman in a movie, 1965’s “A Patch of Blue.”
He made memorable performances in such films as “In the Heat of the Night,” which won the Best Picture Oscar, “To Sir, with Love,” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”
Poitier received the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, from Barack Obama in 2009.
“Sidney Poitier personified dignity and grace”, Obama tweeted Friday, “revealing the power of movies to bring us closer. It also opened the doors to a generation of actors.”
Poitier told CBS News that his career options are less about being “first” and more about the image of his characters. He wouldn’t, play someone immoral or cruel. “If you go through my career, you will find that I didn’t. I never did.”
“I didn’t go into the movie business to be symbolized as someone else’s vision of me,” Poitier told Stahl. He said he would not take part “that reflects negatively on my father, my mother and my values.”
“My father was a tomato grower. There’s a phrase that says he or she worked his fingers to the bone, well that’s my dad. And he was a very good man.”
Sidney Poitier, the youngest of seven siblings, was born three months early while his Bahamian parents were in Miami to sell tomatoes.
Not knowing if he would survive, his father bought a small coffin, while his mother consulted a palm reader.
“The lady took her by the hand and started talking to my mother: ‘Don’t worry about your son. He will survive,'” Poitier recalls. “And these were her words, she said, ‘She will walk with kings.’
And it came true: “Everything he said, even walking with kings, yes.”
President Joe Biden was among those who paid tribute to Poitier after news of his death. In a statement, he said:
“Sidney was more than one of the best actors in our history. His iconic performances in films such as The challengers, A raisin in the sun, Guess who’s coming to dinner, Y In the heat of the night held a mirror of America’s racial attitudes in the 1950s and 1960s. With unwavering grandeur and poise, his unique warmth, depth, and on-screen stature, Sidney helped open the hearts of millions and changed the way America United he saw himself. “
Poitier’s close friend Harry Belafonte issued a statement Friday calling the iconic actor his “partner in trying to make this world a little better.”
“For more than 80 years, Sidney and I laughed, cried and did as much mischief as we could,” he wrote. “He was truly my brother and partner in my attempt to make this world a little better. He certainly made mine that much better.”
Posts honoring Poitier flooded social media, with Oscar winner Morgan Freeman calling him “my inspiration, my guiding light, my friend” and Oprah Winfrey praising him as a “friend. Brother. Confidant. Teacher of wisdom.”
“There are no words to describe how her work radically changed my life,” wrote fellow Oscar winner Viola Davis. “The dignity, normalcy, strength, excellence, and sheer electricity they brought to their roles showed us that we, as blacks, matter!”
Actor Jeffrey Wright called him “a beautiful, kind, warm, and genuinely real man.”