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January 19, 1986|LEE MARGULIES

PBS PROGRAMS--After a lackluster fall, the Public Broadcasting Service launches its midterm schedule this week with the season premieres of "American Playhouse" and "Frontline" and the debut of a new series, "Planet Earth."

"American Playhouse," the weekly dramatic anthology series, begins its fifth season Monday (8 p.m., Channel 50; 9 p.m., Channels 28, 15) with a 90-minute adaptation of the play "The Rise and Rise of Daniel Rocket."

Starring in the title role of Peter Parnell's story of a boy who believes he can fly is Tom Hulce, who originated the role Off Broadway in 1982, then taped this version after winning acclaim as Mozart in the film "Amadeus." Valerie Mahaffey plays the girl Daniel Rocket loves and Tim Daly portrays his best friend.

Next week's "American Playhouse" will be "The Roommate," starring Barry Miller and Lance Guest as college roommates with nothing in common, based on a short story by John Updike. That will be followed in February by a four-part dramatization of Mark Twain's "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," with a cast that includes Patrick Day as Huck, Samm-Art Williams as Jim and Geraldine Page, Butterfly McQueen, Sada Thompson, Anne Shropshire, Lillian Gish, Richard Kiley, Barnard Hughes, Frederic Forrest and Jim Dale.

Other "American Playhouse" presentations this season will include the theatrically released films "Tell Me a Riddle," "The Little Sister" and "A Flash of Green" and original productions such as "Roanoak," a three-part historical drama about the first encounters between native American Indians and a group of English settlers in the 16th Century; "The House of Ramon Iglesia," about a Puerto Rican family living in New York City, and "Valentine's Revenge," a drama about the writer O. Henry's experiences in prison.

"Frontline," public television's weekly documentary series, kicks off its fourth season Tuesday (8 p.m., Channel 50; 9 p.m. Channel 28; 10 p.m., Channel 15) with a five-years-after report on the 52 Americans who were held hostage in Iran for 444 days between 1979 and 1981. It contains interviews with many of the former hostages about their long ordeal, along with what the producers say is "never-before-seen footage from inside the American Embassy compound, some of it filmed by the Iranian students themselves."

Next week's "Frontline" will examine the growing problems caused by medical malpractice suits. Future documentary subjects range from AIDS to growing up poor, divorce and England under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

"Planet Earth," premiering Wednesday (8 p.m. on Channel 50 and 9 p.m. on Channel 15; Thursday at 8 p.m. on Channel 28), is a seven-part series about the geophysical forces that literally shape our planet--and that often result, as we have seen lately, in massive earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

The first installment explains why rocks from the bottom of the ocean have been found in the Himalayas and why fossils of tropical ferns have been found in Antarctica. Richard Kiley is the narrator of the series, produced by station WQED in Pittsburgh in association with the National Academy of Sciences.

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