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June 22, 1986

"AMERICAN MASTERS," 9 p.m. Monday (28)(15)--We could argue endlessly over the definition of an American master. In any event, PBS hopes that this promising new series hosted by Joanne Woodward will have the same enduring presence in the cultural documentary arena as "Frontline" has had in public affairs, "Nova" in science and "American Playhouse" in drama.

Like "Frontline" and "American Playhouse," moreover, each offering is from a different independent producer, inevitably resulting in diversity, but uneven quality.

The purpose of the 15-part series is to explore artists who have had major impacts on American culture, and the "American Masters" list is simply stunning.

The unpreviewed premiere episode, "Private Conversations: On the Set of 'Death of a Salesman,' " is a 90-minute, intimate look at how Arthur Miller's classic play was transferred to TV last September for a sterling production on CBS, starring Dustin Hoffman as Willy Loman, Kate Reid as Linda Loman and John Malkovich as Biff Loman.

Produced and directed by Christian Blackwood, the award-winning "Private Conversations" uses cinema-verite filming to show the sometimes volatile collaborative process among the cast, Miller and director Volker Schlondorff. In addition, Hoffman gives his views on film making.

Subjects on succeeding Mondays are famed architect Philip Johnson and author Katherine Anne Porter, followed by three consecutive episodes on Charlie Chaplin, narrated by the late James Mason and originally produced by Britain's Thames Television.

The series, which also will air Mondays at 8 p.m. on Channel 50 and 10 p.m. on Channel 24, is scheduled to conclude in the fall with programs on Georgia O'Keeffe, Eugene O'Neill, Truman Capote and George Gershwin.

American masters, indeed, and all candidates for scrutiny on the small screen.

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