Until asked about it on Sunday by a reporter, director Noel Willman didn't know that he'd been fired on Saturday from "Caesar and Cleopatra," starring Rex Harrison and Elizabeth Ashley at the Kennedy Center Opera House.

"I haven't been told," said Willman. "No doubt they'll get round to it. It's my first firing."

Willman will be succeeded as director on Tuesday by Ellis Rabb, who directed "The Royal Family" revival. Rabb saw the production at the producers' invitation last Thursday night.

As Tony-winning director for the Roger L. Stevens-Robert Whitehead production of "A Man for All Seasons" and also occasionally an actor, Willman had proved capable of guiding such a powerhouse star as Katharine Hepburn in the still-touring "A Matter of Gravity."

Why was Willman fired?

"Well, of course I can't say, since no one's told me I have been fired, but it could have something to do with the unsuitability of the Opera House for a play.

"When I objected to it at the start, Rex assured me that he had played there twice (in Pirandello's "Henry IV" and Rattigans "In Praise of Love") and that it would be just fine. Its size makes star casts profitable. As soon as we'd opened, Rex changed his mind."

How did Willman feel about learning from the press that he'd been fired?

"These things happen. The theater can be shatteringly insensitive and such things have happened to others. Many times."

There are four producers of the Shavian revival: Elliot Martin, Gladys Rackmil and the Kennedy Center in association with James Nederlander.

Martin put the package together. Rackmil and her investors supplied the funding. The Kennedy Center's Roger L. Stevens supplied the Opera House, and Naderlander New York's Palace Theater, where the play is now scheduled to open around the middle of February.

That's simplifying matters, for the production originated with Stevens, who had planned to present Harrison at the Opera House last month in "Monsieur Perrichon's Travels," a 19th-century farce by Eugene Labiche.

Harrison caught an English revival of it, then told Stevens he wouldn't act it in America. When asked by Stevens what play he would prefer, Harrison specified Shaws "Caesar and Cleopatra."

Stevens set the project in motion with Rabb as director. But, according to Stevens, "Rabb got cold feet," and Harrison then assumed the revival was off and signed for a film, "The Man Behind Iron Mask."

"By then," Stevens said yesterday, "it was too late for the December date but we had three open weeks in January. I got William as director because he's a good one and Harrison agreed.

"But the movie postponed Harrison's rehearsal period and we had to cancel a Wilmington week prior to teh Opera House, which meant opening here cold."

Planned only for the Kennedy Center, the revival attracted the three other New York producers, who on Saturday resolved to settle Willman's contract because they knew the production "wasn't working."

Stevens think Rabb accepted his invitation to see Thursday night's performance because "Rabb felt guilty." Rabb's 20-odd pages of notes suggested a point of view the production has lacked, and both stars agreed that desperate measures are needed, for neither wants to risk the New York critics' repeating the Washington pans.

Financially, the Kennedy Center will not lose, because despite negative notices, the revival is sold out for the three-week run and last week grossed $158,000. Should Rabb succeed, the Center will have a percentage - one-third, according to Stevens - of any New York profits. The production was budgeted for $250,000.

The irony here is that Rabb has been working for nothing in Memphis, his home town, which last year it opened Theater Memphis, a new community theater. Rabb admittde its spunk and artistry and offered to direct its non-professionals in "A Mid-summer Night's Dream." Ultimately, he double-cast the play with himself as one of the two Oberons.

Memphis was delighted that "one of its own" had come back. Rabb still has three more Memphis performances starting Thursday, but will return here Sunday to restage "Caesar."