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SIDNEY POITIER SADDLES UP FOR `CHILDREN OF THE DUST'

Some six decades after Sidney Poitier first fell in love with cowboys, he's playing one on television.

Poitier stars as Gypsy Smith - a half-black, half-Indian bounty hunter, marshal and gunslinger - in the four-hour miniseries "Children of the Dust." And it's just the sort of role he dreamed of as a 10-year-old boy on "primitive" Cat Island in the Caribbean."I saw my first movie at the age of 10 1/2," Poitier recently told television critics. "They were my heroes. And I always wanted to be a cowboy.

"But I had no idea that these cowboys that I would watch on the screen in the Bahamas were actors in Hollywood. So I would always say that . . . when I grow up, I would like to be a cowboy. I would like to go to Hollywood, where I thought those people were really working with cows and doing things like that.

"I was quite disappointed later in life when I found out they were actors working in a place called Hollywood. But deep in me was that interest and the feel for Westerns. And it holds true today."

There's nothing disappointing in either Poitier's performance or in "Children of the Dust" - a rip-roaring, heart-tugging piece of entertainment that airs Sunday and Tuesday at 8 p.m. on Ch. 5. Based on Clancy Carlile's novel - and written for TV by former Utahn Joyce Eliason - this is a tale full of action, adventures, romance and heartbreak.

As the telefilm opens, Gypsy is acting as a guide and translator to a group of cavalrymen. When their supposedly nonviolent trip to question an Indian chief turns into a massacre, Gypsy rescues a young Indian boy from the carnage.

He turns the child over to teacher John Maxwell (Michael Moriarty), who, despite the objections of his wife (Farrah Fawcett - whose role is little more than a cameo), agrees to take the boy in and raise him.

On the way to adulthood, the boy - renamed Corby - falls in love with Maxwell's daughter, Rachel. But, as adults, Corby (Billy Wirth) and Rachel (Joanna Going) are torn apart by prejudice.

Parallel to and often intersecting this story is one about the settling of an all-black town in Oklahoma - a town that chooses Gypsy as its marshal - Gypsy's love affair with the strong-willed Drusilla (Regina Taylor) and the anti-black prejudice that ruins their lives.

This is, however, a return to the spirit of old-time Westerns - there's a good deal of violence, including shootings, lynchings and mutilations. The footage isn't particularly graphic, but the violence content is rather strong for TV.

Poitier, who turned 71 earlier this week, looks at least 20 years younger. And his performance is outstanding.

As a matter of fact, when he signed on to "Children," he attracted several other outstanding actors to the miniseries as well.

"I first heard that Sidney Poitier was involved, that instantly told me that I can't turn down the opportunity," Moriarty said. "(He's) truly one of the few real stars I ever worked with. The man is just what he is on the screen. What you see is what you get, and it's great."

Taylor, best known for her starring role in "I'll Fly Away," was also a bit awe-struck by Oscar- and Emmy-winner Poitier.

"It's really been a dream come true working on this, because I got to work with my idol, Mr. Sidney Poitier," Taylor said. "And to think that, gosh, he helped me through puberty.

"I was in love with him as a child, and then when I started acting, I then loved him as an actor and learned from him. And then the opportunity of working with him was a sheer pleasure because he was very supportive, and I did learn a lot from him."