By Mike Bedigan, Naomi Clarke and Alex Green, PA
US president Joe Biden and vice president Kamala Harris have hailed Sidney Poitier for changing the world “on and off the screen” following his death at the age of 94.
The leaders paid tribute to Poitier’s talent as an actor as well as his work to advance dialogue on race and civil rights.
The Bahamian-American actor was known for films including In The Heat Of The Night, Blackboard Jungle and Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner – and was the first black man to win the Oscar for best actor.
Sidney Poitier transformed our world both on and off the screen. As an Oscar-winning actor and Ambassador, he advanced our dialogue on race and civil rights at a time when we needed it most. My thoughts are with his wife Joanna and his daughters.
— Vice President Kamala Harris (@VP) January 8, 2022
In a statement shared by the White House, President Biden lamented the loss of the “once-in-a-generation” actor, who helped “open the hearts of millions”.
“Sidney was more than just one of the finest actors in our history. His iconic performances… held a mirror up to America’s racial attitudes in the 1950s and 1960s,” he said.
“With unflinching grandeur and poise — his singular warmth, depth, and stature on-screen — Sidney helped open the hearts of millions and changed the way America.
“He blazed a path for our Nation to follow, and a legacy that touches every part of our society today.”
Vice President Harris added: “Sidney Poitier transformed our world both on and off the screen.
#SidneyPoitier was a pioneer for artists of color everywhere. At 9 I read he imitated broadcasters since he was ridiculed for his accent. For the next 10 yrs I did the same to overcome my own speech impediment. I owe my voice to him. Never EVER doubt that representation matters. pic.twitter.com/2Z3OL6HMAX
— Amanda Gorman (@TheAmandaGorman) January 7, 2022
“As an Oscar-winning actor and Ambassador, he advanced our dialogue on race and civil rights at a time when we needed it most.”
Poet Amanda Gorman, who shot to fame following a reading at Biden and Harris’s inauguration ceremonies in January 2021, said she “owed her voice” to Poitier.
“#SidneyPoitier was a pioneer for artists of color everywhere,” the 23 year-old wrote.
“At 9 I read he imitated broadcasters since he was ridiculed for his accent. For the next 10 yrs I did the same to overcome my own speech impediment.
“I owe my voice to him. Never EVER doubt that representation matters.”
Former US president Barack Obama, under whom Biden served as vice president, shared a photo of himself and his wife Michelle standing alongside Poitier after he had awarded the esteemed actor the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009.
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. pic.twitter.com/zkYKFSxfKA
— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) January 7, 2022
Obama wrote: “Through his groundbreaking roles and singular talent, Sidney Poitier epitomised 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.”
US talk show host Oprah Winfrey posted a photo of the pair in a joyful embrace and added an emotional message, saying: “For me, the greatest of the ‘Great Trees’ has fallen: Sidney Poitier.
“My honour to have loved him as a mentor. Friend. Brother. Confidant. Wisdom teacher.
“The utmost, highest regard and praise for his most magnificent, gracious, eloquent life.
“I treasured him. I adored him. He had an enormous soul I will forever cherish. Blessings to Joanna and his world of beautiful daughters.”
British singer Lulu, who sang the title song for the film To Sir, With Love in which Poitier starred, said the actor had led by example and “empowered and educated” many.
The singer, who also appeared in the film alongside Poitier, said in a statement: “Sidney you were my friend my teacher, my inspiration…
“Sir rises above the fray and leads by example, this was how you led your life, you empowered and educated us so we could choose to follow your lead.”
Singing legends Diana Ross and Nancy Sinatra also paid tribute to Poitier.
My condolences to Sidney Poitier's family
A wonderful ,great man ,Will always be remembered.❤️ pic.twitter.com/3f0kMVxnV6
— Ms. Ross (@DianaRoss) January 7, 2022
Sharing a black and white photo of her and the actor, Ross said: “A wonderful, great man, Will always be remembered.”
Sinatra wrote: “Godspeed, dear Sidney, and thank you for your courage,” along with a quote from Leo Rosten, adding that Poitier had “definitely made a difference”.
Following news of Poitier’s death the Prime Minister of the Bahamas, Philip Davis, held a press conference during which he reflected on the actor’s legacy.
"The purpose of life is not to be happy—but to matter, to be productive, to be useful, to have it make some difference that you lived at all." ~ Leo Rosten
Godspeed, dear Sidney, and thank you for your courage. https://t.co/lY5MILUznH
— Nancy Sinatra (@NancySinatra) January 7, 2022
He said: “Our whole Bahamas grieves. But even as we mourn, we celebrate the life of a great Bahamian.
“A cultural icon, an actor and film director, civil and human rights activist and a diplomat.
“We admire the man not just because of his colossal achievements, but also because of who he was.
“His strength of character, his willingness to stand up and be counted and the way he plotted and navigated his life’s journey.
“The boy who moved from the tomato farm to become a waiter in the United States, a young man who not only taught himself to read and write, but who made the expression of words and thoughts and feelings central to his career.”
Best known for his work during the 50s and 60s, Poitier helped pave the way for generations of African-American actors.
Poitier grew up in the Bahamas, which was then a British colony, and returned to America aged 15 and worked in a string of low-paid jobs until 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.
In 1963, he was awarded an Oscar for Lilies Of The Field, in which he played a Baptist handyman who builds a chapel for a group of Roman Catholic nuns, and became the first black winner of the best actor trophy.
The Academy said on Twitter following his death: “Poitier was barrier-breaking and an enduring inspiration who advanced US racial dialogue through his art. Few movie stars have had or will have the influence Poitier had both on and off screen.”
The actor was granted an honorary knighthood in 1974 through his Bahamian heritage and in 1995 he received the Kennedy Centre Honour.