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She likes being gruff in 'Huff'

For an older woman in a youth-focused industry, Blythe Danner is having a "surprisingly banner year."

The lead role in Hallmark Hall of Fame's "Back When We Were Grownups," a meaty weekly part as a mother from (mostly) hell in Showtime's "Huff," and a return to the big screen in "Meet the Fockers" have all kept the actress busy.

"It's been a . . . sort of fruitful and active and gratifying year for me because women my age normally can't get one job in one year," said Danner, 61, in a phone interview.

"Best of all," she became a grandmother in May, when daughter Gwyneth Paltrow and Coldplay's Chris Martin had their first child.

"Now that I'm not working, I'm spending a lot of time with my little Apple Blythe Alison," said Danner, who defended the much-debated name as "wonderfully charming."

"I think it's more common in England to name children after fruit," she added.

Plus, Danner said, it perfectly describes her granddaughter's cheeks.

Apple's mother, Danner confided, "had huge chipmunk cheeks," which later, she noted, developed into wonderful cheekbones.

But however gooey she gets as a grandmother, the actress in Danner is made of sterner stuff.

And she's embraced Izzy, the outspoken, frequently tactless mother of the "Huff" title character -- a psychiatrist played by Hank Azaria -- warts and all.

"I tell you, it's like being let out of mother jail" to play Izzy, she declared.

"It's just such a freewheeling, wonderful roller-coaster ride for me because she isn't one-dimensional. . . . She isn't just one thing."

Izzy "has a lot of compassion," argues Danner. "She adores her grandson, she adores Beth" (her daughter-in-law, played by Paget Brewster).

Still, "I hope they keep the edge going for her," she added. "I like to play her best when she's at her worst."

Playing Republican

is twice the fun

On paper, it looks as if Alan Alda is essentially playing the same character on "The West Wing" and in "The Aviator": a Republican senator.

But he says Senator Ralph Owen Brewster in "The Aviator," Martin Scorsese's Howard Hughes biopic, and Arnold Vinick in NBC's "The West Wing" could not be more different.

"It's a good look at what interesting challenges acting presents you," Alda says.

Alda, known as an advocate of traditionally liberal causes since his days on the CBS series "M*A*S*H" (1972-'83), shares his politics with neither character.

But Alda says Vinick, who appears to be the leading Republican candidate in the election that should play out this season on "The West Wing," is basically a good guy trying to do what he believes is best for the country.

" 'The West Wing' is doing an interesting experiment here," Alda says. "If it ends up being Jimmy Smits's character versus me, we'll have a contest to see who can present their arguments better, not who maneuvers better."

Smits's Matthew Santos is one of several Democratic contenders in the show's election.

The real-life Brewster, who served as a senator from Maine from 1940 to 1952, is all about maneuvering in "The Aviator." Known as "the senator from Pan Am," Brewster is portrayed in the film as being in the pocket of Pan American Airways in its effort to become the United States' sole international carrier.

Standing in the way was Hughes, owner of Trans World Airlines. In 1947, Brewster launched an investigation of Hughes, offering to call it off if the Texas millionaire would back his legislation.

A lot of the early press on Alda's performance in "The Aviator" focuses on him "playing against type," meaning he's usually seen as a good guy.

Asked whether that perception of him is attributable to his being best known as "Hawkeye" Pierce on "M*A*S*H," Alda says maybe, but adds, "He was a smart aleck and a skirt chaser.

"I think it's because at interviews I've always shown up as myself."

Talk of the dial

8 a.m. WPEP-AM (1570) -- "The Wayne Storm." Guest: William Federer, author, talks about the story of St. Nicholas.

10 a.m. WUMB-FM (91.9) -- "The Pleasure of Winter 2004." Guests: Odetta, soul singer; Malachy McCourt, storyteller; Tony Trishka, banjo player; Ruth Unger, of the Mammals.

10 a.m. WBIX-AM (1060) -- "Stu Taylor on Business." Guests: Upton Bell; Bob Massi, Fox News legal analyst; Karen O'Brien, author of "Toys and Prices, 2005"; Samad Namad, Tangierino Restaurant.

Other radio highlight

6 a.m. WCRB-FM (102.5) -- "Joy of Christmas." Various Christmas songs until midnight.

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