Fans of "Biography" will enjoy "Headliners & Legends." 

Cable Clone

Sometimes it's smart to walk on the well-beaten path. That's the track that MSNBC's new "Headliners & Legends With Matt Lauer" has chosen to take.

But to say that "Don DaleHeadliners & Legends" copies A&E's "Biography" series like a cheap scanner isn't quite right. It's more of a clone — closer to the original than a copy and almost indistinguishable. If you like biographies — or "Biography" — now you can catch another one every night of the week on MSNBC.

Lauer — whose day job is co-host of NBC's "Today" — isn't quite as avuncular and doesn't project the same aura of been-around-that-block-before authority that hosts Jack Perkins and Peter Graves have over on A&E. And so far, he hasn't been as active a participant as Perkins and Graves. The latter two frequently narrate their programs from start to finish. So far, Lauer does little more than provide the openings and closings for his, while somebody else takes over off-camera and tells the stories. Another difference between "Biography" and "Headliners" is the people they profile. "Biography" takes on the whole of human history, whereas "Headliners" so far has confined itself to prominent figures from the 20th century, just as its title implies.

"Headliners" does a thorough job with its profiles, or as much of a thorough job as one can expect from a 60-minute show (and that includes the commercials). Drawing on the NBC network's extensive film and video library — but not in the unedited fashion employed on MSNBC's other 20th-century history series, "Time and Again" — "Headliners" also taps authors, friends and even the subjects themselves for interviews.

In one recent profile of Mary Tyler Moore, "Headliners" traced her life from an unhappy childhood with an alcoholic mother and an ineffectual father to her big break as Happy Hotpoint, the dancing elf who sold appliances on "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet." That gig ended when Moore married and was expecting a child: Hotpoint didn't want a pregnant elf selling its stoves.

Narrated by NBC reporter David Gregory, the Moore biography sketched her legs-only interlude on "Richard Diamond," which lasted for 13 weeks — until she asked for a raise. Then it was on to her major turn as Mrs. Rob Petrie and, later, Mary Richards. "Headliners" didn't ignore Moore's flops, either, nor did it gloss over her personal tragedies. Moore herself was the major on-camera interview. Others who know her and her work moved the story along: Betty White, Ed Asner, Grant Tinker and TV Guide's Matt Roush.

A recent profile of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was just as comprehensive and included interviews with historian Doris Kearns Goodwin and several authors of JKO biographies, as well as her White House chief of staff, Letitia Baldridge, her personal friend Peter Duchin and her stepbrother, Yusha Auchincloss.

There's nothing groundbreaking about "Headliners & Legends." But it's journeyman TV, worth watching if contemporary biography interests you. MSNBC knows that A&E marked the trail well, so why not take a stroll? It beats hacking your way through the

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