HBO, WHICH has a lot to be puffed up about (“The Sopranos,” “Big Love,” “Rome,” “Entourage,” to name but a few), is all puffed up about a new pilot. It was dreamed up by David Milch who created “Deadwood” and “NYPD Blue.” My pal Howard Rosenman worked on this one and he says, “Milch is a bona fide genius.” The series is about — of all things — surfing. It is a dark look at the world of wind and waves, described as something like “The Sopranos” meets “Six Feet Under.” Rebecca DeMornay, Bruce Greenwood, Luis Guzman, Ed O’Neal, Nick Nolte and Sissy Spacek are in this one, to be seen June 7. This “surf noir’ is such an underground hit, they’ve already ordered up a dozen more episodes.

RICHARD PLEPLER, Brad Grey, Carolyn Strauss and David Chase hosted a private screening of the first two episodes of the coming final season of “The Sopranos” at the Museum of Modern Art. In the time-honored fashion of making those who love “The Sopranos” wait for it, the screening, which indicated “7 o’clock sharp” on the invite, was a good 30 minutes late. And then came the self-congratulations. Not that every producer, director, writer, actor, technician and publicist concerned with this iconic show doesn’t deserve to be proud. The audience of New York social and media hotshots — Morley Safer, Dan Abrams, Donny Deutsch (who is the hunky living proof that light-blue denim still looks good), Dominick Dunne, Gay Talese, etc. — began to get a wee bit restive. But creator David Chase was particularly charming in his remarks, and gave kudos to HBO for wisely recognizing the potential of “The Sopranos.” His wife, Denise, who was always gung-ho on the series idea, (“It was turned down by all four networks,” said David) also came in for compliments. The episodes finally screened. We won’t give anything away plot wise; acting was of the usual high order from all hands. Aida Turturro as Tony Soprano’s sister, Janice, is especially effective, in her high-wire act of fear and resentment, jousting with her murderous sibling. The audience responded with a vociferous ovation, though a number of people (you know who you are) checked their watches from time to time. Well, it was a school night. Dinner was served late. Given the intensity level of the entertainment, the portions were perhaps too delicate. Whatever happened to big slabs of lasagna? Actually, the first-peekers seemed pleased enough with what they saw to have skipped dinner altogether. “The Sopranos” begins its end on April 8. But it’ll never be far from us, via reruns, DVD and our hollow-point-bullet memories.

IT’S RAINING men. Talented guys in fascinating roles on and Off Broadway, appearing in a tight fistful of shows with more to come. We’ll start with the handsome fearsome Tony-winning Liev Schreiber in “Talk Radio.” What a performance. Here, he’s a hateful misogynist, yet sexy and interesting. Eric Bogosian’s play is 20 years old, but very much of the moment. Liev dominates over other viper-tongued airwaves hosts … “Journey’s End’s is another revival, dating back to 1928. There is another outstanding performance by Brit actor Hugh Dancy who is just heartbreaking. (He was the Earl of Essex in “Elizabeth I.”) World War I’s devastating effect on Western civilization is the theme … Also riveting is the revival of Craig Lucas’ “Prelude to a Kiss.” Tony winner John Mahoney (the dad in “Frasier”) and Alan Tudyk, last seen in “Spamalot” are priceless. This play gives a most mysterious take on love … And the musicals, David Hyde Pierce, irresistible as the stagestruck sleuth in Kander & Ebbs’s last musical “Curtains” … Plus, for pure sex, run to “Spring Awakening,” where Jonathan Groff’s love scenes are tumescent.

SPEAKING OF cutting remarks, Sacha Baron Cohen is trying to cut his co-star, Johnny Depp, dead. These two are filming the Stephen Sondheim musical “Sweeney Todd” at Pinewood Studios in London — wherein Cohen plays barber Adolfo Pirelli and Depp plays Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street. There is a competititon to see which actor can best shave another person with a straight razor. The “Borat” star put his own real life barber on the payroll as adviser and has had 16 hours of razor training. They say that Cohen has had problems with singing Sondheim’s lyrics and that he has been given permission by the film’s director, Tim Burton, to sing in a rap style. Cohen has to warble and shave customers at the same time in this film. But Depp has submitted to teasing by co-star Cohen. When Johnny said he might be going to L.A., Cohen said, “I have a lot of contacts and I will ask what they can do to help you.” This from the man most people never heard of before “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.”

SIR Ben Kingsley, Tea Leoni, Luke Wilson and Bill Pullman have just finished a black comedy titled “You Kill Me” and IFC, the people who released “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” bought it. IFC is owned by Cablevision. This little indie, made in Winnipeg, Canada, cost only $4 million and is coming in the spring. Oh, I forgot — spring is already here… VALERIE BERTINELLI, the adolescent teen-dream of the old “One Day At a Time” sitcom, and the ex-wife of troubled rocker Eddie Van Halen, will soon become the new, uh, “face” of Jenny Craig. Always petite and curvy, I guess those curves got a bit out-of-control. As for Kirstie Alley, she continues to look good, and continues to make very funny TV spots for Jenny Craig. Will Kirstie hand over her weight-loss crown and control top pantyhose to Miss Bertinelli, or go on as a kind of voluptuous figurehead for the organization? … PEGGY LIPTON, of “Mod Squad” fame, will be given an award from the Our Time Theatre Company on April 23. Our Time allows young people who stutter to discover the joy of performing, where otherwise their gifts might go unrecognized or mocked because of that disability. Mariska Hargitay and Jesse L. Martin will host the night. Other performers include Michael Cerveris, Kelli O’ Hara, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Paul Rudd, Adriane Lenox, Ron Rifkin, Cynthia Nixon and many more. Call 212-414-9696 … CHRISTINE EBERSOLE, the great star of “Grey Gardens,” was recently visited backstage by Bette Midler, Tyne Daly and Food Network star Rachael Ray. Miss Ray, famous for her frenetic “30 Minute Meals,” was agog to be in the presence of Ebersole, Midler and Daly. “Which one of us is not like the others?” she joked self-deprecatingly. Rachael also confessed to “Grey Gardens” composer Scott Frankel that she has seen the original documentary on which the musical is based, over 100 times. (Yikes, well, there’s more than a touch of camp in the wholesome Miss Ray.) And the TV cooking queen also enthused over Midler being the inspiration for her to become involved with the “Green” movement, and praised Bette’s New York Restoration Project. “One day you can take it over, honey,” said Midler wryly.

THE MOST beautiful man ever to make a film is actor Farley Granger. But being great looking didn’t mean a thing to this gifted performer. He wanted to act and win the approval of the peers he admired. And, in spite of making Alfred Hitchcock’s classic “Strangers on a Train,” Farley’s binding contract with Sam Goldwyn meant he didn’t often find movie fare to his liking. Recently, Farley celebrated the kickoff of his interesting and off-beat memoir, “Include Me Out.” The party was at Jezebel’s on 9th Avenue. He and his partner/co-author Bob Calhoun were also celebrating 45 years together. Julianne Moore dropped by to remind Bob that he had once hired her for the soap opera “As the World Turns.” I just want to recommend Farley’s life story. He tells it in the most unaffected manner and states right up front — “I have loved men and I have loved women.” (And, wow, the names of the women will stagger you.) Farley, who made many excellent films (“Senso” for example) and appeared in some terrific plays, says, when asked if he considers himself gay or bi-sexual? “I’m too old to worry about that.” This book has class. It makes some points. It’s a “celebrity” story that is truly worth your while. And, of course, even at 81, Farley Granger is still beautiful.

THE EARLY life of Queen Victoria? You mean we haven’t “had it” yet with British monarchs? Well, no we haven’t. That unlikely duo, Oscar winning Martin Scorsese –he of the Mafia film franchise — and the Duchess of York, Fergie — she of weight loss and children’s books, are teaming up to make a movie. Fergie suggested the idea, probably at one of those Tina Brown-Harry Evans dinner salons where she and Marty always invited. So now she’ll be a co-producer. She won access to the Windsor archives while researching a book on Queen Victoria’s travels. Don’t be too surprised that director Scorsese is going far afield from guns and gangsters. He already made a documentary about Giorgio Armani, so Marty has his soft side. The film will trace Victoria’s rise to throne, focusing on her early years and her romance with the love of her life, Prince Albert. One of this column’s favorites, Emily Blunt, will play Victoria. (Emily is the love interest of singer Michael Buble and also won a Golden Globe earlier this year for “Gideon’s Daughter.” If you can’t place her, think of Meryl Streep’s British assistant with a bad cold, run down by a car and replaced by Anne Hathaway in “The Devil Wears Prada.” The divine Ms. Blunt will next be seen in the horror film “Wind Chill” and in Mike Nichol’s version of “Charlie Wilson’s War,” starring Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts and Philip Seymour Hoffman.) I know, I know — I can’t tell who anybody is either without a program.

(Email Liz Smith at MES3838@aol.com)

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