"The Children Nobody Wanted" is another adroit, straightforward, TV pick-me-up for the holidays. Those who resent having their heart strings tugged may shy away from this CBS movie, but for a Hollywood inspirational, it's awfully persuasive and gratifyingly low on dextrose.

"Children," at 9 tonight on Channel 9, tells the essentially true story of Tom Butterfield, who 20 years ago was an energetic college student working two hours a week at a Missouri state hospital and was horrified to discover that an 8-year-old boy had been tossed into the institution not because the child had any mental problems, but because he was a displaced orphan with nowhere else to be put.

Defying state regulations, and standing up bravely to bureaucrats, Butterfield became the youngest unmarried foster parent in state history. His concern and compassion, and an activist's zeal, compelled him to adopt other kids and, eventually, found the Butterfield Ranch for abandoned boys and, later, girls. His story makes a solid and resolutely uplifting film, written by Lee Hutson and directed by Richard Michaels.

Fred Lehne, who played Timothy Hutton's best friend in "Ordinary People," does a sensational job of playing Butterfield -- not as a saint, but as a true believer in fundamental values who is also a virtually undiscouragable scrapper. Lehne makes Butterfield believably good, and enough of an impetuous hothead to seem mortal. Michelle Pfeiffer is refreshingly non-neurotic as well in the role of a girlfriend who realizes she must take a back seat to Butterfield's obstreperous philanthropy.

And Barbara Barrie ("Breaking Away") sounds the perfect no-nonsense note as a nurse sympathetic to the lad and his cause. No one could do better readings of lines like "You don't have the sense God gave lettuce." The filmmakers, especially Huston, demonstrate a feel for small-town small talk and community life. All is not apple pie and ice cream, though; Butterfield meets with some resistance from the people of Marshall, Mo., where the first ranch was located (and the movie was filmed); and there is some ugly racial prejudice. But it is spoiling nothing to say that his dream comes true, he triumphs in the end, and all that sort of encouraging rot.

And it's all true, too. Isn't it? The real Tom Butterfield, now 40, and Lehne, 22, who plays him in the film, visited Washington to wrestle with such questions. Butterfield is tall, gangly, and has a trim blond beard; Lehne is short, compact, and has a naked face and Bambi eyes. But he was cast for his "sensitivity," he says, not his resemblance to Butterfield.

"In spirit, it's totally true," says Butterfield of the film. "As far as all the incidents are concerned, most of them are true. The only thing I think we've really done to alter it is that we have not used the real names of the youngsters or anyone else, except for three characters," including himself.

How about that great scene where the angry young Butterfield storms into a state bureaucrat's office and pounds on his desk?

"It happened," says Butterfield, "but I think possibly there is a little dramatic license there . . . That one I think probably was a little spiced up. I didn't get physical."

Oh. Well how about that great scene where two tons of rednecks advance on him threateningly and he plunges into the crowd with fists flailing?

"I think probably if there's any one scene that is a little bit dramatized, I would say it's that one," says Butterfield. "The rest of them, not so much. There were definitely confrontations but it was not actually a physical thing, much more of a verbal."

Lehne, sitting next to Butterfield on the couch, volunteers a supportive, "You actually did have your telephone wires cut, didn't you?"

"No," says Butterfield quietly, "that really didn't happen either."

Okay, so it has been hyped for TV. And so it was "Suggested for television by Tom Butterfield" and Butterfield was "associate producer." It's still a swell movie about the contagiousness of generosity and decent impulses, and about how lucky are the people of whom it can truly be said that they found A Mission in Life.