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Pioneering screen icon Sidney Poitier dies aged 94 | Celebrity News | Showbiz and television

Sidney Poitier received the Oscar for best actor in 1964. (Image: Archive Photos/Getty Images)

The actor broke racial barriers to become a Hollywood trailblazer at a time when parts of the United States were still segregated.

Former US President Barack Obama wrote online: “Through his groundbreaking roles and singular talent, Sidney Poitier embodied dignity and grace, revealing the power of cinema to bring us together.

“He also opened doors for a generation of actors. Michelle and I send our love to his family and a legion of fans.”

Poitier, who was born in Miami but raised in the Bahamas, became the first black man to win Best Actor at the Oscars, for his 1963 film Lilies Of The Field.

He has been a role model for generations of black artists and moviegoers by bringing to life characters struggling with the injustices of racism.

Among his most memorable roles are Virgil Tibbs, a police detective from In The Heat Of The Night, and To Sir, With Love, Mark Thackeray’s patient teacher.

The performer’s influence has not diminished on this side of the Atlantic, where he was made an honorary knighthood by the Queen in 1974.

Barack Obama awarded Poitier the Medal of Freedom

Barack Obama awarded Poitier the Medal of Freedom in 2009. (Image: Somodevilla Chip/Getty Images)

Chester Cooper, Deputy Prime Minister of the Bahamas, where Poitier was a fellow citizen, said yesterday: “We have lost an icon. A hero, a mentor, a fighter, a national treasure.”

Mr Cooper said that despite his sadness he was celebrating a legacy that showed ‘those who come from the most humble beginnings can change the world’.

Whoopi Goldberg wrote on Twitter: “Sir Sidney Poitier RIP He showed us how to reach for the stars.”

Westworld star Jeffrey Wright called him “a historic actor”, adding: “One of a kind. What a magnificent, gracious, warm and truly royal man. RIP, Sir. With love.”

Oscar winner Viola Davis said: “Words cannot describe how dramatically your work has changed my life. The dignity, normalcy, strength, excellence and pure electricity you have brought to your roles showed us that we as black people matter!!!”

Star Trek actor George Takei said Poitier was a “pioneer who will be mourned by so many for whom he opened the very doors of Hollywood”. The British Film Institute called him “a legendary actor, director and diplomat who led a life of remarkable achievement, on and off screen.”

Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger on the set of In the Heat of the Night

Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger on the set of In the Heat of the Night. (Image: United Artists/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)

Broadway star Josh Gad added: “Icon. Iconoclast. Barrier breaker. Pioneer. Hero. Legend. history of our industry. Thank you for breaking glass ceilings and paving new roads.”

A descendant of runaway slaves, Poitier was born on February 20, 1927. His parents were Bahamian farmers who had emigrated to Florida to sell tomatoes, but the family later returned to the Bahamas and a young Sidney did not return to the States. United until he was 15 years old.

He settled in New York – and it was while there, working as a dishwasher, that he first experienced racism.

He later recalled, “I lived in a country where I couldn’t find work except those set aside for my color or caste.”

After a stint in the US Army, he began acting by joining a community project in the Harlem neighborhood, the American Negro Theater.

In 1946, he was offered a serious leading role in a comedy Lysistrata, then he launched into the cinema three years later.

Sidney Poitier at the 2002 Oscars with the family.

Sidney Poitier at the 2002 Oscars with the family. (Image: SGranitz/WireImage)

His first hit was the 1955 film Blackboard Jungle, playing a disruptive student at an inner-city school, followed by The Defiant

Those of 1958 with Tony Curtis. Five years later he found major success with Lilies Of The Field, before the nascent civil rights movement produced a series of roles for Poitier that highlighted racial tensions. He once said, “I was a very good actor and I believed in brotherhood. I hated racism and segregation. And I was a symbol against those things.” In To Sir, With Love, based on the autobiographical novel by ER Braithwaite, he played a teacher trying to keep tough, white pupils in line in London’s East End. He then starred in the thriller In The Heat Of The Night as a cop who must investigate the murder of a businessman in Mississippi.

The satire Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner featured him as the boyfriend of a middle-class white girl who takes her to meet her parents.

At the time, interracial marriage was still illegal in 17 US states.

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Campaign In the 1970s, he moved into directing and formed a production company with stars such as Paul Newman and Barbara Streisand.

He had success with the comedy Stir Crazy, starring Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder, while his later film acting efforts included Little Nikita, Sneakers and The Jackal. Outside of film, he has helped the

Bahamian Campaign for Independence, which took place in 1973, and served as its ambassador to Japan.

In 1992, he became the first black actor to receive a lifetime achievement award from the American Film Institute – and six years ago he received a Bafta scholarship.

In 2009, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama.

Poitier had six daughters from his marriages to Juanita Hardy and Joanna Shimkus. His daughter, Sydney Tamiia Poitier, is an actress – and he leaves eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Poitier said of his impact on the world: “If I’m remembered for doing a few good things and if my presence here has sparked good energies, that’s a lot.”