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February 26, 1995|CHRIS DAFOE | Chris Dafoe is the West Coast arts correspondent for the Globe and Mail in Canada

CALGARY, ALBERTA, CANADA — His cowboy hat pulled low over his eyes, his long canvas coat buttoned up to ward off the cold, the tall, silent imposing man walks into the big house in the middle of the prairie.

As he enters it's apparent that he's viewed with respect, even awe, by virtually everyone on the set. Glancing around, he acknowledges the attention with a nod and a small, tight smile. Then, without a word, he goes to work.

Sidney Poitier, now 68, almost single-handedly redefined the movie image of African Americans with a series of memorable portrayals in the '50s and '60s, beginning with "No Way Out" in 1950, "Cry, the Beloved Country" in 1951, continuing through 1958's "The Defiant Ones" and 1967's "To Sir, With Love" and "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," among others.

In recent years, however, he's kept a lower profile. "Sneakers" in 1992 was his first feature film in four years. His last television performance was as the late Justice Thurgood Marshall in the acclaimed 1991 miniseries "Separate but Equal."

On this cold, windy autumn day, Poitier stands tall on a Native American reservation in the shadow of the Canadian Rockies, shooting scenes for "Children of the Dust," a four-hour, two-part movie that premieres Sunday on CBS. Set in 1880s Oklahoma, the film follows half-Cherokee gunslinger Gypsy Smith (Poitier) who acts as the guardian angel for a group of freed slaves heading west in hopes of setting up an all-black town in the Oklahoma Territory. Also starring are Farrah Fawcett, Michael Moriarty, Regina Taylor, Joanna Going and Billy Wirth.

The Western theme, in part, drew Poitier to the project.

"I was a huge Western fan," Poitier confesses, his eyes lighting up at the memory of growing up in the Bahamas on a steady diet of cowboy films. Bob Steele, Gene Autry, Ken Maynard and Wild Bill Elliot could do no wrong.

In fact, it was a Western that introduced Poitier to the movies. He was 11 years old and his family had just moved to Nassau from tiny Cat Island, where, Poitier recalls, a kerosene lamp was considered a luxury. Some friends took him to the movies, and he sat awestruck throughout the feature. When it ended, he jumped out of his seat and ran around to the back of the theater--to wait for the horses and cowboys and the cattle to come out.

"And I waited and waited," he says in the warmth of his trailer during a break from shooting. "Then I thought, there's two shows and, of course, they have to eat. They're probably inside doing just that. So I went back around the front and went in again. And the same thing happened! I thought that was fabulous. So I went back to the stage door--it's dark now--and still nobody comes out. And when I told my friends what had happened, they laughed and they laughed and they said to me, 'Everything you saw was on film.' And they explained to me what film was. And I said, 'Go on.' "

But that didn't cure Poitier's fantasies about Hollywood.

"When I was younger I wanted to go to Hollywood and become a cowboy," he says, wearing long underwear and a head bandage, his costume for the next scene. "Not to be in movies, mind you, but to work with cows. I thought the movies were showing me what a wonderful life the cowboys lived in Hollywood. When my friend explained to me it was all make-believe, I was so disappointed."

But not disappointed enough to stop being tantalized by the make-believe. After a stint in the Army, he struggled through a series of menial jobs, then went to New York, where he joined the American Negro Theatre and made his Broadway debut in 1946. His screen debut, in 1950, was in "No Way Out," and within 10 years Poitier was a star. He earned his first best actor Oscar nomination for 1958's "The Defiant Ones," in which he co-starred with Tony Curtis, and won the best actor Oscar for 1963's "Lilies of the Field." Poitier went on to perform in such classics as "To Sir With Love," "In the Heat of the Night," "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" and "They Call Me Mr. Tibbs!" And he did make two Western features: "Duel at Diablo" (1966) and "Buck and the Preacher" (1972), which he also directed.

In the process, he opened the doors of Hollywood for several generations of black actors. In 1992, when the American Film Institute honored Poitier's accomplishments with its Life Achievement Award, Danny Glover told Poitier, "You have made it possible for me to dream bigger dreams."

With that kind of resume and those kinds of tributes, it's hardly surprising that some of Poitier's co-stars felt a little star-struck at the prospect of working with him on "Children of the Dust."

Regina Taylor, who plays Drusilla, a schoolteacher who falls in love with Gypsy, says she did everything possible to prepare, in her words, "to meet this man toe to toe."

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