Times Television Critic

Viewers get a rare opportunity to observe the creative process in "Private Conversations: On the Set of 'Death of Salesman,' " airing tonight at 8 on Channel 50, at 9 on Channels 28 and 15 and at 10 on Channel 24. This is the 90-minute premiere of a promising 15-part PBS series called "American Masters."

The work being created was last September's bravura CBS version of a Broadway production of Arthur Miller's classic "Death of a Salesman," starring Dustin Hoffman as the tragic Willy Loman.

Now comes a delight of another sort. Using only available light for his cinema verite filming, "Conversations" producer/director Christian Blackwood provides a fascinating glimpse of a major TV work in its formative, sometimes even raw stages.

Blackwood's camera and microphone record off-the cuff remarks as the rehearsals unfold in fits and jerks, with director Volker Schloendorff, Miller and Hoffman sometimes at odds about the shape of various scenes.

More than merely eavesdropping, though, Blackwood becomes our surrogate eyes and ears. In particular, we learn about Hoffman's perfectionism and intimate involvement with the production. We see tensions channeled into energy.

There is one especially revealing section of the program--showing the difficulty Hoffman had in that critical scene where Willy's son, Biff, discovers him having an affair--that becomes almost a primer on the craft of acting.

On a more humorous note, Blackwood is there when Tony Randall drops by during rehearsals and enthusiastically greets Miller. Later, we hear Miller tell Blackwood: "That was Tony Randall. He saw the play on Broadway and hated it. We all make believe we don't know that."

The show behind the show.

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