The American Film Institute Theater will devote the last half of its spring programming to revivals of movies starring Fred Astaire, produced by RKO or created by Jean Cocteau.The Astaire restrospective begins Wednesday, May 4, with a 6:30 p.m. showing of "A Damsel in Distress" and concludes 29 titles later with "Finian's Rainbow" at 9 p.m. Thursday, June 16.

The series will include all nine Astaire-Rogers musicals, in the fresh 35mm prints recently secured by the AFI Theater through a grant from Exxon, plus such beguiling to whimsical vehicles as "The Band Wagon," "Funny Face," Easter Parade," "Royal Wedding," "Holiday Inn," "The Belle of New York," "Yolande and the Thief" (one of the most peculiar whimsies of Vincente Minnelli's career) and "The Towering Inferno," a better facetious selection than "On the Beach" at least.

The RKO series ranges from such early (and in some cases innovative) successes as "The Most Dangerous Game," "Son of Kong," the Wheeler & Woolsey farce "Diplomaniacs" and John Ford's "The Informer" to a double bill of "I Married a Communist," circa 1949, and the one-and-only Debble Reynolds-Eddie Fisher vehicle, "Bundle of Joy," which may now be relished as campy evidence of the studio's decline. When the Howard Hughes estate is settled, perhaps we can finally get a look at such prodigalities as "Jet Pilot," which undermined the studio far more that "I Married a Communist" or "Bundle of Joy."

The original "King Kong" is still out of theatrical circulation, pending the third-run death rattles of Dino De Laurentiis' remake. Since Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire rescued the company from one of many financial crises in the mid-'30s, the RKO programs and Astaire programs naturally overlap. The RKO series includes three of Rogers' most successful pictures after the partnership with Astaire ended: her Oscar-winning "Kitty Foyle" plus a double bill of "Bachelor Mother" (remade 17 years later as "Bundle of Joy") and "Tom Dick and Harry."

The RKO series opens this Sunday, May 1, with a 6:30 p.m. showing of Orson Welles' production of "The Magnificent Ambersons" and continues through Tuesday, June 14. The Cocteau revivals begin Monday, May 9 with a double bill of "The Blood of a Poet" and "The Testament of Orpheus," his first and last pictures, made almost 30 years apart. Those unfamiliar with Cocteau's work may find it more comprehensible and satisfying to start in the middle, as it were, with "Beauty and the Beast," "Orpheus" or "Les Parents Terribles."

There will be a special invitational premiere of "A Bridge Too Far," Joseph E. Levine's $25 million movie version of Cornelius Ryan's last book, at the Eisenhower Theater Wednesday, June 15, at 8 p.m. Levine and his wife, United Artists chairman Arthur Krim and his wife, Motion Picture Association president Jack Valenti and Princess Anne are among the VIPs expected to attend. The film, a large-scale, all-star recreation of the Battle of Arnhem, a massive, ill-fated Allied airbone operation in September of 1944, begins regular commercial engagements the following day at six area theaters.

"The Heretic," John Boorman's sequel to William Friedkin's movie version of "The Exorcist," opens Friday June 17, at the K-B Fine Arts, K-B Crystal, KB Bethesda, the Carrollton multiples and the Lincoln. Linda Blair returns in the role of Regan, the demonically possessed girl, now older but still subject to traumatic after-effects that bring her under the care of psychologist Louise Fletcher and exorcists Richard Burton and Max von Sydow. An opening date of June 15 has been announced for another sequel, "For the Love of Benji," shot in Athens and opening at a multitude of locations. The latest animated feature from the Disney studio, "The Rescuers," derived from Margery Sharp's fantasy, opens Friday, June 24, at the customary Disney showcases.

The opening date of Robert Altman's "3 Women" has postponed to a tentative Friday, May 6, at the K-B Cinema. "The Car," a horror melodrama about a murderous automobile that evidently hopes to combine elements of "The Exorcist" with Steven Spielberg's TV movie "Duel," is scheduled to arrive at area theaters Friday May 13.

Mel Brooks' "Young Frankestein" begins an extensive return engagement in this area beginning Wednesday, May 25. "Murder by Death" and "The Outlaw Josey Wales" are also being recycled for the spring trade, the former beginning May 4 and the latter May 11.