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April 07, 2017 09:55 PM

Academy Award-winning actor Sidney Poitier made a rare public appearance on Thursday at the TCM Classic Film Festival to take in a celebratory 50th-anniversary screening of one of his most enduring and iconic films, In the Heat of the Night.

In the audience at Hollywood’s Chinese Theater during opening night festivities of the classic movie cable channel’s annual film festival, Poitier, 90, rose for a sustained standing ovation that roared for several minutes prior to the screening of the groundbreaking 1967 film.

Made at the height of civil rights tensions in America, Poitier played Philadelphia homicide detective Virgil Tibbs, who becomes embroiled in a murder in rural Mississippi, butting heads with racist locals while earning the respect of the bigoted police chief, played by Rod Steiger.

Although the actor did not take the stage with his colleagues on the film, he stayed for a revealing question-and-answer session with director Norman Jewison, producer Walter Mirisch and co-star Lee Grant. Also in attendance were actor Scott Wilson – best known to contemporary audiences as The Walking Dead’s Herschel – who had an early career role in the movie; legendary husband-and-wife songwriting team Alan and Marilyn Bergman, who penned the film’s title song sung by Ray Charles; and briefly musician Quincy Jones, who produced the film’s innovative jazz soundtrack.

(Jones had to depart to attend the premiere of Adam Sandler’s Netflix comedy Sandy Wexler, which Jones appears in, just a few blocks away on Hollywood Boulevard).

On the red carpet prior to the screening, Grant told PEOPLE that Poitier’s powerful performance was not only critical to the film’s creative and commercial success, it made a major social impact on racial understanding across the country. “It made a huge difference,” said Grant. “Norman Jewison’s films are like that. He knows what he’s doing. He’s a great filmmaker and a great concept person, and it was a very brave thing to do. But without Sidney … Sidney is a hero. He’s a hero.”

On stage, Grant elaborated: “Sidney had within himself such electricity, such power, and he took this movie where no one else could have taken it,” she told TCM host and moderator Ben Mankiewicz. “Your heart and your mind was with him. He was the right thing, and the rest were the wrong thing. And nobody could have pulled that off but Sidney.”

“The whole scene with Sidney where he tells me [my character’s husband has been murdered] was a very important revelation,” Grant marveled to PEOPLE. “It was like it happened yesterday.”

Poitier, who three years prior had became the first black performer to win the Academy Award for Best Actor for 1963’s Lilies of the Field, was not nominated for an Oscar for In the Heat of the Night; his co-star Steiger took home the trophy. But Poitier’s enduring film legacy remains incredibly rich, as his longtime friend Mirisch pointed out.

“It’s instructive to remember that in that one year, 1967, Sidney made To Sir, With Love, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and In the Heat of the Night,” noted Mirisch, 95. “That is the proof of the genius of the great actor Sidney Poitier.” The actor would reprise his role for two sequels, They Call Me Mister Tibbs! and The Organization.

And while Poitier hasn’t acted on film since 1997’s The Jackal, he is definitely not reclusive, as Mirisch pointed out. “I met Sidney socially [in the 1950s] and we became good friends,” he told the audience. “We’ve now been good friends for 70-odd years. I’m proud to say that after 70-odd years, we still have lunch together once every week. He is my dearest friend.”

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