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‘Your Excellence Will Always be the Benchmark’: Trailblazing Actor Sidney Poitier Dead at 94, Tributes Pour In

Sidney Poitier, the Oscar-winning actor best known for breaking color barriers on the silver screen and becoming Hollywood’s first Black movie star, has passed at the age of 94.

Clint Watson, press secretary for the Prime Minister of the Bahamas, confirmed to CNN the Thursday evening passing of the revered Bahamian actor. Other details surrounding his Jan. 6, death have yet to be released. 

Hollywood, California – March 2: Actor Sidney Poitier arrives at the 86th-Annual Academy Awards at Hollywood & Highland Center on March 2, 2014, in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic)

Poitier was highly regarded for his poise and elegance both on-screen and off. His work, which dates back to the 1950s, dared to show the Black man as articulate, fully fleshed out, and more than the stereotypes perpetuated by white-led movie studios. 

“It’s been an enormous responsibility, and I accepted it, and I lived in a way that showed how I respected that responsibility,” Poitier told Oprah Winfrey, while reflecting on his career two decades ago. “ I had to. In order for others to come behind me, there were certain things I had to do.”

His breakout role came in 1963 while portraying a laborer helping a group of white nuns to build a chapel in “Lilies of the Field.” The following year, he would go on to become the first Black actor to win the Best Actor honor during the Academy Awards or Oscars. “He would go on to further challenge racial taboos with his role as the fiancé to a white woman in the movie “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”

“Before Sidney, African American actors had to take supporting roles in major studio films that were easy to cut out in certain parts of the country. But you couldn’t cut Sidney Poitier out of a Sidney Poitier picture,” said Denzel Washington in 2002, a year after becoming the second Black actor to win an Oscar for Best Actor. “He was the reason a movie got made: the first solo, above-the-title African American movie star.”  

While respected for his gifted and revolutionary depictions of Black characters, Poitier was also known for his work as an author and humanitarian. In 2009, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by then U.S. President Barack Obama.

The shock of losing an icon reverberated across social media as fans and celebrities reacted to the news. Tyler Perry wrote, “Around this time last year Cicely Tyson was releasing her book and promoting it. I had no idea she would pass away shortly thereafter. Now, to wake up this morning to a call that Sidney Poitier has passed away …all I can tell you is that my heart broke in another piece.”

“He showed us how to reach for the stars,” wrote EGOT winner Whoopi Goldberg in remembrance.

“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 you name,” wrote actor Debbie Allen in tribute.

“Your excellence will always be the benchmark. Rest in divine peace, Bahamian King,” wrote musician-singer Lenny Kravitz in a series of tweets remembering the late actor.

He is survived by his wife Joanna Shimkus Poitier and six daughters.

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