It could have been one of those classic Washington stories, a tale of individual initiative confronting bureaucracy -- and losing.

There was this adventurous map-maker and seaman anxious for government approval -- and financing -- so that he could sail of to find a new route to the Indies.

But this was not modern-day Washington; it was 15th- century Spain, and standing between Christopher Columbus and the money was not a committee of Congress but a cleric.

Eli Wallach this week plays Hernando de Talavera, the churchman with his hand on the purse strings, in CBS' "Christopher Columbus" beginning tonight.

"He is part of a commission that has to decide if the trip is feasible," said Wallach. "It would be something like the appointment of a special prosecutor now."

The commission decides it is more important to finance an ongoing war. Columbus decides to go anyway. "That would be like someone today saying they could fly to the moon on their own," said Wallach.

And so the viewer is off on a retelling of the story of the most famous sea voyage in American -- or pre-American -- history, a trip that at the time seemed to end in limited success. Columbus, seeking the Indies, landed on an island in on Oct. 12, 1492. But where was he? The Indies? Cape May? Miami Beach? No, he was on what we now call the Bahamas, and he named it San Salvador.

The story unfolds in a six-hour, two-night presentation tonight and Monday in what CBS calls an epic miniseries, an interesting juxtaposition of terms.

Gabriel Byrne, a Dublin-born actor who seems to specialize in parts requiring accents other than Irish ("Hannah K.," "The Keep"), now takes on the part of the Italian seaman who sailed under the auspices of Spain.

Queen Isabella is played by Faye Dunaway, and there are a number of other terrific names in the cast: Max von Sydow, Oliver Reed, Raf Vallone, Rossano Brazzi, Virna Lisi and Nicol Williamson, to name most of them.

"Whenever they take a historical figure, the question is how to make him different from the clich,e," said Wallach. In the miniseries, the familiar Columbus legend is fleshed out with the introduction of his brother, his wife and a lover.

For Wallach there is much more television in the offing. He will co-star in a fall series, "Family Honor," in which he plays a godfather-type character. That will keep him occupied while Anne Jackson, his wife of 37 years, steps into a Broadway play and sets out to write a book.