Oh, the woman said, wistful, to be 26 and on the verge.

She was looking at William Katt, lean, [WORD ILLEGIBLE] and very easy on the eyes in his Red Snap denim coveralls, sunglasses resting on his impossibly golden hair. For William Katt, as everyone knows, is about to become Very Big.

It's not just that "Carrie," his first feature, is getting one of the biggest re-releases in film history, 1,240 theaters starting today. Or even that his second film, "First Love," opens Nov. 11, or that he has yet a third in the works, a surfing drama, if that's not a contradiction in terms, called "Big Wednesday."

It's more the air he has about him, the feeling he gives, as John Darling, the director of "First Love" puts it, of being "a very skittish animal. He's like a great racehorse, but a young one."

Katt is the most charmingly earnest of young men, someone who takes a self-possessed, not to say a trifle wary pleasure in his ability. He is new to success, new to being thought of as the next great romantic lead, the Redford of the '80s and beyond, new enough in fact to blink and say, "I'll have to take that home with me" when someone presents him with a new thought. But at the same time it seems like he's been getting ready for this for forever.

"I seem to be on the rise in the business and it's a big thrill in my life to have reached another place," he says carefully. "It's new, but I'm dealing with it; I feel very in control."

Part of this new/old feeling about Katt, the suspicion that perhaps he already has been a star in a previous life, comes from hit parents. Bill Williams and Barbara Hale. Both have been film actors, his mother gaining enduring fame of a sort as Della Street in TV's Perry Manson madness.

Yet Katt found that while he "didn't deliberately stay away from acting. I never seem to really want to pursue it," the days he spent watching boring studio work as a kid having done little for his enthusiasm.

So he studied piano and music theory at California's Orange Coast College, but found "I could never really play as well as I'd like to, I couldn't keep up with my contemporaries." He discovered theater almost by accident and became drugged immediately by "the thrill, the incredible intensity and power that emanates from the actor" in a live performance.

At first, Katt looked on "Carrie," his first feature, as joyous simply because it allowed him to break out of the bit-parts-on TV routine. And though he was "told by a psychic consultant that it was going to be a big hit," he was still unprepared for the nationwide gush of response to his high-school hearthrob role as the Mr. Nice Guy who takes benighted Carrie to the prom, and to the cascading curls he's since discarded because "I was getting to be the next Mary Pickford."

Being recognized as a result of that, he will allow, is "a high, like a constant curtain call. It hasn't been there that long, but for right now its fine. I enjoy it." The same goes for the fan letters, even if they tend to be "nothing very interesting" and also for the fans, though Katt claims not to think very much about all those women pining away for him out there in movieland.

"I can't," he says, half laughing half serious, "I live with a woman who won't let me."

What he does think about, and very hard, is his own position as an actor, something he takes with a degree of seriousness one can't help but associate with the quality of being young.

"When you create somebody, it's a responsibility," he says, sounding responsible."I try and deal with myself and my feelings honestly. My face is up there, I have to give it everything I have."

Katt's engaging seriousness, his no-fooling involvement with his role, meant in the case of "First Love" that "from the beginning I was apprehensive about doing it."

For this story of a college romance - between an idealistic young man and a not-so-idealistic woman - which runs into difficulties when the woman starts making eyes at an older type reminded Katt of emotional states he feels well out of.

"That part took me back too many years," he says, uneasy. "The character I play is very young, like 17 or 18, and not too terribly sophisticated or aware of the world. He finds a woman and he tries to squeeze her into a box called 'love' but he finds it's not that easy. It's very unpleasant to go back and relive that way of thinking; it put me through a lot of changes."

No such qualms mar Katt's thoughts about "Big Wednesday," which, even without benefit of psychic advice, he feels "will do for the '60s what 'Catcher in the Rye' did for the 50s."

A watery epic of three surfers growing up and out of Southern California in the 1961-74 time frame - "surfing was a very noble culture, it created knights" - "Big Wednesday" is to be an elegiac-type film directed by the least elegiac director around. John Milius, ol'Blood and Guts, previously responsible for "Dillinger," "Magnum Force" and other nasty goodies.

"John has fallen in love and is getting married and that's opened up a whole other side of him," Katt explains, grinning. "He was going to do another guns-and-fights macho film, but he decided to do this; he decided he needs this in this life."

The thrust of "Big Wednesday" Katt explains in his serious way, is about "growing into your own being, finding where your power lies as a person. The basic theme of the movie is that friends are the best thing any one man can have. Whatever god any one person has, it's necessary to pass it on."

What Katt himself will be specifically passing onto is not clear at this point. He admires and would like to emulate romantic actors of the old tradition, but he is admittedly "fighting my age. I look young and that hampers me. I can't play opposite certain women stars, it doesn't look believable. I wish I'd had 10 years on me.

"I do think romance is coming back," he says, pleased. "Cary Grant, Carry Grant's the guy I idolize, he's my ultimate hero. And I like Clark Gable and Jimmy Stewart, the people who were strong men but weren't afraid to be gentle." He stops here and looks kind of far away and you know that when romance does come back. William Katt surely will be ready for it.