Of all the Civil War historians to cast as his leading man, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns chose an accomplished amateur named Shelby Foote, and has made him, at 73, a sudden celebrity -- not quite "Prime Time's New Star," as Newsweek's headline writer wanted it this week, but at least the Toast of Public Television.

In Washington yesterday for a previously scheduled PEN/Faulkner literary foundation fund-raiser, Foote was pshawing about the attention the WETA-sponsored series has drawn to him, outwardly impatient with "all this ... show business," but transparently not minding a little fuss after a lifetime dedicated to story- and history-telling.

"They just blotted out the circles under my eyes," he remarked at the CBS News studios before a "Nightwatch" taping. "I worked hard for those circles."

Ah weuhked hahd fuh those seuhkles. The fine dry gravel in his voice, the punctuations of light in his eyes, the easy mental retrieval of datum, anecdote and utterance: In person, these are no different than they were on camera. Burns could not have anguished long over the decision to let Foote tell so much of "The Civil War."

For those 11 hours of history last week, amid the animated stillness of grainy photographs and the spectral echo of disembodied voices, only a few living beings were permitted the stage, and evidently these met tests of far more than expertise.

Columbia University's Barbara Fields offered not just cool knowledge but a powerful symbolism, as a black historian of the war over slavery. James Symington, the former congressman, is not just an amateur student of the Civil War but the offspring of families, Blue and Gray, who fought it. Ed Bearss, the mustachioed chief historian of the National Park Service, contributed not just battle lore but a sense of theater that transcended self-consciousness, to say the least.

But none had quite the presence of Foote. Sitting against the backdrop of his book-lined study in Memphis, or the horizon of the Shiloh battlefield in Tennessee, the native Mississippian managed to convey the subliminal authority of an eyewitness.

Foote warns that he's "throwing modesty to the wind" when he speculates about why his approach to history seems to have reached and held so many viewers -- 14 million, a PBS record, albeit a commercial-television nothing -- for five nights running.

"I'm a narrative historian," Foote said. "I believe that if you tell a story and tell it truly, its own explanations are built in." Resistance to "theory" and love of narrative evidently appealed to Burns. "Ken did not want to have an academic atmosphere," Foote said. "I didn't have a thesis {about the war}, and I think it's important not to have one," he added.

Though he's held a couple of college lectureships (and was playwright-in-residence at Arena Stage more than a quarter-century ago), Foote dropped out of the University of North Carolina after two years and never graduated. He turned to writing history -- his three-volume, 3,000-page narrative of the Civil War -- in 1954, after writing five novels, among them "Shiloh" and "Love in a Dry Season."

Foote said the training in fiction was essential to his skill in marshaling fact, and he recommends it to others. "Even a bad novelist knows better than to do what professional historians do all the time. They won't take the trouble to learn. They think good writing interferes with history, and they're very wrong about that," Foote said. "It's the reason people don't read history. And I am not talking about goosing it up or giving it a false energy."

This subject gives him a real energy -- he is, after all, talking about himself. "Every historian should read Flaubert. They won't, though. Too many novelists read Sandburg, and too many historians read Steinbeck. ... They have no use at all for people like Joyce. ... They'd like Faulkner, but I think they think he's just shining his ass." (Showing off, Foote explains.)

The "they" in these remarks seems well nigh universal, but when the question was put to him yesterday, Foote had no trouble praising the many exceptions among his scholarly brethren. He first mentioned James McPherson, a consultant to the PBS series, whose "Battle Cry of Freedom" was a bestseller and prize winner last year, foreshadowing the Civil War boomlet that the Burns documentary has amplified. Foote also named the grand Civil War historians of an earlier generation, among them Douglas Southall Freeman, Stanley Horn, Bruce Catton and Allan Nevins, all deceased.

These gentlemen didn't have television to make them figures of popular imagination. Foote, finally, does. Hardcover and softcover sales of his "The Civil War: A Narrative," whose three volumes were published originally by Random House in 1958, 1963 and 1974, have picked up in the past year, and last week they went off the register. Each volume of the Vintage paperback edition sold 1,000 copies during the five working days of last week, and each sold 800 copies just during the course of business yesterday, according to the publisher.

Vintage says it has gone back to press for 10,000 copies of each volume to meet the surge in demand, but yesterday Foote was muttering the author's constant worry that books won't be in the stores when people finally want them.