Pierce Brosnan was in a jetliner over the Atlantic. The steward announced the movie would be "The Living Daylights," the latest James Bond film starring Timothy Dalton.

It was a little like running into the woman you once wanted to marry -- with her new husband.

What to do. You can't walk out on the feature at 30,000 feet. Besides, Brosnan was with one of his sons, and the boy wanted to see the show. So Brosnan clamped on the earphones and watched.

"I thought he'd done an excellent job," said Brosnan, recalling the film. "I thought the story was a bit convoluted for my taste, but I enjoyed it.

"I suppose I did think, if I'd done it ... "

Pierce Brosnan almost did it. His TV series, "Remington Steele," had run its course, and he was being touted as the next James Bond. But then "Steele" was called back into production -- short-run production, as it turned out, but long enough for the Bond people to turn elsewhere for the successor to Roger Moore and Sean Connery.

It would have been a chance to play a larger-than-life feature film character who has shown surprising endurance over the years.

In the midst of this angst, came a larger-than-life, maybe 6-inch-thick script. Even in its heftiness ("You needed a weightlifing course to pick it up") the script was a severe distillation of yet another of James Clavell's larger-than-life novels, Noble House.

It was Brosnan they had in mind to play Ian Struan Dunross, powerful tai-pan (leader) of Struan and Company, the old and influential Hong Kong trading house of the novel.

"It came at a point where I'd just gone through the Bond and Steele affairs," he recalled. "It seemed a good time to do something that would distract me for three months.

"When I got to Hong Kong, it fell into place. I met the tai-pans. I met a fellow who had actually saved his company {as Dunross is called upon to do}.

"I thought Clavell was making it all up. But getting there, you see that it all runs together, the mystique of Hong Kong.

"In every scene, eventually it overwhelms you. Hong Kong was the star of the show."

The show is "James Clavell's Noble House," an NBC miniseries airing tonight through Wednesday from 9 to 11 p.m.

NBC will compete for TV ratings gold against ABC, which continues its largely-prime-time coverage of the Winter Olympics this week.

In "Noble House," NBC has an eight-hour, $20-million series with a ready audience. More than 700,000 hardcover copies have been sold, plus well over 2 million in paperback, said Clavell.

The series also figures to stimulate book sales. Clavell's Shogun was turned into one of television's most successful miniseries (it got "Cosby"-sized ratings in 1980), and when it was over, Clavell said, some 3 million copies sold in six weeks. Look for Noble House display stands at a checkout counter near you.

Viewers who have read the book will notice changes made by Clavell and producer-writer Eric Bercovici (he adapted Shogun too). Quite a number of subplots have been eliminated and some basic relationships have been changed. In the novel, Dunross is a married man with two children. Here, Dunross is a widower. That opens the way for romantic involvement between Dunross and Casey Tcholok. Casey, played by Deborah Raffin, is a high-powered executive with an American firm who comes to Hong Kong to discuss a joint venture with Struan's, known as the Noble House.

In the book, she is involved romantically, at times, with her boss, Linc Bartlett, played here by Ben Masters. For television, her interest is refocused.

Masters, as Bartlett, is thinking corporate takeover rather than joint venture with the Noble House. John Rhys-Davis has the part of Quillan Gornt, Dunross' arch-rival who hopes to turn Bartlett's venture to his own advantage.

Other principals: The durable, familiar-faced Khigh Dhiegh as Four Finger Wu, a local mobster (he played arch-villain Wo Fat on "Hawaii Five-O"), and Julia Nickson, a Chinese television reporter whom Gornt tries to use against Bartlett.

Gordon Jackson ("Upstairs, Downstairs"), Denholm Elliott and John Houseman and Nancy Kwan appear in limited supporting roles.

Woven into the engrossing, contemporary-sounding plot of corporate intrigue and power struggle are several stands of Hong Kong mystique. When Dunross becomes tai-pan of the Noble House at the start of the series, he learns one of the house's secrets. He is entrusted with a set of half-coins and must agree to play by a house rule: Anyone who presents him with the other half of a coin must be granted a favor from the tai-pan.

The action unfolds over a six-day period in which Brosnan as Dunross must fight to re-establish the financial stability of his company, amid conspiracies right and left.

One of the series' most memorable moments comes when a floating restaurant with most of the principals aboard catches fire. Director Gary Nelson spent three days on that scene during the production's 12 weeks in Hong Kong. Additional fire scenes were shot later during studio work in North Carolina.

"It was very hot and very toasty," recalled Brosnan. The fire, on the specially built, fire-resistant structure, was fed by 300 cylinders of gas, said Brosnan. "If anything went wrong, there was only one way to go -- over the side and into the water." No one was hurt, but a lot of cursing had to be erased from the soundtrack.

Amid the action and intrigue -- the fire, a landslide, romance and betrayal -- there is always the idea that business is done differently in Hong Kong. And always there is joss: a mixture of destiny, luck and coincidence, the Chinese karma.

Pierce Brosnan, after six months of shooting a series in which he appears in virtually every scene, will watch the series with his wife over a cup of tea. "Maybe a large vodka." They have two sons, 13 and 4, and a daughter, 16.

And over tea, or vodka, he will ponder the future and wonder what doors will open next.

His light comic touch that prompted Cary Grant comparisons in his "Remington Steele" days seems but a memory now. Dunross is a businessman enduring six days of crisis. In "The Fourth Protocol," his most recent feature, he seemed to be after the record for fewest lines of dialog in a starring role, and he was convincingly mean. One of his upcoming theatrical films, "The Deceivers," he likens to Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

"My work before 'Remington Steele' was always diverse," said Brosnan. "Then I found myself in the Cary Grant, debonaire mold. As a foreigner, an outsider, I am glad for 'Remington Steele' {and American television exposure}. But I was trained for other things. I've never had a career plan."

There are offers coming in, he said. "The money is tempting, but the substance isn't there."

The Bond deal still grates on him. "I've tested myself," he said of his effort to land the part. "I have an edge I wouldn't have without it."

Was it good luck, bad luck or joss that he didn't get the role?

It might have been a trap in terms of type-casting, he conceded, but it might also have been a way "to establish yourself on the big screen."

He doesn't minimize the angst. "It was very stressful," he said, "dreadfully so. Because one was so powerless.

"There is a lot of anger to shed. Anger can destroy the goodness in yourself."

Would he chase the Bond role if it came open again? "I wouldn't consider it," he said. "It would be foolish. It would be 27 years old. For me, it would be a bit stale.

"It would be too much like going back into an old cupboard with too many ghosts in it."