"Private Conversations," a new film about the creative process that kicks off the "American Masters" series on public TV tonight, argues persuasively against the notion that there's nothing more tedious than hanging around a movie set. Obviously, it depends on the set, the movie, and with whom one hangs around.

The movie in this case was Dustin Hoffman's ambitious production of Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman," shown last fall on CBS -- although CBS is never mentioned in the film or in Joanne Woodward's taped introduction to it. "Salesman" and the Vladimir Horowitz recital from Moscow were probably the two most thrilling cultural events of the year on American television, and both were on C, not P, BS.

Anyway, "American Masters," airing at 9 on Channel 26 and other public TV stations, is to be a series of documentaries "celebrating individual artistic genius," according to the producing station, WNET -- although "Private Conversations," which was produced, directed and photographed by Christian Blackwood, celebrates the collective genius of those who came together to put "Death of a Salesman" newly, and authoritatively, on film.

Blackwood combines backstage footage with rehearsal scenes from the film and interviews with the principals. The interviews are shot, a bit effetely, in stark silhouette. In one of these sequences Hoffman, who cast himself as the tragicomic Willy Loman, confesses, "I never felt I was right for the part," a sentiment with which some critics concurred. Yet he also felt a compulsion to play the role, and he was the guiding dynamo behind this production.

Hoffman, not surprisingly, emerges the most compelling figure in this film. We see him doing push-ups on a portable bar off camera, doling out chewable Vitamin C to fellow actors, arguing in the screening room over a scene he dislikes, and dancing to a German oompah band with fellow actor Charles Durning during a break in filming. The band seems to have been brought in as a joke on the film's director, Volker Schlondorff, who says of its music, "I hate that stuff."

The film opens, after a montage of scenes from the play, with the cast and crew breaking up because Hoffman appears to have suffered a momentary attack of flatulence. Hoffman collapses on a stage bed in laughter.

But the film is a record of more than backstage high jinks. It is an intimate and edifying account of artistic coalescence. One can see the work taking shape and feel the tensions of collaboration. Even glimpsed by Blackwood's peeping camera, scenes from Miller's play remain powerful and meaningful; "Conversations" allows one additionally to share in the special satisfactions that those who made the movie must have felt on completing it.

Visitors drop by the set: Warren Beatty, in the background, and in the foreground, the garrulous Tony Randall, of whom Hoffman mutters to the documentary camera: "He saw the play on Broadway and hated it. We all make believe we don't know that."

Hoffman, true to his reputation, agonizes over even the most seemingly peripheral of details. Director Schlondorff knew how to handle Hoffman, "Conversations" indicates, and how to be handled by him. The key to directing or collaborating with the obsessive Hoffman appears to be to stop him just before he analyzes everything to death; at that point, he can give a magnificent performance, and it is less likely he will drive everyone around him insane.

You come away from this film with renewed respect for Hoffman, and for actor John Malkovich, whose portrayal of Biff was staggeringly good, and for the play, and even for the American theater. But it's dismaying to see what a men's club this production was, and how obligingly Blackwood enrolled in it. Kate Reid, who was strong and stirring as Linda Loman, Willy's wife, is almost nowhere to be seen in this film, certainly not in any detail; it's almost as if the role and the actress ceased to exist. Women are involved in no key creative decisions recorded on film by Blackwood.

Perhaps someday this kind of grievance will be redressed with a feminist production, "Death of a Salesperson," the story of Willa Loman and her assorted torturous angsts.

In future weeks, the "American Masters" series will consider the lives and works of Billie Holiday, architect Philip Johnson, Katherine Anne Porter, George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, Eugene O'Neill, Charles Chaplin and Georgia O'Keeffe, among others. Without question, the series is off to not only an auspicious but a mesmerizing start.


No, it's not a biographical portrait of Gerald Ford's dog. "Liberty," the three-hour NBC movie at 8 tonight on Channel 4, aspires to tell the story of the creation and construction of the Statue of Liberty, which -- and this will surely come as a great surprise to you -- is celebrating its 100th birthday July 4.

At least the movie is not going to satiate anybody on Statue of Liberty lore. It's a sodden plodder bereft of vigor or passion -- more television to balance a checkbook by. Writer Pete Hamill, and director Richard C. Sarafian, obviously wanted to stress the melting-pot elements of the story, but the way they do that is to trot a bunch of synthesized ethnic caricatures past the camera and hope the audience will make proper emotional connections.

There are no emotional connections to make until the very end, when the statue is unveiled (in trick shots that Sarafian can't wait to get off the screen) and a cross-sectional crowd cheers the spectacle. Until that point, we get a lot of fabrication, minutiae and repousse' galore -- all of it rendered with a fervent, dogged and fanatical absence of conviction.

Shot in Paris and Baltimore (now there's a pair of twin cities for you), the film concentrates on the travails of sculptor Fre'de'ric Bartholdi (an imperious Frank Langella) to get the statue built and to get his allegedly meddlesome mother (Claire Bloom) out of his hair.

* Over in the States, George Kennedy, as an Irish rogue in an Uncle Sam goatee, is running ye olde polyglotty copper shoppe, its employes including a French Jew (Chris Sarandon) and a former slave (LeVar Burton). The Frenchman marries a comely, adoring lass (winsome Dana Delany), but later develops a platonic fixation on poet Emma Lazarus (Carrie Fisher), even though on their first meeting he tells her her poetry stinks.

Along the way we meet Ulysses S. Grant as a gout-ridden old cynic (Alan North, always to be remembered for "Police Squad!"), and an actor playing the president of the Castoria company, who according to this version not only wants his product plugged on the base of the statue, in return for a donation, but also wants Lady Liberty to be toting a rifle instead of a torch.

America is a wonderful country "if you keep your sense of humor," a portraitist advises Bartholdi. That's a pretty snide sentiment for a movie with an alleged patriotic theme. But then, the idea of a theme becomes moot; rigor mortis sets in before the film is but five minutes old, when we encounter Bartholdi in a heated conversation at dinner and hear him exclaim, "Flaubert is right -- art is the only answer!"

"Liberty" may not be wretched refuse exactly, but it is all too tired and insistently poor.