ABC won't say how much it's budgeting for its highbrow specials to begin airing later this year with folks like Robert Altman, Faye Dunaway, Linda Hunt, Tom Conti, Carol Burnett, Annie Lennox (of the Eurythmics) and John Travolta (doing Pinter!). But the network promises they "won't be done on a shoestring," and has already lined up "blue-chip advertisers" like IBM, Hallmark and AT&T.;

How did ABC land such big names for the small screen?

"We're playing at being Cupid, and it seems to be working," said Gary L. Pudney, veep for talent and specials who's credited with trying to bring "golden age" drama back to the tube.

In the case of Travolta, Pudney said, he'd been talking with the actor about doing "a different kind of role." Ditto discussions with Robert Altman, who wanted to direct Harold Pinter's "The Dumb Waiter." Pudney arranged a lunch, Travolta later auditioned with a Cockney accent--and the match was made (Conti will co-star).

Altman will also direct another one-act Pinter play, "The Room," starring Hunt, Lennox and Donald Pleasance. ABC got Burnett together with Neil Simon and, at his suggestion, she'll appear in all three segments of his "Plaza Suite" trilogy. Dunaway will star in Donald Freed's anti-nuke play, "Circe and Bravo," in which she appeared in London last year.

Although the stars will work for "below their normal salary," Pudney added, they have no contractual "escape" clauses should lucrative movie roles turn up.

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