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“His Voice, Laughter and Warmth Filled the Room”: Heartfelt Memories of Sidney Poitier From Daughter Anika, Wolfgang Puck and Cheryl Boone Isaacs

A trailblazing performer and beacon to future generations, he radiated grace and dignity onscreen and off-, say his friends and family: “I will miss seeing his happy dance and holding his hand.”

Anika Poitier

As we begin to navigate this uncharted territory of life without my father, I realize that there is an infinite list of things I will miss. The memories that hold the most weight in my heart are not the larger iconic moments but rather the smaller private ones. I will miss hugging him in his cashmere sweaters and listening to him ponder the cosmos. I will miss his laughter, his smile and his silly sense of humor. I have so many family memories of us just laughing, the kind of infectious laughter that just won’t stop until the tears are streaming down our faces.

I will miss being witness to his unbounded compassion. I often stood in awe of how generously he gave his undivided attention and genuine care to each and every person he met. He always showed the same kindness to a stranger as he would to an old friend. I will miss having him by my side during the hardships life tends to throw us. His quiet strength and guidance made every obstacle a little easier to overcome.

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I will miss him at family dinners. In our family, we love to eat, and family dinners are our favorite pastime — any excuse to gather around a table. It is how we stayed connected, it is where family decisions and announcements were made. Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners are our favorite. For as long as I can remember, every year family and friends gather around the table for the holidays. We will all greatly miss how his voice, laughter and warmth filled the room. I will miss buying him his holiday pecan pie and sitting around in pajamas on Christmas morning watching the joy in his face as the grandchildren opened their presents.

I will miss his sound advice — even if I didn’t always follow it. I will miss seeing his happy dance and holding his hand. I will miss sharing my troubles and my triumphs with him. I will miss watching him flirt with the ladies and watching my mom be completely unfazed by it all.

These are just a few things that I will miss deeply. However, in my sorrow I can hear my father’s voice telling me to look to my family for solace. When I do, I see his love of family in my mother. I see him in my beautiful sisters. In Beverly, I see his conviction. In Pam, I see his strength; in Sherri, I see his delightful sense of humor; in Gina, I see his compassion, and in Sydney, his artistry. I hear him in my son’s laughter, and I see him in my daughter’s passion for social justice.

While he took a piece of our heart and a piece of our soul with him, he also left a piece of himself with us, for which we are eternally grateful.

Daughter Sydney also paid tribute to her father in an Instagram post, below.

Chef Wolfgang Puck

For years and years, Sidney used to come to Spago for lunch, for dinner, for birthdays. We did his daughter’s wedding. I was talking with our manager about Sidney and he said Sidney told him, “If I die one day, I want to be buried underneath the brunch food at Spago, I love it so much.”

One of the most touching memories — he made me cry, and I don’t cry easily — was when he was sitting in a booth writing a speech and he knew Gelila, my wife, was pregnant with our first boy. And he looked at me and said, “You know, Wolfgang, it would be an honor for me to be the godfather of your children.” And I looked at him and said, “What did you just say?” It was so unexpected but so heartfelt. I told Sidney, “It was the best present you could give me, because I look up to you and my children will look up to you.” I really consider myself lucky (and Gelila, too) to have known him and [his wife] Joanna.

Cheryl Boone Isaacs

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Poitier honors Cheryl Boone Isaacs at the YWCA Greater Los Angeles Rhapsody Ball in 2014. Tommaso Boddi/WireImage

As the founding director of the Sidney Poitier New American Film School at Arizona State University, Sidney Poitier’s passing on Jan. 6 acutely reminded me of the impact he’s had on the film industry and the Black community as a whole.

Before Sidney became a name in the film industry, there were few opportunities for people of color. He often commented on how he was the only Black person on film sets and in production meetings. I was able to walk through many doors in my career because Sidney — as well as Quincy Jones, Harry Belafonte, Suzanne de Passe and my late brother, Ashley — walked through them first.

My first impression upon meeting Sidney, many decades ago, was that he was a gentleman. Even though he was already a major star, he didn’t project better than or bigger than; he immediately gave me a sense of comfort and ease. He had an energy of such peace and brilliance. When he spoke with you, you felt as though you were the only one in the room. His confidence and compassion were extraordinary in that they were absolutely genuine.

In 2002, 38 years after Sidney won his Oscar for best actor for his role in Lilies of the Field, I had the honor of being in the audience, as a member of the Academy’s board of governors, when Sidney was presented with an honorary Oscar for contributions to cinema. Later that evening, Denzel Washington and Halle Berry were awarded Oscars for best actor and best actress. All of this was possible because Sidney had paved the way.

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Lilies of the Field (1963). Courtesy Everett Collection

In 2013, after serving on the Academy’s board of governors for 21 years, I became the first Black person, and third woman, elected president of the Academy, and served four one-year terms, the maximum tenure allowed. During my second and third years, there were no Black nominees in any of the four acting categories. The Academy already had begun working to increase inclusion in our membership — I launched the A2020 Initiative to double the number of women and people from underrepresented communities by 2020 — but in January 2015, #OscarsSoWhite lit a fire that accelerated those changes. As a result, the Academy membership has grown in ways that were unimaginable when Sidney received his Oscar in 1964.

During my terms as president, I was honored with numerous awards, but two — the Trailblazer Award from Essence magazine and the YWCA Greater Los Angeles Silver Achievement Award — stand out because they were presented to me by Sidney (who was joined by Oprah Winfrey at the Essence event).

Sidney represents the best of who we all are, and while his passing is extremely sad, it is an important reminder for us to celebrate the amazing impact he has had on our industry and on so many people of color around the world, including me. He was one of my biggest supporters throughout my career, I was honored to call him a friend, and I look forward to carrying on his legacy at the Sidney Poitier New American Film School.

Poitier Watched Barack Obama’s Historic Rise with Pride, Hope and Trepidation

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Obama presents Poitier with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

In 2007 or ’08, when Barack Obama was campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination, Sidney Poitier was watching the process with a mixture of hope and anxiety. Poitier was following Obama not just as a voter and a Black man, but as someone aware of the pressures — and dangers — of being a “first.” Poitier, born in Miami and raised in the Bahamas, was worried about the young senator from Illinois.

That concern surfaced at a dinner with friends, producer Mike Medavoy and his wife, Irena, and record executive Berry Gordy. “I brought up that I think that Obama could really win. He could make a difference here, and how exciting it was and how wonderful,” says Irena. “Sidney said, ‘I’m scared for him. I don’t want him to run, because I don’t want anything to happen to him, because that’s where I come from.'”

Poitier, whose work in movies like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and A Raisin in the Sun often reflected the civil rights movement unfolding offscreen, had attended Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington in 1963 and King’s funeral in 1968, donated to civil rights causes and hosted activists at his home. But even as he broke barriers for Black actors, becoming the first Black man to win an Oscar (for Lilies of the Field, in 1964), he faced criticism in the late ’60s for playing roles that were palatable to white audiences.

When Obama won the presidency in 2008, “[Poitier] was so happy,” Irena says. “It was a joy, a pride, it was relief. But it was interesting to see it through a fatherly eye, because he was concerned for his safety. He was going to be concerned.”

In 2009, Obama presented Poitier with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He said that Poitier “left an indelible mark on American culture. … In front of Black and white audiences struggling to right the nation’s moral compass, Sidney Poitier brought us the common tragedy of racism, the inspiring possibility of reconciliation, and the simple joys of everyday life. Ultimately, the man would mirror the character, and both would advance the nation’s dialogue on race and respect.” — REBECCA KEEGAN

This story first appeared in the Jan. 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.