Sidney Poitier — who broke racial barriers as the first black winner of the best actor Oscar and inspired a generation during the civil rights movement — has died aged 94.
- Poitier won his history-making best actor Oscar for Lilies of the Field in 1963
- He was known for his roles in To Sir, with Love, The Defiant Ones, and Guess Who's Coming for Dinner
- He struggled against poverty, illiteracy and prejudice to become one of the first black actors to be recognised in major roles by mainstream audiences
The actor's death was confirmed by Eugene Torchon-Newry, acting director-general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the Bahamas, where Poitier was raised.
Poitier created a distinguished film legacy with three films in 1967 at a time when segregation prevailed in much of the United States.
In Guess Who's Coming to Dinner he played a black man with a white fiancee and In the Heat of the Night he was Virgil Tibbs, a black police officer confronting racism during a murder investigation.
He also played a teacher in a tough London school that year in To Sir, With Love.
The 2014 Academy Awards celebrated Poitier's historic Oscar and he was there to present the award for best director.(Reuters: Lucy Nicholson)
Poitier had won his history-making best actor Oscar for Lilies of the Field in 1963, playing a handyman who helps German nuns build a chapel in the desert.
Five years before that Poitier had been the first black man nominated for a lead actor Oscar for his role in The Defiant Ones.
His Tibbs character from In the Heat of the Night was immortalised in two sequels — They Call Me Mister Tibbs! in 1970 and The Organization in 1971 — and became the basis of the television series In the Heat of the Night starring Carroll O'Connor and Howard Rollins.
His other classic films of that era included A Patch of Blue in 1965 in which his character is befriended by a blind white girl, The Blackboard Jungle and A Raisin in the Sun, which Poitier also performed on Broadway.
Tributes poured in from celebrities and politicians including the Prime Minister of the Bahamas Philip Davis. who said the whole country was "in mourning" and instructed for the Bahamian flag be flown at half-mast "at home and in our embassies around the world".
"Even as we mourn, we celebrate the life of a great Bahamian: a cultural icon, an actor and film director, an entrepreneur, civil and human rights activist and, latterly, a diplomat," he said.
Hollywood figures were also among those celebrating Poitier's legacy.
"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," award-winning actor and TV host Whoopi Goldberg wrote on Twitter.
"The dignity, normalcy, strength, excellence and sheer electricity you brought to your roles showed us that we, as Black folks, mattered!!!," Oscar winner Viola Davis tweeted.
Poitier was born in Miami on February 20, 1927, and raised on a tomato farm in the Bahamas, and had just one year of formal schooling.
He struggled against poverty, illiteracy and prejudice to become one of the first black actors to be known and accepted in major roles by mainstream audiences.
Poitier picked his roles with care, burying the old Hollywood idea that black actors could appear only in demeaning contexts as shoeshine boys, train conductors and maids.
"I love you, I respect you, I imitate you," Denzel Washington, another Oscar winner, once told Poitier at a public ceremony.
As a director, Poitier worked with his friend Harry Belafonte and Bill Cosby in Uptown Saturday Night in 1974 and Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder in 1980's Stir Crazy.
From the theatre to the silver screen
Poitier grew up in the small Bahamian village of Cat Island and in Nassau before he moved to New York at 16, lying about his age to sign up for a short stint in the army and then working at odd jobs, including dishwasher, while taking acting lessons.
The young actor got his first break when he met the casting director of the American Negro Theater.
He was an understudy in Days of Our Youth and took over when the star, Belafonte, who also would become a pioneering black actor, fell ill.
Poitier went on to success on Broadway in Anna Lucasta in 1948 and, two years later, got his first movie role in No Way Out with Richard Widmark.
In all, he acted in more than 50 films and directed nine, starting in 1972 with Buck and the Preacher in which he co-starred with Belafonte.
In 1992, Poitier was given the life achievement award by the American Film Institute, the most prestigious honour after the Oscar, joining recipients such as Bette Davis, Alfred Hitchcock, Fred Astaire, James Cagney and Orson Welles.
Then-president Barack Obama presented Poitier with the Medal of Freedom in 2009.(Reuters: Jason Reed)
"I must also pay thanks to an elderly Jewish waiter who took time to help a young black dishwasher learn to read," Poitier told the audience.
"I cannot tell you his name. I never knew it. But I read pretty good now."
In 2002, an honorary Oscar recognised "his remarkable accomplishments as an artist and as a human being."
Poitier married actress Joanna Shimkus, his second wife, in the mid-1970s.
He had six daughters with his two wives and wrote three books — This Life (1980), The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography (2000) and Life Beyond Measure: Letters to My Great-Granddaughter (2008).
"If you apply reason and logic to this career of mine, you're not going to get very far," he told the Washington Post.
"The journey has been incredible from its beginning. So much of life, it seems to me, is determined by pure randomness."
Poitier wrote three autobiographical books and in 2013 published Montaro Caine, a novel that was described as part mystery, part science fiction.
Poitier was knighted by Britain's Queen Elizabeth II in 1974 and served as the Bahamian ambassador to Japan and to UNESCO, the UN cultural agency.
He also sat on Walt Disney Co's board of directors from 1994 to 2003.
In 2009, Poitier was awarded the highest US civilian honour, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, by then-president Barack Obama.
The 2014 Academy Awards ceremony marked the 50th anniversary of Poitier's historic Oscar and he was there to present the award for best director.