Columbia Pictures Inc. President Alan Hirschfield, a key figure in the controversial Begelman embezzlement case, was ousted yesterday by the company's board of directors.

In a surprise move, the board elected a Securities and Exchange Commission official, Francis Vincent Jr., 39, of Washington, as president and chief executive officer.

Hirschfield and the Columbia board long have been at odds over the operations of Columbia. "It got to be such an adversary relationship that something had to give - either Hirschfield or the board," said one Columbia insider.

Hirschfield, 42, will continue to be paid his $231,860 annual salary until the end of the year when his contract expires. He has been asked to remain as a consultant, but that seems unlikely considering the bitter feelings.

David Begelman, who was president of the company's movie studio and television units, forged the names of actor Cliff Robertson and others on more than $60,000 worth of Columbia checks.

When company officials learned of Begelman's embezzlement late last year, Hirschfield wanted him fired. But he was opposed by two powerful board members, Herbert Allen, president of Allen & Co., and Matthew Rosenhaus, vice chairman of Nabisco, who together own 15 percent of Columbia's shares.

Hirschfield eventually went along with the board, but by then the Begelman affair was public knowledge. Last month, a California court placed Begelman on three years probation. Begelman quit Columbia with an exclusive three-year production contract paying him about $500,000 a year.

Hirschfield, who once worked for Allen & Co., continued to war with the board. According to one inside source, he wrote an angry letter to the board members two weeks ago demanding that they stop interfering with his running of the company.

"He told the board, in so many words, 'you stupid jerks, leave me alone", according to this source who saw the letter.

That's when the board turned to Vincent, who got a call from a board member during the July 4th holiday.

Vincent was well known by two board members. He was a classmate of Allen at Williams College, and he is a trustee of Hotchkiss School along with board member Dan Lufkin.

As part of the Columbia shakeup, Lufkin, a co-founder of Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette Securities Corp., becomes chairman of the executive committee. Another board member, Matthew Rosenhaus, will be vice chairman of the board.

Reached by phone in New York, Vincent said he does not know anything about the movie industry, but called the job "an awesome challenge."

Asked about Vincent's lack of experience, Lufkin said: "That's standard for the movie industry, isn't it?"

Vincent will take over at Columbia at a time when the company is enjoying record profits, thanks to such hits as "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" that were created during the Hirschfield-Begelman era.