According to Harry Belafonte‘s daughter, the loss of his lifelong friend and frequent collaborator Sidney Poitier has hit him even harder than the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The two pioneering actors met at The American Negro Theatre in New York City in the mid-1940s. Both were 20 at the time, born just 9 days apart; Belafonte was a stagehand while Poitier was working as a janitor in exchange for acting classes.
The two bonded over their common West Indian background: Poitier was the Miami-born son of Bahamian immigrants, while Belafonte was born in Harlem to Jamaican parents. According to People, when Belafonte became ill ahead of his first scheduled performance at the Theatre, Poitier stepped in as his understudy.
Shari Belafonte tells People that the loss has been “the most difficult thing my father has had to fathom.”
“They were closer than brothers,” Shari explains. “They have known and loved each other for more than 70 years, collaborating, living life to the fullest. While Harry was much more vocal and seemingly more instrumental in the civil rights movement via his stage presence and his navigating the dynamics between Leaders and politicians, Sidney broke those barriers in a much more creative way by taking a stand in the characters he portrayed so brilliantly on film.”
Ultimately, they both made quite an impact in the entertainment world and in the Civil Rights Movement equally. While Poitier was the first Black man to win an Oscar, Belafonte was the first Black solo artist to sell a million LPs.
A 2017 op-ed in The New York Times revealed that, in 1964 Belafonte convinced Poitier to join him on a mission to deliver $70,000 to Freedom Summer volunteers in Mississippi. Along the way, the two were chased by a group of Klansmen who pursued them until they reached Greenwood, Ms., which was a Black town.
They were both part of the organizational team behind the March on Washington, and both also helped plan Dr. King’s memorial after his assassination.
Following the announcement of Poitier’s death on Thursday, Belafonte issued the following statement:
“For over 80 years, Sidney and I laughed, cried and made as much mischief as we could. He was truly my brother and partner in trying to make this world a little better. He certainly made mine a whole lot better.”