It's not quite as fanciful as "The Wizard of Oz," but the story of the man who wrote the book is also quite a tale.

For most of his life, L. Frank Baum was a failure. He failed as an actor. He failed as a playwright. He failed as a shopkeeper. He failed as a newspaper publisher. He even failed with "Baum's Axle Grease," a product designed for use on horse-drawn wagons.But there were two areas in which he succeeded fabulously - love and storytelling. And because of the first, the second turned into the incredibly successful series of Oz books and, ultimately, the enduring screen classic.

Baum's story is told in tonight's "The Dreamer of Oz" (8 p.m., Ch. 2), a made-for-TV movie starring John Ritter, Annette O'Toole and Rue McClanahan.

"It's a real American success story," said Ritter, who portrays Baum in the movie. "He considered himself a failure at the age of 40. But he was a wonderful storyteller."

The movie opens (in black and white) at the 1939 premiere of "The Wizard of Oz." Baum is long dead, but his widow, Maud (O'Toole), arrives and tells her story to a young reporter.

"It's a wonderful love story," Ritter said. "It dramatizes love at first sight. You tend to think that kind of thing doesn't happen, but it did for Frank and Maud."

Maud was an amazing woman in her own right. A graduate of Cornell University when few women went to college, she was accepted to Columbia Law School when almost no women practiced law.

But she gave it up to marry Frank - much to the dismay of her suffragette mother (McClanahan).

Maud is the ultimate "woman-behind-the-man." She supports her husband through innumerable crazy ventures and encourages him to write down the stories he loves to tell to children - his own and others.

"That was the real magic of Frank Baum," Ritter said. "He was a wonderful storyteller. He just captivated children."

And Ritter himself captivated one of Baum's great-grandsons, Robert ("We call him the Royal Historian of Oz," Ritter said).

Robert Baum, who served as an adviser and also has a small part in the movie, couldn't get over the resemblance between Ritter in makeup and his grandfather.

"The first day he saw me he just said, `Holy cow,' " Ritter said. "I saw him looking when I was with a group of kids, and he came up to me and said, `That's so touching. You had those kids captivated. That's just they way my grandfather was."

And the actor was so into the role he even taught himself to write and work left-handed, just like Baum.

"Try that for a few days," he said. "It isn't easy. But I really wanted to do the best job I could. I really wanted to give him his due credit and show what kind of man he was."

Not that "The Dreamer of Oz" is without its flaws. It seems oddly flat throughout - the spark that made "The Wizard of Oz" so captivating just isn't there.

But part of the problem may be the comparison. "Dreamer" is by no means a sequel to "Wizard," but the comparison is inevitable and impossible to measure up to.

It's a movie for the whole family. Parents can watch with their kids, even the youngest ones (A certain 3-year-old has already watched a tape of "Dreamer" several times and been captivated).

And "Dreamer" is a must for fans of "Wizard." We find out what inspired Baum's most famous story - from the trip in a cyclone to Dorothy to the Cowardly Lion to the Munchkins to the name Oz itself. Just don't expect to see "The Wizard of Oz, Part II."