It's a new role for entertainer-director Mike Nichols. He's billed as co-producer of "Annie," the new musical from the comic strip "Little Orphan Annie," which last night began previews at the Eisenhower before its Saturday opening.

"A producer," he muses, ". . . the man who comes in after three weeks and says ' The shoes are wrong' and, a few weeks later cries 'Cut the earrings' and then asks his publicity man why they haven't mentioned him in Variety.

"No, not that kind of producer," chuckles the tall, slim humorist, whose last Washington visit was for the Carter inaugural show at the Opera House, when he and Elaine May reunited for the wittiest moments of the evening with their sketch about the Jewish mother whose son has just become president.

"No, the kind of producer who serves the play, the director, the players. I've been very lucky about that, working as director with people like Doc (Neil) Simon and Joe Papp. I'll scrap with the technicians but never with the performers.

"I'm a producer because last summer I saw 'Annie' in Connecticut's Goodspeed Opera House. I fell in love with it, the cast and how Martin Charnin staged it. I told them I'd like to put money into the show and serve as active producer.

"I'd known Martin, who did the lyrics to Charles Strouse's music, casually, but haven't any desire to direct his direction. We agree on the show's aim and style. If, say, he says he could get along without ordering a particular piece of scenery, I'm in the position to translate the wish and say 'you'll have it.' Some producers, especially some movie producers, automatically say no. Being a director, I know what an ideal producer should be. I'm trying."

Nichols has had some spectacularly successful films, such as "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," Elizabeth Taylor's most impressive performance, and "The Graduate," which won him an Oscar. He's had some bombs, "Day of the Dolphin" and, depending on how it struck you. "Catch-22." Starting with Simon's "Barefoot in the Park," he's had a string of stage smashes: "Luv," "The Odd Couple," "Plaza Suite," "The Prisoner of Second Avenue," "Uncle Vanya," "The Little Foxes" and "The Apple Tree," his only musical.

He has directed two current New York plays, David Rabe's "Streamers" and Trevor Griffiths' British-born "Comedians."

"Streamers,'" Nichols says "is the most satisfying production I've ever done. Rabe is a really fine playwright and we had the satisfaction of working on its slowly, developing it. It's always grown, better now than when we opened. I'm sorry to have missed David Chambers' version at the Kreeger.

'It's a product of the direction our theater's developing. We began work at New Haven's Long Wharf Theater, Arvin Brown's fine organization. There was no pressure, no sense of rush, hurry, bam. It grew while we worked on it and before audiences.

"Some plays are just blah, nothing. "I hate theater like that. I believe that when the audience gathers, it's full of great expectations. Otherwise it wouldn't have come. They're there. It's an event before it starts, and that's where the challenge is. It must continue throughout to be an event.

"The way things have gotten, economics, tickets for $15 and up, it's hard to get at that feeling. So, with it getting out of hand in New York, theaters like Long Wharf - and Arena - are where the action is. It's not a great crisis, nerve-jangling kind of thing. Only in that way can work be done. The need has resulted in smaller theaters, smaller plays.

"There's no way to take something and decide to turn it into a hit. You shouldn't even want to. What you do is find something that moves you, you alone, and go on from there. Maybe others won't like it, no one. You must. And, then, they just may."

The verb brings up the proper noun, May, Elaine, and all those other Chicago young people who started out with Nichols in the '50s: Alan Arkin, Shelley Berman, Barbara Harris, Severn Darden.

"It was exciting because we were so at home with our audiences on Chicago's southside and thought them the greatest thing on earth. Oh, we were mighy arrogant about the big commercial world outside. We didn't know. None of us thought really about becoming famous or rich. We were busy enjoying each other and our audiences. Suddenly it would be breakfast time.

"Now that I'm older I haven't the time or patience to be arrogant. I don't think. I have a more restrained way of looking at things, asking only to do waht interests, excites me. It's a luxury and I'm conscious of that.

"That's why we live where we do in Connecticut, my wife and our two children. Near Long Wharf, near enough to New York. There's one play I want to do this spring at Long Wharf, take it, maybe, to New York in the fall. And in the fall, I think I'll be directing a movie, this one set in Chicago.

"About working with Elaine again, yes, we'd both like to . . . I think we could enjoy doing, say a TV special . . . . it had gotten so that the pressures of having to do it . . . took the fun out of it.

"We wrote most of that inauguration sketch after the Secret Service locked us up in the Opera House. There we were, rather like the old days, polishing before we went on. For hours."