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Paul Newman Prepares 'Empire Falls'

A story about a New England mill town on its last legs that’s populated by a bunch of characters who eke out a living running empty bars and diners might seem like the last property to get a green light from a Hollywood movie studio.

But character-driven studies like the one you’ll see, starting Saturday night, in "Empire Falls" (search) are right at home on television, and when they are filmed for expansive cable channels like HBO (search), the story receives the room to breathe.

Throw in a Hollywood legend like Paul Newman (search), who stars in the miniseries and serves as one of its executive producers, and every actor, especially those over 40, wants to get on board.

Film actors are still funny about doing TV, despite the dearth of movie roles for mature actors. Despite the startling evidence that TV is the best place to get an acting job when you do turn a certain age (see “Desperate Housewives”), movie actors want to make sure television won’t tarnish their reputations.

But when they work for HBO, they can maintain their dignity without sticking their feet in the deep end of the pool.

And when they work for Newman, who’s going to give them any lip?

“Empire Falls” gathers a stellar array of talent: Ed Harris (search), Helen Hunt (search) (the “Mad About You” sitcom star whose film career stalled after winning an Oscar for “As Good As It Gets”), Phillip Seymour Hoffman (search), Robin Wright Penn (search) (whose career began on the NBC soap “Santa Barbara”) and Oscar winners Estelle Parsons (“Bonnie & Clyde”) and Joanne Woodward (search) (“The Three Faces of Eve”).

And it offers them the kind of meaty, character actor roles they’re just not going to find in Hollywood anymore, unless Clint Eastwood is masterminding the project.

“As soon as the project was going to be made, it’s amazing how many people came out of the woodwork,” says director and executive producer Fred Schepisi. “Everybody wanted in. Some people couldn’t do it because of scheduling. But there were many occasions where we had more people than we had parts. A lot of people wanted Ed’s part.”

The beloved Harris plays Miles Roby, a downtrodden yet dependable favorite son of Empire Falls, a man who missed his chance to grab the brass ring on more than one occasion.

As the manager of the town diner, Roby connects with nearly all the characters in the film, but “Empire Falls” is not a small story.

Based on the 2001 Pulitzer prize-winning novel by Richard Russo (search), who also wrote the screenplay, the film tells the all-too-familiar story of an American town that has died when its chief manufacturing business was bought by a foreign company that closed the factories, instantly rendering its population unemployed and unemployable.

But the residents of Empire Falls, a fictional town in Maine (the real towns of Waterville and Skowhagen served as locations), stubbornly hold on to their idea of home, even if the letters are falling off the signs of their bars and they’re just getting by.

“The great thing about Rick Russo’s writing is that he doesn’t accept that there are any ordinary people,” says Schepisi.

The film also tackles class differences and shows, all too painfully, how the underclass can never really have the upper hand.

In a film of mostly fine performances, Joanne Woodward excels as the town meanie, the greedy, loveless widow of the town’s manufacturing magnate (Hoffman) who takes revenge on the Roby family when her husband falls in love with his beautiful office manager, Miles’ mother, Grace (Penn Wright).

Schepisi says he wasn’t intimidated by working with a large cast of such renowned actors.

“It’s liberating actually,” he says. “They want to inspired by the other actors and they would like to inspire. And when the material’s so good, they’re full of ideas.”

He reserves special praise for Harris, whose understated and big-hearted performance seems to make him the new everyman of American movies (or TV). “Ed goes to the heart of who the person is,” he says. “He gets kind of angry and disappointed if he doesn’t. Strives till he gets it right. Completely.

“I hope people come away from this film with a better understanding of people,” Schepisi says. “How you can get stuck without realizing it. How powerless you are when you are stuck. As manufacturing disappears, nothing’s replacing what’s there. If it just helps people realize the human cost of what’s done in an accounting office, maybe they’d think twice.”