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PAUL MCCARTNEY TOPS POP MUSIC LEGENDS ON TV

Linda was still alive and well at the time. His old friend John, though, had been murdered only four years before. Paul McCartney's career as a hit maker was still alive, too, though decidedly intermittent.

So he thought he'd take a flier at film, just like his old fellow Beatle George Harrison, whose career as a film producer is actually quite distinguished (see "Monty Python's Life of Brian," "Time Bandits" and "Mona Lisa").

The name of the film McCartney starred in was "Give My Regards to Broad Street," which almost no one saw and no one now remembers. That's because those of us who did see it forgot it instantly -- in my case in the middle of actually watching it.

But then a Beatle is a Beatle is a Beatle. There were only four of them after all. (OK, five, but let's leave Ringo's cast-off predecessor Pete Best to his sad anonymity.) So, that's why I was sitting at a long conference table with 15 other journalists from around the country listening to Paul McCartney answer questions for an hour. For some reason, I was late (I'm usually early to things) and the only available seat at that long polished wooden table was the seat next to the chair Paul McCartney was going to sit in when things got under way in two minutes. I had no choice really so I took it.

Under such circumstances, you see, journalists don't always like to be sitting right next to the star, especially if he's a "living legend" as the ad calls McCartney in the current TV Guide. ("Meet a Living Legend," says its ad for ABC's two-hour Paul extravaganza.) For the sake of proportion and not appearing presumptuous, we usually like to sit at a more discreet, decorous distance.

It wasn't a luxury I had 18 years ago. There was one chair at the table so I took it, which meant I not only got a chance to hear McCartney chat for an hour but to look at all the little behavioral details that tell you what might really be going on in a celebrity's head. (Tapping feet under the table a la Diane Keaton? Nervously poking at a bunch of grapes a la Jane Fonda?)

I came away then with a conviction that I haven't changed in the years since. Paul McCartney is the most charming human being I have ever met. Only Tom Hanks came close to McCartney's level of charm, and Hanks had a slight twitch from trying so hard. (He was, after all, trying to sell his only directorial effort "That Thing You Do.") McCartney was also at more apparent ease with himself and the world than any celebrity I've ever met.

And therein lies one of the great secrets about fame under Meet-the-Press circumstances -- it is almost never without insecurity or wariness or unease. If you look ever so carefully at some of the most famous actors in the world -- true legends and household words for decades -- you'll see through a tiny personality crack somewhere that they are always actors i.e. they are people impersonating themselves for an audience of press skeptics and they're terribly concerned with how they're going over. Look carefully and you can see a tiny part of themselves peering apprehensively out at the audience from behind the opening night curtain. It is the actor's primal position.

Not Paul McCartney. Here was a man who had been on top of the world from the time he was a lad -- a man who had enough money to live exactly as he wanted and no discernible insecurity about anything. Here was a man I couldn't picture losing sleep over anything.

He is, as you know by now, the centerpiece of this week's Thanksgiving Pop Music Blitz on the TV networks.

After country star Tim McGraw goes back to his hometown in Louisiana (8 p.m. Wednesday on NBC) to sing and be a good old boy, McCartney will take a two-hour time slot for "Back in the U.S." (9 p.m. Wednesday on ABC).

On Thanksgiving night itself, Mrs. McGraw -- Faith Hill -- will be back at 9 p.m. on NBC to go Hollywood and sing. And following at 10 p.m. on NBC will be the most promising pop music show besides McCartney's -- a tribute, musical and otherwise, to Elvis Presley from everybody from Sheryl Crow and Dave Matthews to Bono and Bruce Springsteen.

The McGraws, remember, are not only people with the best names in country music (Tim McGraw, Faith Hill -- they sound like fictional country music stars in someone's bad novel), they also were the stars of the oddest legal proceeding in recent Western New York history -- McGraw's trial for defending his friend Kenny Chesney during the infamous Ralph Wilson Stadium horse-riding incident.

Actually, there's something quietly brilliant about this Thanksgiving orgy of network pop music. Holiday weeks are seldom big TV weeks. And it's hard for networks to wean themselves from the perceived need for uncut holiday wholesomeness in whatever they put on the air.

Voila! The pop music special, which almost never goes through the ratings roof but always occupies air time with large audience interest and something resembling wholesomeness and the kind of high profile that the specials seldom, if ever, warrant.

It is, in other words, the highest evolution of network throwaway programming.

The kind you put on TV during Thanksgiving week when people are otherwise occupied figuring out what their leftovers will look like for the next three weeks.

e-mail: jsimon@buffnews.com

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