As governor hereabouts, Lester Maddox once toiled behind a large desk beneath the state capitol's gold-domed rotunda.

But on this day, broke at 61, he sits in a modest midtown real estate office leased for $500 a month and dotted with chintzy chairs and tables, mostly rented. The tawdry carpet gives off a shade of azure blue and appears to have spent a previous incarnation underfoot late-night golfers tromping about the Acrilan fairways at a nearby putt-putt course.

Having recently jumped into the highly competitive real estate business, trying to pay off huge campaign debts accumulated from a failed governor's race last year, Lester Maddox waits for the phone to ring.

Since he put the help-wanted ad in the newspaper two weeks ago, he says an average of 10 real estate sales folks dial him up daily to inquire about work. But so far today, no one has called and he angrily jabs at the plastic buttons on his Touch-Tone. The phones don't work.

Maddox, whose two once-thriving restaurants have failed, he is trying to "get out from under" $300,000 he owes banks and advertising agencies - "more than my eight years' gross salary in government (as governor and lieutenant governor)," half of which is "pushing me" - past due, that is.

"I haven't even been able to keep up the interest payments," he says, sagging in his chair.

[TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE] "It's overwhelming."

The only immediate bright spot for Maddox, a long-time segregationist and political court jester who was often photographed riding his bicycle backward during public office, is the long shot that his latest song and dance routine, "The Governor and His Dishwasher," will become a hit.

So despite past disgruntlement with television - he once stalked off the Dick Cavett Show in mid-broadcast - Maddox flew to Burbank, Calif., on Sunday to tape a five-minute segment for the rebirth of NBC's "Laugh-In" series, scheduled for 8 p.m. Sept. 12.

And in the seat next to Maddox, who once waved a .38-caliber revolver to keep three blacks from dining at his Pickrick restaurant, was his very own showbiz sidekick, a black ex convict named Bobby Lee Fears, 31. Maddox first hired Fears, who once served a brief term for drug possession, to bus tables and wash dishes. But he now accompanies Maddox on the guitar.

The real estate business, however, is Maddox's main bag. Recently, he tried to sell his house to raise capital to launch the real estate venture, but one campaign creditor socked him with a $30,000 judgment. Maddox would have had to cough it up immediately had he turned his home into cash.

Maddox frowns behind the glasses cartoonists used to enlarge to grotesque proportions, and gazes up at walls spotted with political nostalgia. There is an autographed photo, in color, from the Apollo astronauts, stalking dark craters on the moon, another shot of Maddox shaking hands with Lyndon Johnson, a seal with "Best Wishes" from the Blue Angels, and his favorite, a plaque from the "Poultry Leaders Round Table," a mightily clucking civic group that, it is said, once suggested the Georgia state bird be changed from the brown thrush to the chicken.

"If I hadn't gone into government, I would be retired," he says with a dab of bitterness. "But because of what happened to me financially, I've had to start all over again, a new life. It's really difficult on my wife. At our age, we ought to have a little time to retire and be together, you know, spend some of our remaining life with children and grandchildren. But we're both struggling to survive."

To salt his wounds further, the state recently built a $6 million park downtown with a low-cost cafeteria that Maddox blames - along with a recession - for siphoning off his restaurant trade in Underground Atlanta and forcing him out of business.

"Can you imagine a business that doesn't have to pay rent or taxes?" he asks. "They even have private parties and banquets there, like any other private restaurant. Nobody can compete with that. I can't believe the very same state of Georgia I worked for - socialist big-spending government I fought against - destroyed me. There ought to be a law!"

A bitter political enemy of Jimmy Carter, Maddox served as lieutenant governor while Carter was governor and railed against Carter and his Jimmycrats last year as the presidential candidate of the State's Rights Party.

Maddox claims that if he had gone along with special interest groups and looked the other way during his terms in state office, he wouldn't owe anyone a cent. He declines to name any names or detail attempts to grease his palms. He will only say this:

"If I had become part of the establishment, I would have come out of office without owing a penny. Politics is ugly, brutal, mean, yessir, it's been a disaster for me. It's interrupted my family life. It's destroyed me financially. I've paid my price. I'll never go back to politics."

Some would find it easy - in spite of his past as a vicious race-baiter - to feel a sadness for this balding old man in the blue seersucker jacket, who slumps behind a rented desk in an office where the phones don't work, and ticks off his griefs. And it is ironic that Lester Maddox, who amassed his political fortunes fighting George Wallace for the redneck vote, hopes to make his comeback with a black man by his side.

Asked how he would deal with a black family that walked into his real estate office and expressed an interest in purchasing a big house on Atlanta's exclusive all-white Northwest side, Maddox says, "I'd treat them as though they were not black, as if they were just people."

It seems appropriate to ask about his image as an old-line segregationist whose axe handles became a symbol of his fight to keep blacks out of his restaurant.

In retrospect, he launches into a melodic singsong, the words so close it sounds as if there are no gaps between them for breathing:

"Most people don't know I grew up here in an integrated neighborhood. Later, I wasn't fighting against blacks or (for) segregation or (against) integration but for the right to private property . . . and another basic human right, freedom of choice. But I lost and the American people lost, black people and white people.

"The reason I named the restaurant 'Pickrick' was because 'pick' means to eat fastidiously, to pick out, to choose or select, and 'rick' means to pile up, to heap or to amass, and I advertised if you, 'picnic at the Pickrick, you pick it out and we'll rick it up.'"

Maddox laughs."The pick handles just come natural. We had two kegs of six pick handles. They were wine colored for the dark part of the chicken, the chicken leg, and people just call them 'Pickrick Drumsticks.'"

In 1975, just before Maddox began to sell his floundering chain of two restaurants and his trinket shop, the then-employed Bobby Lee Fears dropped by.

The black man reminded Maddox he'd been released from prison early - during Maddox's term in office. There seems to be no record of the reason. Fears insists he wrote to then-Gov. Carter and received an apologetic form letter stating that nothing could be done. But some weeks after he scrawled a note to Lt. Gov. Maddox, the prison doors clanked open. To this day, Fears believes he was freed by Maddox's hand, even claims his mother has a letter to prove it. Maddox clearly enjoys the story, but declines to take any credit.

"I hired him (to wash dishes)," said Maddox last week, before he left for Hollywood. "But he did more talking than working. He's a great talker. That's part of our act. The fact that I couldn't get any work out of him.

"One day, I asked Bobby Lee about all the dishes piling up and he says, 'But, governor, I was busy watching you play the harmonica and the piano and singing and singing, and the people, they seemed to enjoy it. Well . . . I'd like to play with you!' And I said, 'What do you mean?' He says, 'I can play the gee-tar.' And I said, 'Well, go get one.' And he says, 'I haven't got any money!' So I bought him a gee-tar."

"He's decided to make a determined effort to make something out of his life. He's got talent and ability. If he can just keep his feet walking in the right direction, he'll have a good national opportunity he never would have had otherwise."

When they do a run-through - hollering and harmonizing "Casey Jones," "Yankee Doodle," "Dixie" ("the real national anthem," quips Maddox), and Fears rolls back his eyeballs and "yassubs" Maddox, as they did in a rehearsal, at a deserted warehouse downtown on Saturday - it is apparent that something is missing. They rarely practice.

"We don't want to do too much rehearsing," says Maddox, "because if we take the flaws out of it, it wouldn't be as good."

Maddox explains that a California lobbyist heard about the ad-lib, cornpone-filled song-and-dance routine and imported an agent from Orlando, Fla., to look them over. They liked what they saw, decided to test market it on the patrons of Mr. P's Supper Club in Sandord, Fla., and, laughs Maddox, cherring momentarily, "the crowd went wild. They didn't want us to leave."

That was also Maddox's judgment of the audience reaction at the Sunday night "Laugh-In" taping. "They kept us on 12 minutes," he said, "way past our time. Afterward, people recognized me and stopped me on the street. The first thing they asked was, 'How's your act going?' Had a taxi driver tell me, 'Hey, you had a pretty good write up in Rolling Stone.' I'm the talk of the hour."

But Digby Wolfe, 42, the head writer for the show who created the pilot along with producer George Schlatter, watched the audition. He termed the crowd response "polite but cool," and doubted the duo would make the first editing cut for the one-hour special.

"It's a lousy act," he said unofficially. "Maybe there's hope for it, but not here. Perhaps other things contributed to my reaction - I found myself with mixed emotions long before I saw the act - but it's just impossible to look at Lester Maddox doing a double with a black man and fight down the images that come to mind.

"I just don't think Lester Maddox is for show business. His talent as a performer appears equally matched with his performance as governor. But I'd like to do whatever I can to get his black partner matched up with someone else. Anybody else."

It was on the slow days at his late fried chicken establishment that Lester Maddox first rehearsed his act. "If we were full, the customers would never get up to leave once I got up to playing on the piano, whistling and singing," he recalls. "We'd lose a lot of business. So I only played on the days we were empty. Yes, sir, the customers would sing right along and say, 'Giv'nuh, you ought to be on the ain't got no business cooking chicken.'"

Maddox warmed to his hungry customers, their laudatory lips greasy from smacking Pickrick drumsticks. The countrified clientele of plumbers, electricians, sales reps and secretaries slopped down the bargain cornbread, sucked up the sweet iced tea and, between bites, gave Maddox his first inkling that the bright lights might indeed twinkle for him.

Back at home, Maddox would plop down on the couch and mull over this phenomenon. He would often get to musing with his wife, Virginia, after tuning the television to "Archie Bunker" or "Happy Days" or any number of shows he favors.

"I told her so many times when we watched those comedy shows, I'd say, 'You know, Virginia, those folks are making a living - a pretty good living - acting like I live! Yes, sir! You know, humorous, having fun, enjoying life.' I never thought I'd get into show business, but I always thought I ought to."

And thus, a would-be star was born.

For Lester Maddox, "The Governor and His Dishwasher" is a longshot, a brand new dice shoot, like his real estate gamble, like politics.

"I don't know nothing about music," he says. "The only thing I know about notes, I've learned at the bank. For 50 years, I tried to play the harmonica, but never could until I finally picked one up my last year in public office and it worked. I guess it was just because I had more air after being with that crowd."

The hot air, admits Maddox, put him into the cat-bird seat in the first place. "The reason I got elected the first time was I slipped up on 'em, caught 'em with their guard down when they were all laughing at me. But this time I'm going to have 'em laughing for another reason."