For the first time in his life, Jason Robards doesn't feel guilty anymore. About anything.

"I finally realize," he says, "that I have earned my happiness and what little success I have. And I'm not guilty about it any more. It just happened, one day. It just came out. It was like when I quit drinking. And every day I've gotten more internal support. Every day I feel stronger for it." He chuckles, shakes his head and breathes a sigh of relief.

"Oh my God. You don't know what a guilty bastard I was."

Jason Robards is 55 years old. He looks it. His face, despite three plastic surgery operations after a near fatal auto accident five years ago, is a reflection of the years of pain and guilt and booze and hard times. A reflection of those days only a few years ago "when I was sitting on the beach at MaLbu and in my heart begging for a job."

"I could just see myself where my father had been years before. And I was sitting there, dying to work. I was doing anything. Any kind of role. It was a terrible degradation. The destruction of my own self."

yet as he sits casually relaxing in his two-bedroom suite at the Sheraton Carlton hotel talking about it, it seems incomprehensible that this confident, easy-going successful actor once could have been in such bad shape.

This week Robards opens in "A Touch of the Poet," one of the few Eugene O'Neil plays he has never been in before. For this role the familiar smooth silver gray hair has disappeared, replaced by a full head of dyed reddish-brown, curly, long-sideburned hair.And though he says he is still struggling with the play, that in fact it may take a year to get it right, he seems calm, happy, totally at ease, remarkably candid as he talks about the play, his life, his marriages, his children, his drinking.

He sits in a chair drinking coffee, chain smoking Real cigarettes and talking with his third wife of nearly eight years, Lois.

"You know," he says, "Eugene O'Neil is always exploring our want to love but can't get it out there. This is the first time in my life, with Lois, that I've been really able to. The last 10 years were really rough. I don't know how Lois put up with it. When we first got together I tried to start all the same patterns. I headed all of that guilt and that makes it hard on other people not to mention youself. She opened things up a lot for me."

Lois Robards is a fragile looking, slim woman of 41, with high cheekbones, narrow features, wide eyes and a girlish figure. She is a film doctor, and they met 10 years ago on the set of "Noon Wine" when Robards was making the film and she was the assistant director. For all her fragile looks, there is a quiet strength about her, a sense of confidence and serenity that makes it easy to understand how and why Robards finally managed to pull himself together with her support. She eschews publicity for herself, seems content to sit by and listen, only occasionally speaking up to help Robards clarify his thoughts. Together they have had two children, a girl, Shannon O'Connor, 6, and a boy, Jake O'Neil, 3. Robards has three children by his first marriage, including his oldest, 28-years-old Jason, and Sam, 16, his son by his second wife, Lauren Bacall.

After two failed marriages, Robards says, "then you really feel guilty. You feel as if you've taken another soul and crushed it. And guilt and drinking go hand in hand." He turns to his wife. "It's only with your help," he tells her, almost forgetting he is not alone, "that I've made it. May be only in the last few months."

"You realize," says Lois Robards, "that he is repeating the same patterns, and having the effects of alcohol only creates more guilt because you have the guilt of drinking as well."

"You know," says Robards, who calls himself an alcoholic, "I never drank to get drunk. I drank to erase things in my life. I would sit around Frankie and Johnnies and read poetry all night or go over to P.J.'s and play the piano and sing until 5 a.m. Drinking became a problem with me at the end of my first marriage, around 1958 or '59. It became a problem because I would just wipe out everything, though it didn't get in the way of work". A Child of the Theater.

Robards had a lot to wipe out, a lot to erase. He had been a child of the theater.His father, Jason Robards, had been a successful stage actor in New York during the '20s and Jason Jr. was born on the road in Chicago. In 1925, just as films began to be popular, his parents moved to Hollywood. His parents divorced; his father took custody of Robards, his brother and sister and his father's career began a disastrous downhill side.

"He went broke. We didn't have a nickel," says Robards. "He did too many bad movies. He got down to doing days parts. It was very degrading. We were very close. It was terrible to have your father and your best friend suffer. It put me off the movie business for a long time. The last thought in my mind was going into the business. I avoided it like the plague. I almost failed one drama course. All the actors talked in phony accents. It shocked me. I went out for track instead.

So Robards decided to join the Navy after he graduated from Hollywood High School and spent seven years, much of it in combat, in the Pacific during World War II. "The war scared the . . . out of me," he says. "I decided then I had to get out of the Navy." The O'Neil Connection

During the war he read O'Neil's "Strange Interlude" and was persuaded, despite his father's bad expecerience, to go into theater. A friend from the Navy got him an introduction to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, where he enrolled immediately after he got out of the service.

"It was the best thing I ever did," he says. "I had never gone to college and it was like a college experience. I learned theater and music and art, ballet history. And I loved it from the very beginning."

Nevertheless, the going was rough. For 11 years after that he pounded the pavements, lived off summer stock and radio jobs. Finally, at 35 he got discouraged and was ready to accept a job as a radio announcer in Connection when he was offered a part in Jose Quintero's off-Broadway production of O'Neil's "The Iceman Cometh."

"I was getting old, Jesus. I was 35 years old," he says. "But it was just one of those things you feel you must do. I just had to do it. Even though I was only getting $25 a week to be in it."

"There is justI knew this play had power." It turned out that "Iceman" was "a tremendous hit. Mrs O'Neil loved it. Asked them to do 'Long Days Journey into Night'. It started the whole revival of O'Neill."

And, says Robards, that was the making of his career as an actor. Cold Water Days

During that time, however, he had married a young woman named Eleanor and had three children. "That was a terrible period," he says, "very, very difficult, very tough. We were broke, lived in a cold-water flat over in the West Village. It was in an Irish neighborhood. We rented from people who owned a meat and dairy company when we were short they saw that we had enough to eat."

That marriage caused him considerable guilt. It was during that period that drinking became a problem.

His first wife never remarried. "No one I ever married ever got married again," he says. "I'm still paying. Which is, I think, a little unfair. A friend told me, "Jason, You'll be paying all your life."

"I was so guilty," he says, "that I gave away everything. I'll never get out of the hole. I doled out to my father and my mother and my stepfather and my stepmother and my kids and schools and wives. You have nothing left." He is almost shaking at this point. But he finally lights another cigarette and shrugs, "Actually," he says. "I just go merrily along. I say, oh, if - it. Lois has made a great contribution. She's really something else, that girl." (This said while she is out of the room).

He bemoans his first marriage.

"I was never prepared, I was emotionally 17 years old. Absolutely completely unprepared for a relationship of any kind." Bacall

His marriage to Betty Bacall, he says, was another matter and the two of them are great friends today. Their son, Sam Robards, attends boarding school in Connecticut and Robards spends a lot of time with his two smallest children.

"Lois and Betty are friends, too," he says. "We all communicate."

At the time he married Bacall he had just ended his first marriage and "I wasn't interested in marrying, but it happened."

"It's kind of hard to review a marriage," he says of his marriage to Bacall. "Betty is a wonderful friend and I love her. She's wonderful person. But I still had hangovers from my first marriage. I was drinking; we had personality conflicts. She had a strength I wasn't prepared for. I know that about myself. I can't be that strong. And it's all in how you do it. My modus operandi, my M.O., was different from hers. I was trying to escape. She wasn't able to handle that.

"But things work out," he says. "I can't tell you how fortunate I was that I did 'Noon Wine.'" And he smiles at Lois.

He says he finds it difficult to be married to someone who also acts. "The ones who make it are incredible and most of those who make it do it together and most who make it are in the theater and that is a binding thing. Betty and I never acted together."

There have been those who suggested that Robards was very much a Humphrey Bogart figure and pointed out the irony of his marriage to Bacall.

"I never thought about Bogart," says Robards. "The only time I ever thought about him was one night when the actress Helen Mencken came up to me. She had acted with my father in the original 'Seventh Heaven' and she was the first Mrs. Humphrey Bogart. Betty and I were together and she said to me, 'Jason, I've always thought of you as my son. If I'd had a son he'd have been Bogart's son in other words.

"But really that was the only time I thought of him. And I thought of him as a father type. He was 30 years older. I certainly never thought of him as competition. He didn't devote time to the theater. We're in different businesses. He was a superstar. I'm in a whole different business." Facing the Problems

At any rate, it was toward the end of his marriage to Bacall that Robards began again to have serious drinking problems, even more so than when his first marriage broke up. He was finishing "Thousand Clowns" on Broadway and a psychoanalyst came back-stage one night to talk. Later, he remembered his name, called him and began intensive his name out of a hat," he says. "We had the most wonderful association. He's a godfather to Jake. He's one of my closest friends. I'm not his patinet anymore."

Still, the analysis took years and it was during this time that Robards had his heaviest drinking bouts, hit the skids as an actor, found and married Lois, had an automobile accident while drinking and nearly died, and finally pulled himself together.

There are those who say that since he quit drinking three years ago Jason Robards isn't any fun anymore. He can only grimace at the suggestion that he's not good old Jason.

"Oh," he says, "I get louder and stay up all night."

When Robards married Lois he was still drinking and, she says, "it was very difficult." But she says, he isn't all that different drunk or sober.

"He was much more carefree, another Jason," she says. "Only carried to excess. Essentially he's the same, though. he was always the life of the party."

"It was always, 'Now what are you going to sing'," says Robards, "only it's not so funny when you're missing planes all the time. When I was doing a play one theory was that Saturday night you just get P - as a newt until Monday. And if there was a matinee you get drunk and play with a hangover. Matinees are cruelty to animals and it's the resentment of the actor for the matinee. The British all have bars in their dressing rooms but we Americans don't. It's our Calvinist guilt," he says, pointing an accusing finger.

He has a theory that all actors have drinking problems at some point and it started with Dionysus. When you act you take on the attitudes and the emotions of others. There has to be a release. Most often done in conviviality. That's why there are clubs like the Players, the Friars, in London, the Garrick. I don't know an actor who hasn't gone through it."

He gave it up, he says, because of "cumulative things. The doctors, Lois, self, family. And I just figured every day I was missing everything and it's not worth it.Drinking, he says, "puts yourself under such a physical disadvantage. You have to try to rise above it. It does things to your psyche. And people in the business started to say, 'Jesus he's . . . I don't think I can use him."

It was while he was in California, living about 55 miles outside of Hollywood, a town he dislikes ("Betty dragged me to some of those parties, but I never had a good time. The values are all wrong. Everyone goes to the beach and drives a mercedes and talks about their latest film") that he was having his worst time, that he was, in his word, "an actor waiting for a phone call." Back on the Track

But his still-strong reputation brought him the offer to portray Ben Bradlee as executive editor of The Washington Post in the movie "All the President's Men." It was for that role that he won the Oscar last year for best supporting actor and it was that role - ironically - that led him to play the Nixon-like President Monckton in the TV series "Washington Behind Closed Doors."

Since then he has done several films, including another film this summer directed by Alan Pakula with Jane Fonda and James Caan.

All this has given him what he dearly wanted most, the freedom to do theater, the freedom to choose, the freedom to play in his beloved O'Neil.

Though Robards has loves the theater more, even though it's harder. "Each day is a new event, he says. "And you're always dealing with the immediate human condition. And he says they're having troubles with "Touch of the Poet."

"This son of-a-bitch O'Neill can write," he says. "But he demands a lot. We've got a saber-tooth tiger here and every once in a while he knocks you down. This is really tough, this one, Geraldine (Fitzgerald, who plays opposite him) says it's the toughest play she's ever done in her life. It's like doing King Lear. Now I don't have to do Lear."

Jason Robards feels this is the best time of his life. "I used to tell Lois," he says, "that the first thing in my life that mattered was the theater and that everything else came 10th. Now my primary interest is Lois and the children. I feel I have to work to live and eat. I love my work, but not in that crazed way I used to. Of course, I get antsy when I'm not working."

"If you do a play," says Lois Robards, "you're never solvent." "I've got to do something to get solvent again," says Robards. But I can't look beyond this play I'm doing. I don't have any offers. After this I'll probably get one or I'll call my agent and say, 'get me something . . .'"

But, says Robards, with a contented grin, "I can't worry about it. I'm working steadily for the first time in a long, long time."