Washington, in a statement to ET, said, "It was a privilege to call Sidney Poitier my friend. He was a gentle man and opened doors for all of us that had been closed for years. God bless him and his family."
While accepting an Oscar for Best Actor in 2002 for his role in Training Day, Washington famously stood at the podium and acknowledged Poitier, whom he presented with an Honorary Award earlier that evening. The acknowledgement drew a rousing ovation and brought Poitier to his feet.
"Forty years, I've been chasing Sidney," Washington said. "They finally give it to me, what [do] they do? They give it to him the same night."
"I'll always be following in your footsteps," he added. "There's nothing I would rather do, sir. Nothing I would rather do."
That night, Washington had done exactly that. He was the second Black man to win a Best Actor award, after Poitier did it first in 1964 for his performance in Lilies of the Field. While they shared a mutual admiration, Washington and Poitier never collaborated. It's something the 67-year-old actor and director reflected upon in a Variety interview published on the day Poitier died.
He told the outlet he wished he could have co-starred in a film with Poitier. "God bless him," Washington told Variety. "He's still here. But yeah, I missed that opportunity."
Years after Washington's Oscar win, Poitier elaborated on its significance.
"It represented progress," he said during a 2008 interview with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. "It represented the dimensionalizing of the film industry. It meant the embracing of a kind of democracy that had been very long in maturing. It was an example of the persistence and effort and determination of young people of color. Not just African Americans, but Hispanic and Asian people who, too, were sort of minimalized in American films for too, too long. It was a spectacular, spectacular evening."
"I pay then and I pay now great respect to Denzel Washington," Poitier continued. "He has been a quintessential element in the finest of all American actors."
Poitier died on Thursday, and the news sent shock waves across the globe as tributes to the film and humanitarian giant poured in, from actors alike to world leaders.
"For me, the greatest of the 'Great Trees' has fallen: Sidney Poitier. My honor to have loved him as a mentor. Friend. Brother. Confidant. Wisdom teacher," she captioned a photo of the two together. "The utmost, highest regard and praise for his most magnificent, gracious, eloquent life. I treasured him. I adored him. He had an enormous soul I will forever cherish. Blessings to Joanna and his world of beautiful daughters 🙏🏾"
Former President Barack Obama, who presented Poitier with the Medal of Freedom in 2009, also paid tribute, taking to Instagram and writing, in part, "Sidney Poitier epitomized dignity and grace, revealing the power of movies to bring us closer together. He also opened doors for a generation of actors. Michelle and I send our love to his family and legion of fans."