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Three women of different ages share their lives in 'Family Secrets'

Before Hollywood discovered that ''youth pictures'' could be overwhelmingly profitable, it used to grind out ''women's pictures,'' often with such stars as Joan Crawford and Lana Turner.

Now, in a kind of reverse procedure, television - which has long been a haven for youth-orented programming - seems to be discovering the female-oriented drama. In recent months there has been a spate of specials about liberated women , abused wives, prostitute mothers - the whole range of what used to be called ''women's pictures'' themes, with a little extra 1984-style ''night music'' added.

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Mother's Day, 1984, brings us not only ''The Dollmaker'' on ABC (see preview in May 9 Monitor), but also Family Secrets (Sunday, NBC, 9-11 p.m.). It is an updated version of just about every mother-daughter women's film of the 1930s and '40s. Instead of Crawford or Turner, we have a generation-jumping threesome - Maureen Stapleton representing basic-valued grandma, Stefanie Powers representing the swinging-generation jetsam, and Melissa Gilbert representing the New Youth.

''Family Secrets'' is filled with bargain-basement, slightly shopworn philosophy. But like much bargain-basement marketing, a shrewd and careful shopper may turn up some surprisingly good buys.

Three generations of women come together to close up grandmother's house after the death of grandfather. In the course of sorting through a lifetime of possessions, they come across three lifetimes of emotional relationships. Amid startling personal revelations and bitter emotional conflicts and confrontations , the three women come to understand themselves - and each other. To prove it, they dance and sing a number from ''The Gladiola Girl.'' Then, with new perspective, they go on to changed and, one assumes, better lives.

''Family Secrets,'' directed by Jack Hofsiss from a Leonora Thura screenplay based on Miss Powers's story idea, is seven soap operas rolled into one. The mother is impeccably acted by Maureen Stapleton - who is maturing into the ''perfect mother'' roles that used to be played by Lucille Watson or Fay Holden. Stefanie Powers, an actress who seems to grow more beautiful with each outing, projects intelligence and a kind of tongue-in-cheek liberation. Melissa Gilbert, who has still not completely shed the ''fresh-young-thing'' image of ''Little House on the Prairie,'' is almost believable as a reluctant would-be swinger.

Despite my reservations about the story line, which is as crowded with sudsy revelations as the laundry room of a city condominium building, I found myself caught up in the tale of these three women who obviously had more in common than they cared to admit to one another. My gasps of protest at the obvious twists were constantly being overpowered by my willingness to go along with a story that so obviously seemed to be headed in the right direction.

This program marks the debut of ''Hart to Hart'' star Stefanie Powers as producer and writer as well as actress. She dreamed up the story, then saw to it that a script was written.

In a recent interview, though, I found that her favorite subject wasn't acting but wildlife. A longtime friend of the late William Holden, she has vowed to continue the work he started through a foundation dedicated to preservation and public education in Kenya, East Africa.

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A current project, she explained, aims to expand facilities and provide better materials for some 35,000 Kenyan children who are members of wildlife clubs - and to take the most promising of that number and give them special classes in conservation education. ''It is awesome to consider that the majority of African kids have not even seen the African animals that every American kid knows by heart,'' says Powers.

Now that ''Hart to Hart'' has been canceled, she will concentrate on several other projects her newly formed company - Karoger Productions - based on her own story ideas.

I asked if she felt it was necessary for actors in television to develop their own properties to assure them of getting good roles.

''No. I don't know that I have been blatantly motivated by an attempt to provide myself with vehicles as much as I am interested in enlarging the scope of my activity. . . . I grew up in television and do really feel sincerely that it is incumbent upon those of us who have had a wonderful run in this work to contribute back into it. . . . It's very difficult, and not everybody should try it unless they really feel motivated. I may not succeed. But I do feel that it's worth a try.''

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