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Through the past gently to "Avalon'

You can take the boy out of Baltimore, but Barry Levinson keeps returning to his home town for distinctive movies. Between such commercial ventures as Rain Man, for which he won an Academy Award, Good Morning, Vietnam, The Natural and Young Sherlock Holmes, he has weaved the story of his life growing up in Baltimore.

His debut as a director came in 1982 with Diner, about neighborhood pals who reunion at their old gathering place. Then came Tin Men, with Richard Dreyfuss and Danny DeVito as aluminum siding salesmen at war with each other.

Now, Avalon. The title is the name of the Baltimore rooming house where members of Levinson's family, the Krinchinskys, first settle on their arrival to the United States early in the century. The movie spans 50 years, tracing the changes in the family and the nation.

Levinson is portrayed in Avalon, first as a boy, then as a young man visiting his dying grandfather (played by Armin Mueller-Stahl, the East German actor). The director recently talked about why he keeps returning to Baltimore for films.

Q. Just how autobiographical is Avalon?

A. More than I thought. I wasn't necessarily trying to make it absolutely true to life. But when I finished it and took a look, I realized it was even more (autobiographical) than I thought. Most of the incidents that take place did happen. . . . I was surprised.

Q. What was the origin of the film?

A. One day I realized, perhaps because I have kids, how different it is for them nowadays. I grew up with grandparents around me, and my parents, and my uncles, and my aunts and friends of the grandparents. They were all around, and you were in touch with that as a kid: people talking different languages, telling different stories. You had this big extended family.

That's almost ended, and I think it's a loss. That's what I started to write into, and more and more of the things from my life kind of got into the piece.

Q. You have a large, ensemble cast. Does that present certain problems?

A. Unfortunately, the jeopardy that you run into when you're making non-action, non-crazy comedy things is that you're putting an enormous demand on the actors to accomplish the work, because if we miss in a scene in a relationship, the movie is like derailed. Action movies can sustain scenes that don't really work. Because you say, "Wait till we get to the big action scene."

Q. Is there a quality that runs through the Levinson films? A certain gentleness, perhaps?

A. I think what I try to do is not hype the characters. I try not to push them beyond what they may in fact do. I'm looking for what you might call the smaller dramatic moments, rather than the bigger ones. I'm trying to find those little moments that we laugh at and recognize . . . Avalon is not a gritty, gritty movie, because this was not a gritty environment. It was the end of the '40s, before things began to radically change.

Q. How did you break away from Baltimore?

A. I left to go off to college _ American University (in Washington, D.C.).

Q. That's not far from Baltimore.

A. No, 40 miles. . . . I ended up coming to L.A. I didn't know what I was going to do out here; I just came out . . . Then I got involved in a theater group here.

Q. What did you study in college?

A. I took broadcast journalism. I worked in local (Baltimore) television and did okay in it. But I got fed up with it and didn't know what else to do. There was not really any place to go unless you were interested in sales. After you'd directed a news show, you'd done it. So I came out here with absolutely no idea of what to do.

Q. When you started writing for comedy shows (Carol Burnett, Tim Conway) and films (Silent Movie, High Anxiety), did you think about directing?

A. Not at all. But working with Mel Brooks was like an apprenticeship. We were writing when we were on the set. Since he was in the movie, he'd say, "What d'ya think?" You're watching it, you saw it being edited and scored. Things start coming into your head.

When I got to Diner, then I knew it was something I wanted to direct.

Q. What's so great about Baltimore?

A. I think it's a great-looking city in terms of a period kind of look. Different, you know. Row houses. Suburbia. Old wood-frame homes and trees. It's always made sense to do those movies there.

Q. During one scene in Avalon, a diner is being set in place by a crane. Is that your own kind of grace note?

A. Yeah, I like the idea that it began with Diner and whatever link these movies might have. I like the idea that this kid might be going to that diner in the future.