George Walters is a kind but slightly eccentric retiree, living in Grovers Mill, a small town that's dying. The new interstate highway has bypassed it and a shopping mall has siphoned off the town's business.

One Thanksgiving day, George meets Arnold Zimmerman (Beau Bridges), a stressed-out fellow in a pin-striped suit who claims he's from another planet. Zabar, he calls it, although he commutes from his home on Corapeake. Seems possible. After all, he has a spaceship, although he's walked in to Grovers Mill to get a part for it from George Walters' son's hardware store.

Walters, a salt-of-the-earth sort, invites the briefcase-carrying alien home for dinner and a high school basketball game. And except for the fact that he hasn't a clue about basketball, Zimmerman looks and acts exactly like any other American. So much so that some folks think he's an impostor and others believe that George, who dresses up like a Pilgrim for Thanksgiving, has finally gone loony.

But George Walters likes Arnold Zimmerman and offers to build a landing strip for his spaceship so he'll return to visit. Friend helping friend, nothing more. He doesn't foresee the townsfolks' embarrassment over the national attention that comes their way.

NBC calls the tale "Guess Who's Coming for Christmas?" The title is flat-out wrong: The holiday has almost nothing to do with it. But the tale is charming.

"It's actually a very strong human story about family and friends and small towns and being a grandfather and a husband," said Richard Mulligan, who plays George Walters. "It has its downside to it as well, which is: The world of my character is falling apart. The town is crumbling and dying. The people are becoming dried up and mean-tempered.

"Bridges' character is forced down, and I help him. He's overwhelmed. He has all the qualities of an Earthling, and he witnesses me being a friend to people.

"For me, anyway, and I think I'm quite right on this, the essence of the story is what happens when two people trust each other, believe each other and give each other what they need. And when that happens, people come together."

Walters and his 7-year-old grandson Sam (Michael Patrick Carter) are the only two believers. Barbara Barrie, perfect in the role of George's supportive wife Delores, believes in her husband.

Paul Dooley and James McEachin play two of Walters' friends who chip in their savings to help him buy ground for the landing strip. But when pressed, they aren't certain they believe in Zimmerman. Some of the townspeople are downright mean about it.

Executive producer Beth Polson, whose idea it was, said flatly: "I adored this show. It's fantasy, sort of Frank Capra-esque. It's so hard to do, this kind of film, that when you finally get it done it does become a passion of sort.

"But it was not an easy sell to the network. It doesn't fall into a category that they understand, so I fought hard for this. Part of it was that my parents are in their 80s and I've always wanted to do something about the elderly. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross said, 'In the elderly and in children, the soul is bigger than the body. It's only the rest of us who let our bodies outgrow our souls.' I love that."

She also loves her hometown of Corapeake, N.C., a hamlet of about 200 souls whose name she borrowed for Zimmerman's home planet. Polson returns, she said, "about eight times a year" and calls ahead to find out whether the farmer across the road planted corn or peanuts that season. It's peaceful, she said, sitting on her parents' front porch swing looking out at the fields.

The renewal she gains from her trips home to Corapeake pay off. "I was in a group of about 12 for a meeting the other day," she said, "and I was the only one who didn't have a shrink."

In 1965, Polson went to Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., on a full four-year scholarship ("my entire college education cost me $78 for lab fees") from the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot and Ledger-Star, where she worked for a time writing obituaries, among other tasks.

Eventually, Polson headed west, and after working briefly in San Diego, she found a job at KNBC in Los Angeles.

"When I got into television, I really loved the idea of telling stories with pictures and I became consumed with that notion," she said.

"One of my first bosses was {former NBC president} Reuven Frank, and he was a big supporter. I did documentaries, and produced for David Brinkley for years and for Barbara Walters. I feel very lucky. In my entire resume, there is nothing I'm not very proud of."

Polson agreed that she has been extraordinarily fortunate in her career.

"There's a line in this film that says, 'Sometimes it's like God put a metal plate in my head and He has the only magnet.' That's my explanation. I feel very guided to do what I do."

On the other hand, Polson not only had to sell the unusual idea for this movie to the network but also waged battles over its title and airdate.

First, she recalled, NBC asked her to add holiday elements to the story so that the movie could be aired at the Christmas season.

"The Bible says, 'Faith is believing in things unseen,'" said Polson, "and this is what this movie is about: believing in this unseen. So we added the Christmas elements."

Then there was the matter of its title. Originally, the movie was called "UFO Cafe," one that even Mulligan called "misleading." Polson said she "loved that title," but gave in.

NBC considered calling the show "George Walters Is Away for the Holidays," said Polson, and settled on "Guess Who's Coming for Christmas?"

"That will remind all of us about the Sidney Poitier movie, 'Guess Who's Coming for Dinner?'" she said. "I told Brandon {Tartikoff, NBC Entertainment Group chairman} that. But Brandon loves titles. There's not some little group of people at NBC changing the titles; it's Brandon."

Then there was the airdate. NBC announced it would air the movie Monday, Dec. 10. Polson wanted her show to air on a Sunday night, not on Monday, where it would be up against ABC's Monday night football game.

"This is a family show. If this isn't a family-oriented show, I don't know what is. It's a movie about believing, about having faith. I want this to air on Sunday night because I want kids to see it."

The network apparently agreed, moving the show to Sunday, Dec. 23.

Polson also won her battle to select Mulligan, who plays widowed pediatrician Harry Weston on "Empty Nest," over NBC's suggestion of another of its series stars, Carroll O'Connor.

"I said, 'No, it has to have someone with some pixilated quality in it.' The only person I could think of was Richard Mulligan."

Mulligan is a veteran actor who holds two Emmys, one for "Empty Nest," an earlier one for the offbeat series "Soap."

She was extremely pleased, she said, when Beau Bridges, fresh from "The Fabulous Baker Boys" (Mulligan had a role in it, too), signed for the other lead.

Polson said the plot occurred to her "one day when I was vacuuming and there was a piece on the news about two farmers in Indiana who had seen a UFO.

"I thought, 'That could have been my father and his neighbors.' And so I started to put all this together and I went to the office and explained the plot and everybody was just charmed. Of course, they have to say things like that."

The movie was made last summer.

"It was a brutal production schedule, 12 to 14 hours a day," Mulligan recalled. "We shot interiors around Los Angeles in a very old building and we shot locations in a place called Mentryville, near Valencia, in an old, desolate canyon with a house in it.

"We finished at 3 o'clock in the morning," he said. "We needed dark, starry skies."

That they got, and NBC got a delightful tale that, as Polson said, doesn't fit into any category. For that reason alone, it's worth a view.