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WEIRD. VERY, very weird.
There were two movies made in Buffalo in the summer of 1983. The one everyone and his uncle remembers is Barry Levinson's "The Natural," with Robert Redford swinging for the scoreboard of the old War Memorial Stadium. The other one was "Vamping," local director Fred K. Keller's swing for the big time, starring "Dallas" regular Patrick Duffy. Some of Keller's people even helped Barry Levinson and friends to scout out good locations for "The Natural."

In most well-kept box scores, Redford and company hit a solid, run-scoring triple. Keller whiffed (with talent, though. It wasn't the grace of his swing that was faulty, only the lack of runners on base and his failure to connect).

Keller seems to be following Redford around without knowing it. Tonight (8 o'clock, Channel 2), Redford and his director, Sydney Pollack, get a full hour of NBC's prime time together to discuss their long collaboration and send up promotional rockets for their film "Havana" (which will open in area theaters Friday).

Immediately afterward on ABC, Keller's first-rate idea for a "Columbo" episode -- "Columbo Goes to College" -- gets its first airing (9 p.m., Channel 7).

Like I said, weird. Very, very weird.

At this point, I have to admit what honor and ethics force me to admit: Fred Keller and I are friends. It didn't stop me from politely slamming his work when I thought it was a good idea. It never stopped him, in turn, from politely slamming mine.

In fact, we've spent a lot of time over the years wrangling impolitely, yelling at each other about Steven Spielberg at the top of our lungs, and laughing together -- occasionally while his long-suffering wife listened in patiently and indulgently, like someone's mother driving a station wagon full of obnoxious sons back home from hockey practice.

Whenever possible, I try to avoid writing about friends or people whose thoughts and motives I may know all too well.

I can't avoid it this time. Coming up with a dandy idea for a "Columbo" episode is the kind of thing I've been urging Keller to do for many years.

Like most film talents of his generation, Keller needs television -- desperately. And that's the important point that has to be made. Independent filmmaking is all well and good, but it can be as compromised in its way as good old-fashioned professional show business, coastal style.

In what possible sense is a clumsily acted independent film made in Buffalo less corrupt than a great idea for a "Columbo" episode just because its director is canny enough to steal a few well-chosen shots from Bunuel and Truffaut?

If Fred Keller is ever to have an hour of prime time devoted to his work (and his relationship with a big box office star), he will probably have to pass through television's gates.

Keller is currently one of the directing staples of the popular Nickelodeon children's series "Hey, Dude," but it was a foot in the door of the likes of "Columbo" he really needed.

The reason is simple: For his generation, television is almost always where the major film talents first surface. He can make independent films in Buffalo from now until a week from doomsday, but until he can hook up with a huge acting and technical pool on his own level, it's likely to be whistling in a void.

Movies are collaborative. One weak link and a dramatic chain is in imminent danger.

These days, even those who make a mark in independent film (writer John Sayles, for instance) eventually find their way to television.

At the moment, an immense pool of talent with Buffalo origins is contributing some of the best work on television and is poised on the brink of making an impact on movies: Diane English is the mother superior on "Murphy Brown," Tom Fontana was one of the reigning brains on "St. Elsewhere," David Milch was a majordomo in "Hill Street Blues" in its final years, and Anthony Yerkovich was one of that show's formative talents as well as the creator of "Miami Vice."

It is a huge tribute to a city whose nature has always been foolishly (and erroneously) interpreted as sophistication's antithesis. In fact, what native Buffalonians have often found -- to their chagrin -- is that its most virulently philistine spokesmen are midlife imports from elsewhere.

If there's a "Buffalo style" (as assuredly as there's a Buffalo wing), in fact, it's funny and culturally aware, though inherently skeptical.

In the fine phrase of Michael Morgulis -- which ought to be emblazoned on the city's official seal -- Buffalo is the "city of no illusions."

As the Reagan years give way to the Bush years, I can't think of a city whose native values are going to be more in need.

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