The Country Road to Success

* In the summer of 1970, Bill Danoff was traveling down a two-lane road in Montgomery County on his way to a family reunion. "We were driving by all these fields and cows," the Washington restaurateur told us yesterday, "and I realized that these roads are pretty much the same everywhere. They evoke a specific emotion that people all over identify with."

Danoff, now 54, wrote the tune that became John Denver's 1971 hit "Take Me Home, Country Roads." Danoff--who'd met Denver, a little-known folk singer playing at the Cellar Door, where Danoff was working lights and sound part time while attending Georgetown University--played him the work in progress. "I was actually writing the song for Johnny Cash," Danoff recalled. "But I played it for John and he said, 'Boy, that's a hit song.' We stayed up all night finishing it."

Danoff and his girlfriend, Taffy Nivert, who collaborated on the song and went on to become his ex-wife, were both on hand Saturday night at the ASCAP Country Music Awards in Nashville, where the tune was named one of the 10 most-performed "Songs of the Century."

"Country Roads" became the unofficial state anthem for West Virginia, but Danoff, who today owns the Starland Cafe, said he hadn't set foot in the Mountain State at the time he wrote the tune. "But I've since been, and it's everything I ever said it was."

The CIA Goes Hollywood

Is nothing secret? We were astonished yesterday to receive an invitation to Central Intelligence Agency headquarters in Langley for the Oct. 13 premiere and post-screening reception celebrating "In the Company of Spies," a two-hour Showtime drama that will air Oct. 24. "You will need to provide full name and place of birth, and social security number," the invitation instructs, while noting the need for a photo ID and advising that we "allow 15 minutes for security access to the CIA Headquarters compound."

"Pretty cool, huh? And bizarre," star Tom Berenger told us yesterday--and we can't disagree. Berenger plays a disgruntled ex-CIA operative in the movie, and Ron Silver portrays a CIA director who enlists Berenger to stop the proliferation of rogue nuclear weapons in North Korea. Aside from the unprecedented act of hosting a Hollywood screening in the Agency Auditorium, CIA Director George Tenet gave Berenger, Silver and director Tim Matheson surprising access and cooperation, even allowing CIA employees and his wife, Stephanie, to appear as extras during a day of filming last year on the super-secret premises.

"I ran up to Washington, met Chase Brandon in the public affairs office and did a tour of the agency for a couple of days and went through stuff," Berenger recounted. Went through stuff? "Let me put it this way: They showed me a lot of things and I don't feel like I can tell you exactly what they were. But I am an American. I am not a Communist."

CIA Public Affairs Director Bill Harlow, Brandon's boss, said that the agency blessed the project after reading the Roger Towne screenplay, not because co-producer Robert Cort is ex-CIA--he was a top aide in the 1970s to then-director William Colby--but because "they came to the project with an open mind, and could accept the fact that we might be the good guys in the movie, which is a pleasant change." Tenet added in a statement: "Most of the CIA's real-life successes must remain in the shadows. But working with Hollywood on projects like this allows us to spotlight the outstanding work of our men and women without spilling secrets."

We have every intention of attending the screening--assuming we pass the background check.


* Neurosurgeon Anthony Caputy successfully unblocked Bob Barker's left carotid artery yesterday, and the 75-year-old game show host was expected to spend till week's end recovering at George Washington University Hospital.

* Thanks for sharing! Pop star and public restroom violator George Michael, squeezing every ounce of publicity out of a Beverly Hills cop's $10 million slander suit against him, has confided to various British tabloids that he hasn't slept with a woman for a decade but wants to have sex with Nicole Kidman--and Tom Cruise.

* Crusty old Andy Rooney, assailing cosmetic surgery, dishes thusly in his syndicated newspaper column tomorrow: "One of the most beautiful-- okay, the most beautiful-- woman in television news had a job done on herself a few years ago and, while she doesn't look bad, she does not look the same or as good to me as when she had what must have seemed to her to be shortcomings. She looks as if she had been in a minor automobile accident." After taking an informal poll, we wondered if Andy was being beastly to his former "60 Minutes" colleague, Diane Sawyer, but neither Rooney nor Sawyer would return our calls.

CAPTION: Beauty and the beast: Sawyer and Rooney, below.