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May 25, 1986|KEVIN THOMAS

Philip Kaufman's The Right Stuff (ABC Sunday and Monday at 9 p.m.) is one of the key films of the decade, yet it never caught fire at the box office. Apparently, moviegoers were put off by the belief that they'd be seeing simply a movie about astronauts. But Kaufman's film from Tom Wolfe's book is so much more than that: a zesty, epic-scale satire on American hubris, naivete and myth-making in a more innocent time. Pioneer Air Force test pilot Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard, very Gary Cooper), the low-key, self-sufficient man of space who really has the right stuff, serves as a counterpoint to the highly publicized seven original astronauts, who struggle to be regarded as pilots, not mere passengers (who might as well be chimps). Alternately savage, funny, compassionate and touching, The Right Stuff also has stunning aerial footage, seamlessly matched with actual NASA footage. Barbara Hershey is Shepard's sexy wife, Ed Harris the arrow-straight John Glenn and Kim Stanley the salty proprietor of a popular pilots' bar. They are but three standouts in a huge cast.

Airing on ABC Sunday at 8 p.m. is My Town, in which we view the unexpected and exciting events that liven up a small community through the eyes of youthful Meredith Salenger; Glenn Ford plays her grandfather.

Perry Mason: The Case of the Curious Nun (NBC Sunday at 9 p.m.) brings back Raymond Burr & company for another TV movie, a follow-up to last December's hugely successful "Perry Mason Returns." Also airing Sunday (at 9 p.m. on Channel 11) is the lively, stylish 1977 TV-movie remake of The Man in the Iron Mask, starring Richard Chamberlain.

The Towering Inferno (Channel 13 Monday at 7:30 p.m.) demonstrates spectacularly that in some instances more is more and nothing succeeds like excess--more stars, more scale, more suspense, more fun. Irwin Allen's tale of a catastrophic fire in a brand-new, shoddily built San Francisco high rise (138 floors) is still the most enjoyable of the whole raucous run of multiple-jeopardy films.

Alcatraz: The Whole Shocking Story (Channel 11 Monday and Tuesday at 9 p.m.) is a highly uneven 1980 TV movie focusing on Clarence Carnes (Michael Beck), said to be the prison's youngest inmate.

In his splendid film of Fiddler on the Roof (Channel 5 Tuesday at 7:30 p.m.), Norman Jewison takes us right into the turn-of-the-century Ukrainian village of Sholom Aleichem's "Tevye and His Daughters" and sweeps us into a world that is changing--Tevye's three eldest daughters defy tradition and marry men of their own choice--while it is also threatened by growing czarist oppression.

Also back is Brian De Palma's scare classic Carrie (Channel 13 Tuesday at 8 p.m.), in which crazy religious fanatic Piper Laurie pushes her teen-age daughter Sissy Spacek too far. Carrie makes its ancient and deadly sex-and-sin equation with breathtaking boldness and outrageous wit.

Lawrence Kasdan's The Big Chill (CBS Wednesday at 9 p.m.) is a deft, witty and marvelously entertaining 1983 film about a reunion of seven baby-boomers, apparently all one-time campus radicals, brought about by the suicide of the eighth member, a brilliant dropout. Since the seven are played by William Hurt, Kevin Kline, Glenn Close, Tom Berenger, Jeff Goldblum, JoBeth Williams and Mary Kay Place, it's hardly surprising they engage us--but equally surprising is how little substance the film finally has. (John Sayles told virtually the same story with far more depth on a shoestring budget in "The Return of the Secaucus Seven.")

Annie Hall (Channel 13 Friday at 8 p.m.) marked Woody Allen's coming of age as a film maker, the most directly autobiographical of his films up to that time--Allen and his co-star Diane Keaton had once been deeply involved. More than anything else, it is a love poem in the form of a heartfelt valentine to a romance that was, and being over, can now be seen with a calm, considered admiration and gratitude. Annie Hall is a film of acute social observation: The difference between the life styles of New York and L.A. has probably never been captured with so much wit and precision.

Without George Burns, Just You and Me, Kid (ABC Friday at 9 p.m.) would be a dud. But he turns it into a cakewalk as a retired vaudevillian whose neatly syncopated life is disrupted by Brooke Shields, on the run from a nasty drug pusher and freaky foster parents.

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