Lulu Kennedy-Cairns was petrified when Sidney Poitier walked onto the set.
The Scottish singer, best known as Lulu, was making her film debut in 1967’s “To Sir, with Love” when her co-star made his first appearance.
“When I first met him, I was terrified,” she recalled to Fox News. “He was incredibly tall, and I’m so short. And I was living in Lululand because I was a rock ‘n’ roll, pop singer. I had never acted before. And here was this incredibly dignified man who held himself so beautifully. I just wanted to get the job right and not make a fool out of anybody. I wanted to live up to his expectations. And I knew he chose his films very carefully.”
Poitier, the groundbreaking actor and enduring inspiration who transformed how Black people were portrayed on the big screen, died Jan. 6 at age 94. He was the first Black actor to win an Academy Award for best lead performance and the first to be a top box-office draw.
In the British drama, Poitier played a teacher who wins over his unruly students at a London secondary school. Lulu sang its iconic title for the film.
“He was a teacher in that film, but he was absolutely a teacher in life,” Lulu recalled. “The theme of the film was about overcoming prejudice. If you are not educated, how can you understand? We are equal. We bleed the same color. And we need to connect and communicate.
“It was amazing for me to be a part of a film that spread those messages. And I was in heaven singing that song. Words cannot convey how being part of such a significant film with a tremendous actor made me feel. I was a part of something truly important.”
Lulu said she can vividly recall the moment Poitier heard her song for the very first time.
“Oh he loved it,” she chuckled. “I just remember us dancing. I thought he was so cool. He had such rhythm and amazing moves. It was all effortless. I remember everyone just stood there in awe, myself included, and going, ‘Oh my God, look at him.’ And he got down! The whole thing made me smile. Because Sidney was poised and private. He held onto his dignity. But here he was, just getting down. We were all thrilled.”
“He did everything with such elegance,” Lulu added. “He was a perfectionist, but in the sense that he was incredibly thoughtful and detailed, never careless. He always pulled at my heartstrings. Even the way he ate an orange was an art form. I remember he seemed to have an orange every day on set after lunch. And he would just peel this orange with one swift move. I was mesmerized even with the way he peeled a skin off an orange!”
The film’s title song, “To Sir with Love,” reached the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart in the U.S. And it wouldn’t be the last time Lulu serenaded Poitier.
“I remember his 75th birthday,” Lulu recalled. “It was a big moment because Quincy Jones and Oprah Winfrey threw a big party for him. All of Hollywood royalty was there. I remember she was on stage describing what it was like watching him on the screen when she was very young and how much of an impact that had on her.
“I was standing on the side of the stage, nervous as ever. Then Oprah said, ‘I don’t know what to get you for your birthday because you’ve given me so much … But I got your birthday gift all the way from London.’ And that moment, I appeared on stage. I could barely get any words out of my mouth. And he was emotional too. He’s clapping so happily with that big smile on his face and blowing kisses at me on stage. I wish I could have been more contained, but I was so moved. We all were.”
Poitier died at his home in Los Angeles, according to Latrae Rahming, the director of communications for the Prime Minister of the Bahamas. Messages honoring and mourning the late star flooded social media. Like many others, Lulu paid homage to her beloved co-star on Instagram.
“He lived to a really good age,” said Lulu. “I was accepting of it, but there’s a great part of me that’s emotional about it. There’s a great sadness with his loss. I don’t normally wallow in regrets, but I do have a little bit of regret that I didn’t see more of him, that I didn’t make more of an effort to spend time with him in the later years. We did keep in contact, but was it enough?”
“Still, I have to tell myself that I am one of the luckiest people to have had the experience of hanging onto his coattails. How could I repay him for something like that? He introduced me to a whole new world. He shared such an important message through his films. And I will carry those lessons for the rest of my life.”
Poitier is survived by his wife Joanna Shimkus and five daughters: Beverly, Pamela, Sherri, Anika and Sydney. His daughter Gina Poitier died in 2018.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.