For 34 years, Sidney Poitier has shunned the small screen. But the chance to play Thurgood Marshall, the first black U.S. Supreme Court justice, on television was one he couldn't resist.

"Offers of this nature aren't down the pike everyday," Poitier said last week during the annual winter press tour for TV critics in Los Angeles. "It spoke of men I used to read about and admire a great deal."Poitier plays Marshall in "Separate But Equal," a four-hour ABC miniseries scheduled for broadcast in April that dramatizes the events leading up to the 1954 Supreme Court case that outlawed segregation, Brown vs. Board of Education.

At that time, Marshall had not been appointed to the high court, but was chief counsel for the National Association of Colored People's legal defense fund. He argued against school segregation in South Carolina, one of five states whose NAACP desegregation suits eventually ended up before the Supreme Court.