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`ELLEN' OBJECTS TO PERCEPTION THAT SHE'S WIELDING AN AX

Few shows have changed more in the past couple of years than ABC's "Ellen."

All of the cast, with the exception of star Ellen DeGeneres, has changed. The sets have changed. The producers and writers have changed. Even the name of the show has changed - it started out as "These Friends of Mine."And all of that turmoil has led to widespread reports that DeGeneres herself has been more or less lopping off the heads of the people she works with - a charge she vigorously denied when talking to TV critics here.

"I never fired anybody," DeGeneres said. "That's absolutely false. Whenever I see stuff like that or read stuff like that, it's upsetting. People are going to assume what they want to assume."

Since it debuted as a midseason replacement show in the spring of 1994, "Ellen" has been trying to find itself. Repeatedly. And there were lots of people trying to help it look.

"Between the studio and the network everybody said, `Let's try to make some changes in the characters and the show. But it was nothing to do with anybody being unhappy or being fired," DeGeneres said.

The most recent departure came when Arye Gross - the last remaining member of the original supporting cast - left "Ellen" earlier this season. And while it was reported that he was unhappy about being dropped from the show, DeGeneres denied that was true.

"He wasn't really happy with where his character was going," she said. "I don't think anybody really knew what to do with (his) Adam character. It had changed so much from the different changes the show has gone through.

"And it was mutual agreement that he wanted to go off, and we were fine with understanding that. It wasn't like there was anybody mad at anybody."

But it has been more than just the on-camera cast that has changed, a fact that DeGeneres herself joked about.

"We have had 43 producers," she said. "They keep spontaneously combusting."

Actually, the show is on its third set of executive producers - and that's not counting the revolving door that has seen other producers and writers come and go. But DeGeneres not only denied responsibility for all the changes, she said she actually didn't know about some of them until they had occurred.

"I do find out about things after the fact," she said. "I think because sometimes I don't exert this power that everyone believes that I have. Sometimes I really just want to have a life. I want to go home and I don't want it to be a 24-hour-a-day job. I want to just do my work and the best I can.

"So sometimes things do get done. And all of a sudden, I go, `Wait a minute, what's going on here?' So that does happen."

In a day when female sitcom stars from Roseanne to Brett Butler to Cybill Shepherd seemingly delight in their images as iron-fisted powers behind the scenes, DeGeneres seems genuinely unhappy that she has become the latest alleged power wielder.

"I think sometimes people don't want to believe that things are actually fine on the set," DeGeneres said. "It's boring to read that things are fine and nice and I'm a nice person. I think people want to believe that because people are leaving it has to be because I fired them. And I have no idea where it comes from."

And she said that while she had experience as a stand-up comedian as well as in supporting roles on other sitcoms, she didn't didn't know what she was getting into when she signed on to headline her own show.

"You suddenly get a TV show and you suddenly become this person that is watched and studied," DeGeneres said. "And it's a very interesting place to be. You go through different phases of what it means and how important it is to you. But, ultimately, I try to just really look at the importance and what my priorities are in life."

And, mind you, she's not complaining about being a TV star.

"It's a wonderful job," DeGeneres said. "I am very fortunate. I love what I do.

"As far as putting the kind of pressure on that I am an industry or a product, I don't even want to think about that because I'm a person and that's all I can handle."