AS a child growing up in Los Angeles, Albert Brooks cherished his toy train. ``I was just a normal kid with a train,'' he recalls, ``except it had an engineer who worried about the fact that maybe he could be on a better train!'' It's a throwaway remark, coming at the very end of our interview in the Regency Hotel in New York City - but a significant one. Only Albert Brooks would have owned a train driven by a worried engineer.
Brooks has based a career on worrying. On the standup-comedy stage, on television's ``All Night Live,'' and in his four movies - ``Real Life'' (1979), ``A Modern Romance'' (1982), ``Lost in America'' (1985), and now ``Defending Your Life'' - Brooks has fussed and worried about life, love, and the media. Today, he's nervous about doing interviews regarding ``Defending Your Life.''
``I haven't done this before,'' he gestures at my microphone. He is dressed in black trousers and sweater. The corners of his eyes crease as he smiles. But the mouth is straight and I get the impression he is a bit wary.
``I was nervous about this, thinking I might not be any good at it. But I thought, the movie would be bogus without it. I've made a movie about overcoming fear and now I have to do something about my own.''
Like Daniel Miller, the character he plays in ``Defending Your Life,'' Brooks's life is a catalog of fears.
``I lost my father when I was 12 years old, so I got a head start on worrying - What happened? Where did he go?
``We're all going to die, and yet there's been few movies about it - and they've all been that same sort of angelic thing with people standing over you with wings and harps and guiding you through life. And none of that's ever happened to me.
``All through `Defending Your Life' I was afraid of somebody stealing my idea. I was less afraid about my other movies.... But I had nightmares on this one - that one day I'd get up, turn on the television, and a `Movie of the Week' would be `Judgment City,' starring David Cassidy. I think I would just die. That would be the worst thing that could happen. This is the kind of idea you could really do badly.''
Brooks has been guarding and working on this script for more than two years. He wrote a 250-page first draft in the summer of 1987.
After his role in ``Broadcast News'' (for which he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor Oscar), he returned in earnest to the project.
``It was easier getting the financing for this one,'' he says. ``My first three movies - I would say I spent a total of three years creatively working on them and four years raising money. That's what has slowed me down. Now, I'll tell you something. Whether I want to or not, I believe the reason they let me make a movie is if I'm in it.''
Danny's girlfriend, played by Meryl Streep, is Danny's opposite in every way. She has had control of her past life and has overcome her fears.
``I have learned to make things better,'' she tells Danny, with believable simplicity. Unlike Danny, she is ready to move on to a better world. I suggest that ``Defending Your Life'' is saying that people who have found inner confidence are the truly blessed in life.
``Yes, I think I am saying that,'' responds Brooks. His rapid-fire delivery slows down. He speaks carefully, apparently very serious about this.
``What I like about that idea is that it's not religious. It doesn't let out huge segments of human beings because they happened to grow up in religions different from your own - that if there is something after this, that some of us will be right and some of us will be wrong.... So, if we are judged, maybe it will be really about how we've overcome our fears. They can be small or monstrous, but we have to overcome them.''
Brooks' films have another kind of concern, or worry, that tugs at their edges - a paranoia about the media.
In ``Real Life,'' he portrayed a television reporter subjecting a family to the ruthless scrutiny of cameras and the intrusion of microphones. In ``Broadcast News,'' he played an ace TV journalist who was destroyed by the ``live'' news studio cameras. In ``Defending Your Life'' his character is subjected to video ``replays'' of scenes from his own life.
This is weird, I tell Brooks, and frightening. Brooks seems genuinely concerned: ``I guess I've been fascinated with how the media invades our lives,'' he replies, his words coming rapidly again. ``With the advent of cameras and microphones we can preserve everything. And that makes us different, I think, from the people who came before us. If somebody in vaudeville 100 years ago did a bad performance, it would fade away. But now, your stuff is there forever. And the idea that your lif e is there forever is very intriguing....
He winks at me, and, glancing at his watch, moves his wrist a little closer to my mouth. ``A hidden microphone ...'' his eyes seem to widen in speculation. His grin broadens.
Brooks ranks among the world's great talkers - his words always kindling new ideas, shaping them the way a sculptor's hands work in clay. Talking is his great art. ``Actually, I write using a tape recorder,'' he says. ``And my first drafts are actually spoken. I'll speak in different characters and voices. Then I get it back transcribed and I go to work on paper.... I can't type as fast as I can think.''
In a world of insecurities, that, at least, is something Albert Brooks can take to the bank.