Family of Hollywood legend Sidney Poitier pays tribute to their ‘guiding light’

Nina Nannar reports on the incredible life of Hollywood Star Sidney Poitier

The family of trailblazing actor Sidney Poitier say the loss of the “guiding light” has left “a giant hole our hearts”.

Aside from his talent and activism, the actor was “a man who always put family first,” the Poitier family said.

The Bahamian-American actor, the first black man to win the Oscar for best actor, died at the age of 94 surrounded by his family.

“There are no words to convey the deep sense of loss and sadness we are feeling right now,” they said in a statement shared by US news outlets.

“We are so grateful he was able to spend his last day surrounded by his family and friends.

The Bahamian-American actor, the first black man to win the Oscar for best actor, died at the age of 94 surrounded by his family Credit: Myung Jung Kim/ PA

“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.”

The ground-breaking actor, who transformed how Black people were portrayed on screen, was best known for his work during the '50s and '60s and in particular, for his performances in Guess Who's Coming To Dinner, In the Heat of the Night, and To Sir, With Love.

Poitier helped pave the way for generations of African-American actors over the next several decades, and in 2009 Barack Obama presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom saying he “not only entertained but enlightened".

Following the news of his passing, the former US president wrote on Twitter: "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."

In a statement shared by the White House, President Joe Biden lamented the loss of the “once-in-a-generation” actor, who helped “open the hearts of millions”.

Hollywood actors were among the thousands to pay tribute to Poitier, who had four daughters with his first wife, Juanita Hardy, and two with his second, actor Joanna Shimkus.

Multi-award winning actor Whoopi Goldberg quoted the lyrics to the song To Sir With Love, which was the soundtrack to Poitier’s iconic 1967 film.

She wrote on Twitter: “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.”

Bond star Jeffrey Wright wrote: “Sidney Poitier. What a landmark actor. One of a kind. What a beautiful, gracious, warm, genuinely regal man. RIP, Sir. With love.”

Deputy Prime Minister of the Bahamas, Chester Cooper, paid tribute to Poitier in a Facebook post and described the late actor as an "icon; a hero, a mentor, a fighter, a national treasure" and said his "rest is well deserved".

He continued: "I was conflicted with great sadness and a sense of celebration when I learned of the passing of Sir Sidney Poitier.

"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 and that we gave him his flowers while he was with us.

"He will be missed sorely, but his is a legacy that will never be forgotten."

Inception actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt described him as "an absolute legend. One of the greats”, while TV star Keith Powell described his passing as a "monumental loss".

He continued: "Sidney Poitier is quite literally the reason why I wanted to become an artist. Almost everyone I know has heard about the time I met him and embarrassed myself. There are very few people that I quake in the presence of. Rest easy, GOAT. #sidneypoitier".

Born to Bahamian parents in 1927 while they were visiting Miami to sell tomatoes, Poitier's premature arrival meant he gained US citizenship as well as Bahamian. He grew up in the Bahamas, which was then a British colony, before returning to the US at the age of 15.

Poitier worked in a string of low-paid jobs including as a dishwasher, before lying about his age and joining the Army to fight during the Second World War. He later joined the American Negro Theatre, which had been set up as a community project in Harlem in 1940.

His first major role came in Aristophanes’ comedy Lysistrata in 1946 but by 1949 he had moved away from theatre and into film. His breakthrough came in Blackboard Jungle in 1955, playing a rebellious but musically talented pupil in an inner-city school.

Barack Obama presents the 2009 Presidential Medal of Freedom to Poitier at the White House Credit: AP

Three years later, he was nominated for an Oscar and won a Bafta for his performance in The Defiant Ones, in which he plays an escaped convict who befriends a racist white prisoner when they become shackled together and must work with each other to achieve freedom.

He played the office worker who falls in love with a blind white girl in A Patch of Blue and was the handyman who builds a church for a group of nuns in his Oscar-winning performance in Lilies of the Field.

Poitier’s rise mirrored profound changes in the US in the 1950s and 1960s. As racial attitudes evolved during the civil rights era and segregation laws were challenged and fell, Poitier 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.”

Poitier portrayed former South African President Nelson Mandela in the 1997 movie Mandela and de Klerk Credit: AP

He took part in the 1963 March on Washington and other civil rights events, and as an actor defended himself and risked his career. He refused to sign loyalty oaths during the '50s, when Hollywood was barring suspected Communists, and turned down roles he found offensive.

“Almost all the job opportunities were reflective of the stereotypical perception of Blacks that had infected the whole consciousness of the country,” he recalled.

“I came with an inability to do those things. It just wasn’t in me. I had chosen to use my work as a reflection of my values.”

Poitier received numerous honorary prizes, including a lifetime achievement award from the American Film Institute and a special Academy Award in 2002.