"The Boys" is more than just another television movie. It's a final goodbye from one famous television writer to his late partner.

Written by William Link, the story is based on his 41-year partnership with Richard Levinson - a partnership that produced Emmys, Golden Globes, award-winning TV movies and 14 series, including "Columbo," "Mannix," "McCloud" and "Murder, She Wrote."It was a partnership that began on Levinson and Link's first day of junior high and ended in 1987 when Levinson died suddenly of a massive heart attack, brought on by his three- to four-pack-a-day smoking habit.

"In a large way `The Boys' is me saying farewell to Dick," Link said, speaking by telephone from his Los Angeles office. "I never had the chance to do it in real life."

Link took the idea for the script to ABC shortly after Levinson's death. He got an immediate commitment from Brandon Stoddard, then president of ABC Entertainment, who said, "Go write it. I think it would be good therapy for you."

"I didn't write it for a year, I just thought about it," Link said. "It was the first time in 41 years I'd tried to write something alone. That was a big hurdle for me.

"Finally, I sat down and wrote it in four two-day weekends. It's really mostly a first draft that's on the screen."

Not that "The Boys" is a docudrama. Link used his experiences as the basis for the story, but changed it considerably.

In the movie, Walter Farmer (James Woods) plays the non-smoking, health-freak partner who's diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. The apparent cause of his disease is the second-hand smoke his partner, Artie Margulies (John Lithgow), has been blowing at him for decades.

"We didn't know Dick was going to die - his death was a shock," Link said. "The twist to this story is that it's really a man who's dying who consoles the people around him who will live on after him."

"The Boys" doesn't always succeed. It's rather uneven and even maudlin at times. Perhaps Link was more shaky than he thought when it came to writing alone.

But Woods and Lithgow give superior performances, lifting the movie above the average made-for-TV production.

And there's that touch of real pathos there.

"There is a message there about smoking, but it takes second position to a drama about friendship," Link said. "It's about how we lose people, and not necessarily through death. It's about being careless with relationships that are important to us until it's too late."