Sidney Poitier

President Barack Obama presents the 2009 Presidential Medal of Freedom to Sidney Poitier during ceremonies in the East Room at the White House in Washington, DC, USA, on August 12. —Photo: AP

A complete legend and an icon.

That’s how Trinidad-born actor Michael Cherrie remembered Hollywood trailblazer Sidney Poitier following his passing on Thursday.

“What a life. What a career. What a human being. Such a complete legend. An icon. A trailblazer. A pioneer of an actor and for many an inspiration. He was a walking inspiration for generations of African American actors. Guys like Denzel (Washington) and Laurence Fishburne, guys like Morgan Freeman,” Cherrie told the Kitcharee from his Los Angeles, USA base yesterday.

Poitier, 94, was confirmed dead in a media release by Bahamas Minister of Foreign Affairs Fred Mitchell. The late actor had served as Bahamian diplomat between 1997 to 2007 when he was named the ambassador of the Bahamas to Japan. No cause of death has been given.

The American-born Bahamian actor will be best remembered for his ground-breaking on-camera exploration of race issues in America in the iconic films Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? In the Heat of the Night and To Sir with Love all released in 1967. Poitier’s career-defining moment, however, came three years earlier at the 36th Academy Awards when he became the first black man to win a Best Actor Oscar for the 1963 film Lilies of the Field.

Like his bi-racial big ticket appeal Poitier went on to inspire a generation of actors of all ethnic backgrounds, Cherrie noted.

“He inspired not just African-American actors, but all actors. His work, especially in the 60s with In the Heat of the Night, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and To Sir with Love, I mean, what a collection of movies. I’m so thankful for what he contributed to cinema, to dramatic arts, to acting and really to the quality of life and the new ways of seeing that we have received form his work,” Cherrie, who is currently shooting the Netflix movie Shirley, said.

He stuck to his guns

Born to Bahamian parents Poitier was automatically granted US citizenship after being unexpectedly birthed in Miami, while his parents were visiting in February 1927. He grew up in the Bahamas, but moved to America when he was 15, where he famously served in World War II as a teenager after lying about his age.

After leaving the army, he worked as a dishwasher until he landed a place at the American Negro Theatre School of Drama.

Poitier later scored his first lead film role in 1955’s Blackboard Jungle and his first experience of awards recognition came with The Defiant Ones (1958), which saw him nominated for Best Actor alongside co-star Tony Curtis.

In the 1980s, he directed numerous films, but had the most success with the Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder comedy Stir Crazy (1980). His other film credits include Porgy and Bess (1959), Paris Blues (1961), A Patch of Blue (1965), Sneakers (1992) and The Jackal (1997).

Trinidadian actor Conrad Parris said above all else Poitier was a man who “stuck to his guns”.

“He was an extraordinary man who paved an irreplaceable path for people of colour, in a time when there was virtually no representation on film beyond the background. He stuck to his guns and built a life and career that serves as a beacon of what’s possible for all of us, not just those of us in film,” Parris said.

American actor Denzel Washington praised Poitier when he became the second black man to win a Best Actor for the 2001 film Training Day. At the same ceremony, Poitier received an Honorary Academy Award for his contribution to American cinema. As of 2012, following the death of Ernest Borgnine, Poitier became the oldest living Best Actor winner in history.

“I’ll always be chasing you, Sidney. I’ll always be following in your footsteps. There’s nothing I would rather do, sir,” Washington said after receiving the honour.

Trinidadian actress Penelope Spencer, head of the Necessary Arts theatre school said he has always been “in awe” of Poitier’s work.

“For years I have been in awe of his work, his presence on a film was always powerful and commanding. He will be missed,” Spencer said.

Actor/rapper Kearn Samuel, meanwhile, summed up Poitier’s contribution best when he credited the late great actor with being “an example of black excellence in film”.

“I don’t think anyone will dispute the fact that from the Denzel Washingtons, Will Smiths to LaKeith Stanfield and Jonathan Majors or any example of black excellence in film would not exist if it wasn’t for the pioneering works of Sidney Poitier. It is amazing that he achieved what he did in the time that he achieved it and still carried himself with almost regal poise that entire time,” Samuel concluded.

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