Picks and Pans Review: Spotlight On...

updated 10/04/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/04/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

>Russell Baker

MASTERPIECE THEATRE'S NEW MASTER

WHEN PBS'S MASTERPIECE THEATRE begins its 23rd season on Sunday (Oct. 3,9 p.m. ET) with Anthony Hopkins in Selected Exits, you will still hear the august strains of J.J. Mouret's "Fanfare for the King's Supper." But there'll be a new figure providing the urbane introduction, and it's a Yank at that: Russell Baker. The author and humor columnist replaces Alistair Cooke, 84, who for more than two decades served with distinction as our video Virgil.

The changing of the guard will take some getting used to, especially for the host. "As a writer, you sit alone in a dark room staring at the west wall,'' says Baker, 68, from the Boston studios of WGBH, where his Masterpiece segments are taped (as were Cooke's before him). "Here you're surrounded by people. Somebody is powdering your nose, and somebody is reorganizing the hidden mike, and somebody is brushing your suit. The business of having everybody looking at you, clinging to you, is all alien to me."

Baker has thus far resisted looking at himself on tape. "No sense in getting depressed prematurely," he says. Truth be told, he's not much of a TV watcher, particularly prime time. "I sort of give the evening over to dinner," he confides, with the civility incumbent on an MT host. He will confess to one surprising TV addiction: reruns of Barney Miller. "My first Barney Miller was the funniest thing I've ever seen." Your guilty little secret is safe with us, Mr. Baker. Besides, Alistair Cooke is probably spending his retirement silting in his stud•', chortling over reruns of McHale's Navy.

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