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'SKINWALKERS' A 'MYSTERY!'.

Byline: David Kronke TV Critic

PASADENA - ROBERT REDFORD describes his collaboration with PBS President Pat Mitchell, who had been on the board of his Sundance Institute, as a tidy piece of synergy: She got ``Skinwalkers,'' a project Redford has long wanted to get off the ground, as the first American-produced ``Mystery!'' special, and, he explains with a smile, ``She got me cheap.''

``Skinwalkers'' is based on a 1986 Tony Hillerman novel, the first that featured the team of his characters Lt. Joe Leaphorn and officer Jim Chee of the Navajo Tribal Police. It concerns a killer who appears to have the attributes of a ``skinwalker,'' a shape-shifter who employs mystic curses to commit his crimes.

Wes Studi stars as the culturally assimilated Leaphorn - ``This was my first chance to get a kiss on screen,'' he boasts; in his film ``The Last of the Mohicans,'' he opines, a female character ``jumps off the cliff to avoid getting a kiss'' - and Adam Beach (``Windtalkers'') plays Chee, who moonlights as a Navajo healer. Chris Eyre (``Smoke Signals'') directs from a script by Redford's son, James. The film will premiere Nov. 24.

Studi recalls reading the book upon its release - ``I'm up to chapter five, six, and I'm thinking, 'When does the white guy come in and show these guys how to do it?' '' he says with a laugh. ``To (Hillerman's) credit, he never did that.''

While Redford suggests to America's TV critics that British mysteries boast a ``subtlety of mind'' that makes them superior to their American counterparts, Hillerman insists, ``I like American mysteries a lot better,'' adding, ``it's humiliating for me to go back and read Raymond Chandler, but I do it anyway.''

Hillerman pronounces himself pleased with the younger Redford's adaptation, explaining that his yarns start out as short stories that get expanded to 300 pages because he has to submit a novel to his publisher. The screenwriter, he continues, ``has to delve into that mess and find that subplot you started with, and whittle away all those characters you created because you needed to fill eight pages.''

Redford's fascination with American Indian culture began at age 5, when his mother was motoring through Texas and he met his first Indian. He started buying the rights to Hillerman's books in the '80s, hoping to produce a series of films featuring Leaphorn and Chee, but couldn't find anyone in Hollywood whose enthusiasm for the mysteries equaled his own. If PBS can track down the funding, that series may finally be realized.

``There's a terrible climate of fear, which results in shrinking opportunities,'' Redford opines. ``Personally, I think that's the time to make a bold move.'' No one on the panel overtly states that racism in Hollywood is the culprit behind the industry's lack of interest in American Indian stories, but that's clearly the subtext.

Beach says he found it ``intriguing'' to assume the role of a policeman. ``I find it hard to do authority, period,'' he says, adding of co-star Studi, ``he has that stare, that don't-mess-with-that-guy thing.'' Aiming to please, Studi fixes the journalists in attendance with the gaze that served him so well in ``Mohicans,'' ``Dances With Wolves'' and ``Geronimo: An American Legend.''

Studi closes the session with a non-sequitur punch line: ``If it's called 'tourist season,' how come we can't shoot 'em?'' Don't mess with that guy, indeed.

Our TV critic is reviewing the presentations put on by the networks for the Television Critics Association.

SKINWALKERS PRESS CONFERENCE

Who: Robert Redford, Tony Hillerman, Wes Studi, Adam Beach, Chris Eyre, James Redford.

Entertainment value: Two and one half stars

Informational value: Three stars

CAPTION(S):

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Photo:

Robert Redford tried for years to bring a Tony Hillerman story to the screen.
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Title Annotation:Review; U
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jul 30, 2002
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