Chris Dafoe is the West Coast arts correspondent for the Globe and Mail in 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.”

“With Sidney Poitier, I fell in love with him as a child and as a young woman,” says Taylor. “And when I became an actor I fell in love with him all over again. I just wanted to come to the table with something to offer. He’s been very generous and supportive. He makes everything seem so simple--it comes from his eyes. You can see the depth of the soul in his eyes and he’s not afraid of exposing that. You have to be fearless to be that honest and open.”

Even a veteran such as Moriarty describes working with Poitier in glowing terms.

“I count this one of my major treats, like working with Katharine Hepburn,” says Moriarty, who plays Native American government agent John Maxwell in the film. “It’s like being half in reality and half in a fairy tale. You see a face that you’ve grown up with and admired, someone who was a icon of America, a symbol of strength and persistence and grace. And then you find out that in the everyday, workaday work of doing movies, he is everything that he symbolizes on the screen.”

Those qualities--strength, persistence and grace--emerge once again in Gypsy, a character written and developed by Joyce Eliason, who also executive produced with Frank Konigsberg, and directed by David Greene. As the marshal of the new town of Freedom, Gypsy does battle with the Ku Klux Klan. Gypsy also must deal with the fallout of the romance between John Maxwell’s daughter Rachel (Joanna Going) and Corby White (Billy Wirth), a young Cheyenne boy Gypsy rescued after his mother was killed and his father taken into custody by the cavalry.

Along with a healthy dose of romance and revenge, the two-part movie shines a light on the role African Americans played in settling the West and the difficulties they faced, including racism.

As much as the chance to don spurs and hat, it was the opportunity to be part of a retelling of history that attracted Poitier to the project.

“I think it’s fascinating,” he says. “Consider where America was in 1880. It was less than 25 years after the abolition of slavery: There were blacks in Congress, black representation in government. And there were guys like Gypsy, a black gunslinger and sheriff and bounty hunter. Now that seems remarkable for the period, but it might not seem so remarkable if it had been given its proper place in American history. You must remember that, however evenhanded the historian, the person who has the prerogative and the wherewithal and the permission to put it down, is going to bend history in his favor, if only on a subconscious level.

“We should recognize that American history is infinitely more dimensional than we have been led to believe,” Poitier continues. “We’ve had a single point of view for most of our history, and there isn’t an occurrence in life that doesn’t have its many sides.”

Poitier is under no illusion that a four-hour TV movie will change things single-handedly.

“This movie will not illuminate a whole new point of view for America,” he says. “Movies don’t have that power. But it will be a candle lit in a dark corner for a moment--and that is enough.”

For Poitier, “Children of the Dust’s” re-examination of history prompts questions about the state of America today. Asked if he sees changes in attitude since the days portrayed in the film, he chooses his words carefully.

“I think we are finding ourselves,” Poitier says. “We thought for a long time that industrialization and science and technology would create an ideal world for us all. But we find there are values that are perennial, organic, classic. As long as there is a collection of human beings--a family, an ethnic group--there are some things basic there. We want certain things and we want to be treated in certain ways. And we have to devise values that will consider that fact and arrive at that compromise that makes living together a possibility.

“We came across the wheel and we came across gunpowder and we found a new definition of power. We became experts in those two areas and novices in the area of values. And so we find ourselves at the dawning of the 21st Century, deluged with the offspring of the wheel and gunpowder and yet still in the dark ages in other areas. Have we moved along, morally and intellectually?

“Not enough. Not nearly enough.”

“Children of the Dust” airs at 9 p.m. on Sunday and Tuesday on CBS.