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WHEN STARS SHARE SECRETS, IT'S TRADE-OFF SEASON ON TV; INTERVIEW PROCESS ISN'T A CORRUPT TRANSACTION UNLESS PIECES ARE IMPROPERLY IDENTIFIED

IT'S A trade-off. The star gets "publicity." The journalist and the public get a tiny little piece of the star's soul -- not a huge piece, mind you, that might bring seven figures on the open market, but a piece big enough to lay on a velvet pillow and display in a glass box.

It's the elementary transaction behind 99 percent of the star interviews you read in newspapers and magazines and see on television.

The star is getting publicity for some production or other -- movie, book, disc or a new brand of puppy kibble emblazoned with the star's name and picture while being given a big, slurpy lick by Kokomo, the family's pet weimaraner.

The journalist is getting a moment of access to the weird, fascinating Disneyland of American celebritihood. It isn't a corrupt transaction unless the pieces are improperly identified or inadequately valued.

The revelations come in a flash -- that Paul Newman is old and sounds it, that Robert Redford is enormously intelligent and engaging, that inside Jessica Lange's spectacularly sexy body and sensual command of the screen there is a fanciful but plain librarian struggling to get out.

None of the revelations will cure the common cold or reveal the way you should live the rest of your life. All of them reacquaint you with an elemental and crucial fact: that there is a life behind the screen and that, in some respects, it differs only by degree from those that you see every day.

On the other hand, it also lets you in on the secret right-thinking and captious American egalitarians find hardest to believe -- that there are very good reasons why Robert Redford has his own mountain and film institute in Utah and you don't. (The greatest of all of fame's luxuries may be decency. For some, it's also one of the least expected.)

So it's trade-off season on TV -- movies coming out right and left, TV in the midst of November ratings sweeps and the holiday rating need to justify the blizzard of advertising cash.

So Connie Chung got Paul Newman "Face to Face" on the hustle for James Ivory's "Mr. and Mrs. Bridge" (the kind of quiet and unusual film that is anything but pre-sold) and Kevin Costner selling off a tiny piece of himself to acquire a few more ticket sales to his big, bountiful and, in some ways, remarkable "Dances With Wolves."

"2 0/2 0" got Ted Danson selling cleaner oceans, the right to reveal his bald spot wherever he pleases and, while we're at it, his new movie, "Three Men and a Little Lady."

True to form, Chung was sitting opposite Newman during a revelatory moment (Chung is to Barbara Walters in the celeb interview game what Madonna is to Debbie Boone). It was one of those "how did you and Joanne stay married for three-plus decades" questions.

Newman -- slow, suspicious and saturnine as he usually is with the press (I've caught his act three times now) -- refused the usual answer. His wife gave that one: "We make each other laugh."

Newman gave the one no one in his right mind would expect, the one that said between the lines: "Even after three decades, it's a trial and a travail sometimes. Mostly what gets us through is respect."

The ritual reaction of everyone who has been married that long -- plumber or movie star -- would be likely to give the reassuring cliched answer. Newman, true to some unfathomably admirable inner voice, insisted on telling a tiny, fretful and unsettling truth about the marital condition.

Later, when it was time for his show and tell, Kevin Costner kept using the phrase "do the right thing" so often that he might have been flacking for a Spike Lee video. What you got out of it was what you often get -- and have to admire -- a determination to stay sane and decent in a business that propagates idiocy and viciousness by the boatload.

If it's an act, actors call it "centering your character." It isn't often that you encounter a celebrity interview subject on the tube who has his character so perfectly centered. The most fascinating thing about Ted Danson's appearance on "2 0/2 0" is that he's the one passing out tidbits of himself to sell tickets to "Three Men and a Little Lady," and not Tom Selleck. Yes, Selleck just made the publicity rounds to pump a little box office into "Quigley Down Under," but then so did Ted Danson to let the world know about the 200th episode of "Cheers."

Before "Three Men and a Baby" came out, I talked to Danson on the phone. After calling himself a "big dumb white guy" a lot, he spent so much time being careful to marvel at the way women flocked to Tom Selleck that it occurred to me he was diplomatically trying to preserve Selleck's reputation (and further, that it may well have been Selleck who was surprised at how excessively people responded to Danson).

The "Three Men" movies are built around Selleck. So why is Danson out there doing all the pitching?

A good question -- and an even better answer about a) the efficacy of Danson's salesmanship, and/or b) Danson's and Selleck's relative grace and generosity (or lack thereof).

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