Barack Obama has paid tribute to ‘singular talent’ Sidney Poitier who has died aged 94. 

‘Through his groundbreaking roles and singular talent, Sidney Poitier epitomized dignity and grace, revealing the power of movies to bring us closer together. He also opened doors for a generation of actors. Michelle and I send our love to his family and legion of fans,’ Obama wrote on Twitter. 

He accompanied his tribute with a photograph of himself and Michelle with Mr. Poitier in the Oval Office after he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009.

Obama joined legions of famous faces from across the world who shared memories and praise of the actor.  Leading the tributes were Whoopie Goldberg, Lenny Kravitz, Viola Davis, and Tyler Perry, who wrote: ‘The grace and class that this man has shown throughout his entire life, the example he set for me, not only as a black man but as a human being will never be forgotten.’

‘All I can say is thank you for your life, thank you for your example, and thank you for your incredible gift,’ added Perry. 

Poitier’s death was confirmed on Friday morning by Fred Mitchell, Minister of Foreign Affairs for the Bahamas, where Poitier grew up. His cause of death is not yet known.  

Poitier’s trailblazing acting career saw him win an Oscar in 1964 for his role in Lilies of the Field him, and earn two further Academy Award nominations, ten Golden Globes nominations, two Primetime Emmy Awards nominations, six BAFTA nominations, eight Laurel nominations, and one Screen Actors Guild Awards nomination. 

Twice-married, he had four daughters with his first wife Juanita Hardy and two with his second wife Joanna Shimkus, as well as eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. 

RIP: Oscar-winning Hollywood star Sir Sidney Poitier has died at 94. He made history as the first black man to win an Oscar for best actor (above) in 1964 for Lillies In The Field

In the last known photo of him, Poitier is seen left in February 2021 celebrating his 94th birthday with his daughter. Right, he is at his 92nd birthday in 2019

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Groundbreaking roles and singular talent: Barack Obama paid tribute to Sidney Poitier, who has died aged 94

During his first marriage, he began a nine-year affair with actress Diahann Carroll, whom he met when they worked together on the 1959 movie Porgy and Bess. The fallout from the affair ended the marriages of both Carroll and Poitier, whose subsequent second marriage to Shimkus was more enduring, lasting 45 years until his death.  

In 2016, Poitier was awarded a BAFTA fellowship, but did not attend the event due to ill health.  

Poitier received the Kennedy Center Honor in 1995 and an received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama in 2009. 

He was also awarded an Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II in 1974. 

Upon news of his death, tributes flowed in from around the world, with musician Lenny Kravitz writing that Poitier ‘showed the world that with vision and grace, all is possible.’ 

‘Sidney Poitier, your last sunset with us is the dawn of many generations rising in the path of light you blazed. We will always hold you in our hearts and forever speak your name,’ wrote actor and director Debbie Allen on Twitter.

‘One of the greatest actors of his generation,’ musician Questlove posted on Instagram. ‘We all have our Poitier era. Growing up in the 70s I’d have to say that maybe Uptown Saturday Night was the first movie I ever watched. … Rest in peace. And thank you.’

Sidney Poitier and second wife Joanna Shimkus attend an event at Hotel Bel-Air in California in 2011

During his first marriage, Poitier began a nine-year affair with actress Diahann Carroll (with him in 2005) whom he met when they worked together on the 1959 movie Porgy and Bess

Legendary career: Poitier with Pearl Bailey in 1959’s Porgy and Bess

In 1967’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner he played a black man with a white fiancée in a groundbreaking role

Actor Sidney Poitier receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom from U.S. President Barack Obama during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in 2009

Poitier is seen with family members at his 92nd birthday party in 2019

Actor Jeffrey Wright tweeted: ‘Sidney Poitier. What a landmark actor. One of a kind. What a beautiful, gracious, warm, genuinely regal man. RIP, Sir. With love.’ 

Oscar-winner Whoopi Goldberg tweeted a touching message, reciting the lyrics to the theme song from Poitier’s 1967 film To Sir, with Love.

‘If you wanted the sky I would write across the sky in letters that would soar a thousand feet high.. To Sir… with Love,’ she wrote, adding: ‘Sir Sidney Poitier R.I.P. He showed us how to reach for the stars.’

The 1967 British drama film dealt with social and racial issues in an inner city school, with Poitier playing teacher Mr Mark Thackeray.

Star of Dreamgirls and Tony winner Anika Noni Rose tweeted: ‘RIP Sidney Poitier. Thank you for being so kind, for every door you broke down and every slap you gave in return.’

‘This is a big one,’ said Oscar-winner Viola Davis. ‘No words can describe how your work radically shifted my life.’

‘The dignity, normalcy, strength, excellence and sheer electricity you brought to your roles showed us that we, as Black folks, mattered!!! It was an honor for my husband and I to share lunch with you at Spagos.’

‘You told us,’If your dreams do not scare you, they’re not big enough’! I put this quote on my daughter’s wall. Rest well Mr. Poitier. Thank you! Thank you for leaving a legacy. May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.’

Actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt wrote: ‘Sidney Poitier. An absolute legend. One of the greats.’ 

To Sir With Love: Oscar winner Viola Davis posted a tribute on Instagram 

Poitier created a distinguished film legacy in a single year with three 1967 films at a time when segregation prevailed in much of the United States.

In Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner he played a black man with a white fiancée and In the Heat of the Night he was Virgil Tibbs, a black police officer confronting racism during a murder investigation. 

He also played a teacher in a tough London school that year in To Sir, With Love.

At the time, Poitier had already won his history-making best actor Oscar for Lilies of the Field in 1963, playing a handyman who helps German nuns build a chapel in the desert. 

Five years before that Poitier had been the first black man nominated for a lead actor Oscar for his role in The Defiant Ones.

His Tibbs character from In the Heat of the Night was immortalized in two sequels – They Call Me Mister Tibbs! in 1970 and The Organization in 1971 – and became the basis of the television series In the Heat of the Night starring Carroll O’Connor and Howard Rollins. 

Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis are seen filming The Defiant Ones in 1958. The film earned his his first Oscar nomination for his portrayal of a escaped black convict who befriends a racist white prisoner

Poitier won his history-making best actor Oscar for Lilies of the Field in 1963, playing a handyman who helps German nuns build a chapel in the desert

In 1967 Poitier played a teacher in a tough London school in To Sir, With Love, one of his most memorable roles

Poitier is seen in 1967’s Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner with  Katharine Houghton

Sidney Poitier places his hands in wet cement at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Los Angeles on June 23, 1967

Sidney Poitier admires his honorary Oscar at the 74th Academy Awards in Hollywood in 2002

His other classic films of that era included A Patch of Blue in 1965 in which his character is befriended by a blind white girl, The Blackboard Jungle and A Raisin in the Sun, which Poitier also performed on Broadway.

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.

As a director, Poitier worked with his friend Harry Belafonte and Bill Cosby in ‘Uptown Saturday Night’ in 1974 and Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder in 1980’s ‘Stir Crazy.’

Poitier grew up in the small Bahamian village of Cat Island and in Nassau before he moved to New York at 16, lying about his age to sign up for a short stint in the Army and then working at odd jobs, including dishwasher, while taking acting lessons.

Sidney Poitier is seen in No Way Out in 1950, his first movie role after he found success on Broadway

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. Above he is seen in Paris Blues

Poitier and his second wife Joanna Shimkus are seen in 1983 during the Monte-Carlo ATP Masters Series tennis match

Sidney Poitier with second wife Joanna and Sting pose for a photo at a charity event in 2002

In all, Poitier (seen in 2016) acted in more than 50 films and directed nine, starting in 1972 with Buck and the Preacher in which he co-starred with Harry Belafonte

The young actor got his first break when he met the casting director of the American Negro Theater. He was an understudy in ‘Days of Our Youth’ and took over when the star, Belafonte, who also would become a pioneering black actor, fell ill.

Poitier went on to success on Broadway in Anna Lucasta in 1948 and, two years later, got his first movie role in No Way Out with Richard Widmark.

He was the escaped black convict who befriends a racist white prisoner (Tony Curtis) in The Defiant Ones. 

He was the courtly office worker who falls in love with a blind white girl in A Patch of Blue. He was the handyman in Lilies of the Field who builds a church for a group of nuns. In one of the great roles of the stage and screen, he was the ambitious young father whose dreams clashed with those of other family members in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. 

In all, he acted in more than 50 films and directed nine, starting in 1972 with Buck and the Preacher in which he co-starred with Belafonte.

Debates about diversity in Hollywood inevitably turn to the story of Poitier. With his handsome, flawless face; intense stare and disciplined style, he was for years not just the most popular black movie star, but the only one.

‘I made films when the only other black on the lot was the shoeshine boy,’ he recalled in a 1988 Newsweek interview. ‘I was kind of the lone guy in town.’

His appeal brought him burdens not unlike such other historical figures as Jackie Robinson and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He was subjected to bigotry from whites and accusations of compromise from the black community. 

Poitier was held, and held himself, to standards well above his white peers. He refused to play cowards and took on characters, especially in Guess Who´s Coming to Dinner, of almost divine goodness. 

He developed a steady, but resolved and occasionally humorous persona crystallized in his most famous line – ‘They call me Mr. Tibbs!’ – from In the Heat of the Night.

‘All those who see unworthiness when they look at me and are given thereby to denying me value – to you I say, `I’m not talking about being as good as you. I hereby declare myself better than you,´’ he wrote in his memoir, ‘The Measure of a Man,’ published in 2000.

Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge are seen in Porgy and Bess

Sidney Poitier is seen ion 1971’s Buck and The Preacher, which also marked his first directing credit

Glenn Ford and Sidney Poitier in a scene from Blackboard Jungle in 1955

Actor Sidney Poitier and director Norman Jewison attend the 50th anniversary screening of ‘In the Heat of the Night’ in 2017

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But even in his prime he was criticized for being out of touch. He was called an Uncle Tom and a ‘million-dollar shoeshine boy.’ In 1967, The New York Times published Black playwright Clifford Mason´s essay, ‘Why Does White America Love Sidney Poitier So?’ Mason dismissed Poitier´s films as ‘a schizophrenic flight from historical fact’ and the actor as a pawn for the ‘white man´s sense of what´s wrong with the world.’

Stardom didn´t shield Poitier from racism and condescension. He had a hard time finding housing in Los Angeles and was followed by the Ku Klux Klan when he visited Mississippi in 1964, not long after three civil rights workers had been murdered there. In interviews, journalists often ignored his work and asked him instead about race and current events.

‘I am an artist, man, American, contemporary,’ he snapped during a 1967 press conference. ‘I am an awful lot of things, so I wish you would pay me the respect due.’

In 1992, Poitier was given the Life Achievement Award by the American Film Institute, the most prestigious honor after the Oscar, joining recipients such as Bette Davis, Alfred Hitchcock, Fred Astaire, James Cagney and Orson Welles.

‘I must also pay thanks to an elderly Jewish waiter who took time to help a young black dishwasher learn to read,’ Poitier told the audience. ‘I cannot tell you his name. I never knew it. But I read pretty good now.’

In 2002, an honorary Oscar recognized ‘his remarkable accomplishments as an artist and as a human being.’

Poitier married actress Joanna Shimkus, his second wife, in the mid-1970s. He had six daughters with his two wives and wrote three books – ‘This Life’ (1980), ‘The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography’ (2000) and ‘Life Beyond Measure: Letters to My Great-Granddaughter’ (2008).  

Poitier married actress Joanna Shimkus, his second wife, in the mid-1970s. Above they are seen together in The Lost Man

Joanna Shimkus and Sidney Poitier during the 69th Annual Golden Globe Awards held at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in 2012

Poitier’s second marriage to Shikmus endured happily for 45 years, and he was known as doting family man to his daughters, who recalled in a 2013 interview how he used to play along when they dressed him up as children.

‘He’d be on location and we’d put barrettes in his hair,’ his youngest two daughters told the Hollywood Reporter. ‘We’d make him call room service. And he’d have to open the door with pink barrettes and lipstick on.’ 

‘If you apply reason and logic to this career of mine, you’re not going to get very far,’ he told the Washington Post. ‘The journey has been incredible from its beginning. So much of life, it seems to me, is determined by pure randomness.’

Poitier wrote three autobiographical books and in 2013 published ‘Montaro Caine,’ a novel that was described as part mystery, part science fiction.

Poitier was knighted by Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II in 1974 and served as the Bahamian ambassador to Japan and to UNESCO, the U.N. cultural agency. He also sat on Walt Disney’s board of directors from 1994 to 2003.

In 2009, Poitier was awarded the highest U.S. civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, by President Barack Obama.

The 2014 Academy Awards ceremony marked the 50th anniversary of Poitier’s historic Oscar and he was there to present the award for best director.

Sidney Poitier, the black acting pioneer and Oscar winner, has died aged 94

Poitier’s films include To Sir With Love, The Blackboard Jungle, and Sneakers

The full list of Poitier’s acting and directing credits: 

‘From Whence Cometh Help’ (Army documentary), 1949.

‘No Way Out,’ 1950.

‘Cry the Beloved Country,’ 1952.

‘Red Ball Express,’ 1952.

‘Go Man Go!,’ 1954.

‘The Blackboard Jungle,’ 1955.

‘Goodbye My Lady,’ 1956.

‘Edge of the City,’ 1957.

‘Something of Value,’ 1957.

‘Band of Angles,’ 1957.

‘The Mark of the Hawk,’ 1958.

‘The Defiant Ones,’ 1958.

‘Porgy and Bess,’ 1959.

‘All the Young Men,’ 1960.

‘Virgin Island,’ 1960.

‘A Raisin in the Sun,’ 1961.

‘Paris Blues,’ 1961.

‘Pressure Point,’ 1962.

‘Lilies of the Field,’ 1963.

‘The Long Ships,’ 1964.

‘The Greatest Story Ever Told,’ 1965.

‘The Bedford Incident,’ 1965.

‘A Patch of Blue,’ 1965.

‘The Slender Thread,’ 1965.

‘Duel at Diabolo,’ 1966.

‘In the Heat of the Night,’ 1967.

‘To Sir With Love,’ 1967. 

‘Guess Who´s Coming to Dinner,’ 1967.

‘For Love of Ivy’ (also story), 1968.

‘The Lost Man,’ 1969.

‘They Call Me Mister Tibbs!’ 1970.

‘Brother John,’ 1971.

‘The Organization,’ 1971.

‘Buck and the Preacher’ (also director), 1972.

‘A Warm December’ (also director), 1973.

‘Uptown Saturday Night’ (also director), 1974.

‘Let´s Do It Again’ (also director), 1975.

‘The Wilby Conspiracy,’ 1975.

‘A Piece of the Action’ (also director), 1977.

‘Stir Crazy’ (director only), 1980.

‘Hanky Panky’ (director only), 1982.

‘Fast Forward’ (director only), 1985.

‘Shoot to Kill,’ 1988.

‘Little Nikita,’ 1988.

‘Ghost Dad’ (director only), 1990.

‘Separate But Equal,’ 1991.

‘Sneakers,’ 1992.

‘Children of the Dust,’ 1995.

‘To Sir, With Love II,’ 1996.

‘Mandela and de Klerk,’ 1997.

‘The Jackal,’ 1997.

‘David and Lisa,’ 1998.

‘Free of Eden,’ 1999.

‘The Simple Life of Noah Dearborn,’ 1999.

‘The Last Brickmaker in America,’ 2001.