When Paul Newman needed a haircut for the inaugural last January, he took a 3,000 mile detour to the silver, art deco cutting room of Jim Markham, the Los Angeles hairdresser who is quickly becoming the favored stylist of the stars.

Outside Markham's 12th-floor office in a Wilshire Boulevard high-rise, women waited impatiently as the barber snipped and cut. After Newman's discreet exit, Markham magnanimously permitted them to swoop up the locks of fallen, graying hair.

One woman, Markham said later, offered him $500 for exclusive rights to freshly cut Newman follicles, but he says he turned that proposition down. Such unseemly profit apparently is not needed by this elite hairdresser who has a mere $55 tends the locks of such Hollywood names as Lee Marvin, Robert Redford, Richard Benjamin, Peter Lawford and Henry Fonda.

"Things certainly have changed for hairdressers," the thin, casually attired Markham, 33, says. "We really didn't make much money, but now," and he breaks into a smile, "well, I know of some hairdressers who make more money than doctors or lawyers of even movie stars."

The plush, exclusive world of Hollywood hairdressing is a long way from Farmington, the rough and tumble New Mexico town where Markham was brought up. There as a boy he boxed, as a welter-weight, and carried on among the oil-riggers and farmhands from the badlands of the Southwest.

By the time he was 15 Markham found himself married and a father. Without a skill, he turned to barbering, which he learned at school in Lubbock, Tex.

Developing a strongly masculine style while working on the heads of New Mexico working men, Markham tried to make it with a barber shop of his own in Alberqueque. That venture fizzled in 1966 but in the same year Markham won the national men's hairstyling championship, his first taste of recognition.

Still flat broke, Markham journeyed to Hollywood later that year and persuaded Jay Sebring, then the top hairdresser of the stars, to allow the New Mexican to represent him in the Southwest. With the proper Hollywood imprimatur, Markham opened a new store and this time succeeded.

Markham finally settled in Los Angeles in 1969 after Sebring was butchered at the hands of the Manson gang at Sharon Tate's Bel-Air mansion. The leading Hollywood hairdresser was dead and Markham moved quickly to take his place.

Eight years later Markham is what he set out to be - a successful Angeleno with the obligatory silky shirts and Mercedes sedan. The one-time welter-weight now controls a $1.5-million line of "Style Innovator" shampoos, conditioners, and sprays, all sold on his reputation as hairdresser to the stars.

Markham says he protect his relationship with the stars by being cautious and close-mouthed concerning his dealings with them, by being only a barber and not one of the Hollywood Party crowd.

"I used to go to those parties, but not anymore," Markham explains. "It's tough on a 9-to-5 type like me. I did it for a while but I found I couldn't socialize with the stars and maintain my position."

Markham feels that celebrities are the style and trend setters today. "The people relate to the styles of the people they see most often and that's the people on TV." While the stars may be setting the hairstyles for their mass audiences, Markham, as much as anyone, has been setting the styles for the stars. Through clients like Newman and Redford, he is one of the leading proponents of the new shorter, delicately balanced hairstyles which have replaced the long hair preferred during the 60s.

"The days of the curly locks are over," Markham says triumphantly. "There are going to be harder lines for women and softer for men, but shorter hair is going to be the style for both men and women, for at least the next 10 years."

Markham says stars like Newman, Redford and Lee Marvin feel the close-cropped style follows them to look more masculine and natural. "My method is different than that of the '60s," he claims. "My ideas of a perfect haircut is one that looks like you didn't just have one, you don't need one."

If he is changing the image of American men, Markham would also like to change the public image of hairdressers - particularly the Hollywood stylists. Reserve and even secretive when talking about himself or his famous clients, Markham doesn't hold back when discussing "Shampoo," the Warren Beatty movie that supposedly showed the real world of Hollywood hairdressing.

"That movie was a great injustice to hairdressers," Markham fumes. "They made us look like playboys who can't handle maney. It's just not the way it is."

Markham walks over to his desk and peers into the smog-shrouded skyline of downtown Los Angeles.

"People are always trying to knock us down - this is a skill that's highly underrated," he complains. "But look at the stars, they pay me $55 to get the best and they know that for $55 the best isn't too much at all."