Harry Belafonte Dead at 96: Spike Lee, Oprah Winfrey and More Pay Tribute to Film Legend and Activist

The celebrated film legend and activist died at 96.

Harry Belafonte's famous friends, peers and admirers are paying tribute to the icon after his death. On Tuesday, Belafonte's spokesman shared that the legendary actor, producer, activist and multi-platinum-selling singer-songwriter known as the "Calypso King" died of congestive heart failure at his home in New York. He was 96.

For over seven decades, the award-winning entertainer used his celebrity to illuminate injustice around the globe. Whether he was working side-by-side with Martin Luther King Jr. (including speaking at the 1963 March on Washington) and other pivotal faces of the civil rights movement, standing up for migrant farmworkers, working in support of LGBTQ, or becoming a voice in South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement, Belafonte forged a strong commitment to activism. In fact, in 1968, Belafonte became the first Black person to helm a late-night talk show when he hosted The Tonight Show for a week. Johnny Carson turned the show over to Belafonte, allowing him a space to bring discussions on racism and civil rights protests to the forefront of American television. The week's guests included MLK, Lena Horne and Bobby Kennedy. The historic hosting gig is explored in the documentary The Sit-In.

The Emmy and Tony Award-winning actor's credits include Uptown Saturday Night, Island in the SunOdds Against TomorrowCarmen Jones, The World, The Flesh and the DevilWhite Man's Burden, and most recently, Spike Lee’s 2018 film, BlacKkKlansman

In addition to his children, Adrienne Belafonte Biesemeyer, Shari Belafonte, Gina Belafonte, David Belafonte, and his two stepchildren, Sarah Frank and Lindsey Frank, he leaves behind eight grandchildren: Rachel Blue Biesemeyer, Brian Biesemeyer, Maria Belafonte McCray, Sarafina Belafonte, Amadeus Belafonte, Mateo Frank, Olive Scanga, and Zoe Frank.

"It is with a heavy heart that we have said goodbye to our beloved dad, father-in-law, and grandpa, the beyond amazing Harry Belafonte. To the world he was a legend, but to us he was Dad, Harry, Farfar - which means Grandpa in Danish - and he will always mean the world to us," a statement from Amadeus, Sarafina, Malena and David reads. "We are heartbroken to have lost such a big presence in our lives and we will honor him in everything we do."

The statement concludes: "His legacy is passed on to his four children, Adrienne, Shari, David, and Gina, as well as his five grandchildren, Rachel Blue, Brian, Maria, Sarafina, and Amadeus, all of whom he was so incredibly proud of. He also leaves behind his ex-wife Julie, sparring partner for 50+ years and the mother of his youngest children David and Gina, along with his third and current wife Pam, as well as his in-laws David Biesemeyer, Sam, Scott, and Malena. We will miss him terribly!"

As news of Belafonte's death spread, celebrities took to social media to honor the entertainer's legacy, contributions and dedication to leaving the world better than when he entered it. 

"May God Have My Dear Friend HARRY BELAFONTE At A Peaceful Rest. We Are Losing Our Giants Left And Right. We Have To Celebrate Our Elders While They Are With Us. 🙏🏾💜," Spike Lee captioned a photo of him and Belafonte on Instagram. 

"I Had The Highest Honor And Privilege To Work With MR. B. On BLACKKKLANSMAN. After We Wrapped Filming MR.B. Signed For Me The Poster For His Film CARMEN JONES With Dorothy Dandridge. Read What My Friend Wrote," he captioned another post featuring the signed poster. 

Belafonte's note to Lee reads, "Dear Spike, Now I can die and go to Heaven... I've made a Spike Lee movie!!" 

"Another 'GREAT TREE has fallen': Harry Belafonte, a Trailblazer and Hero to us all," Oprah Winfrey wrote in a statement to ET. "Thank you for your music, your artistry, your activism, your fight for civil rights and justice - especially risking your life back in the day to get money to the movement. Your being here on earth has Blessed us."

Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

"When I was a child, #HarryBelafonte showed up for my family in very compassionate ways. In fact, he paid for the babysitter for me and my siblings," Bernice King wrote on Twitter. "Here he is mourning with my mother at the funeral service for my father at Morehouse College. I won’t forget…Rest well, sir."

Motown founder Berry Gordy said in a statement, "My friend, Harry Belafonte, was truly a man of cause, conviction and principle. Besides being a great entertainer, he was a major political activist during the Civil Rights movement. I still remember the day in 1968 when Harry and I marched side by side on the Poor People's March to Freedom. He will be missed and my sincere condolences go out to his family."

"Harry was a wise and stubborn political warrior. It was he who invited the 'Hollywood contingent,' including myself, to board a plane headed for Washington, DC to participate in what turned out to be The March on Washington," Rita Moreno said in a statement. "A visceral, soul-searing experience that will live in my heart to the end of my days. It was Harry, my friend, who wanted to show Dr. King that Hollywood was more than 'glamour and artifice.' I had a chair, next to Sammy Davis Jr. facing the magnificent Lincoln Bronze and Dr. King. My mind's image never fails to raise goose bumps to this day. Thank you, Harry, my friend, for including me in the most extraordinary day of my life. Thank you, Harry, for your stubborn quest for equality  and justice."

"I am deeply sad at the loss of my very dear brother - the great Harry Belafonte! His artistic genius, moral courage & loving soul shall live forever! God bless his precious family!" Cornel West wrote.

"I have often referred to Mr. Belafonte as an inspiration for being a character actor trapped in a leading man’s body. His Geechie Dan in Uptown Saturday Night is such a revelation. I looked to this inspiration when I built X in Zola. An incredible artist, activist, hero. We stand on his shoulders. Rest well sir," Colman Domingo wrote in an Instagram post. 

"We lost a true Jamaican American hero today. Harry Belafonte was so many things and a supportive mentor and role model to me," Sheryl Lee Ralph, wrote. "I thank him for the love and support he gave to me and my children over the years. My love and prayers to the Belafonte family. He will be deeply missed."

See more tributes to Belafonte below.