People have been mentioning Burt Reyolds and Clark Gable in the same breath for several years now. With "Hooper," Reynolds has finally justified the camparison.

His witty, endearing performance in the title role of Hal Needham's terrific new pick-me-up, "Hooper," a rousing and sweet-tempered sentimental comedy about the professional vicissitudes and fellowship of movie stuntmen, should finally secure Reynolds a preeminent position in the affections of contemporary moviegoers.

One could scarcely improve on the irony of Reynolds giving his most attractive performance yet in the role of an ace stuntman who perceives that it's about time to let well enough alone and let a new generation of daredevils make their mark. Reynolds seems to be mellowing into his prime just as Sonny Hooper mellows out.

"Hooper" takes place during the shooting of an apocryphal production in the James Bond tradition entitled "The Spy Who Laughed at Danger." Sonny Hooper is the head stuntman and stunt coordinator on the film, and the plot deals with his resolution of a series of professional crises. Like Anne Bancroft's prima ballerina, Reynolds' stuntman finds himself at a turning point in his specialized career, facing the irresitible competition of younger colleagues and the threat of permanent injury while trying to satisfy the demands of a supercilious, pretentious young director.

One assumes that Sonny is modeled to some extent on Hal Needham, who was the king of Hollywood stuntmen in his prime. The material is enjoyable and probably justifiably biased in favor of the stuntmen, the unsung heroes and unpretentious pros of the movie business, in their conflicts with such creative prima donuas as "superstar" directors who are too preoccupied with their own self-interest to give credit where it's due.

The conflict recalls the traditional war of outlooks between battle-hardened, cynical soldiers and fatuous greenhorn officers. The issue is resolved with a resounding put-down of the offending commander, an ungrateful wretch apparently suggested by Peter Bogdanovich and played with smug aplomb by comedian Robert Klein.

This kick-in-the-pants caricature appears to owe its entertaining existence to "Nickelodeon," a Bogdanovich flop on which Reynolds did duty as costar and Needham as stunt coordinator. At any rate, Klein utters the phrase "pieces of time," which Bogdanovich used as a book title, moments before getting put in his place by Reynolds for presuming to equate himself with Sonny's sort of guys, the ones willing to place their lives on the line.

Ironically, Needham is evolving into a more accomplished director even as he disdains vainglorious directors in order to salute his old comrades. Emotionally, Needham may remain a diamono-in-the-rough, and one hopes that this sense of where he came from will prevent him from repeating the mistakes of a Roger Deal, the name of the Klein character. Nevertheless, Needham is acquiring a considerable amount of polish and expanding his range, and these are not developments to be feared.

Despite the abundance and vividness of the stunt sequences, "Hooper" really shines during moments of sustained character byplay, both wise-cracking and affectionate. Needham hasn't sloughed off the stunts, but many of them seem a trifle facile, as if they no longer presented him with a challenge. By contrast, the intimate scenes feel markedly attentive and expectant, particularly in the love scenes between Reynolds and Sally Fields and in the moments of camaraderie between Reynolds and Brian Keith as his mentor, a retired stuntman.

Reynolds has been on an impressive streak since last summer, when he and his friend Needham, making a surprisingly stylish debut as a director, came off the mark with "Smokey and the Bandit." Next, Reynolds' likability and deft pantomime became the saving graces of "Semi-Tough," an oddly miscalculated romantic comedy set among friendly studs. (The film could have benefitted from the assured light touch with which Needham controls "Hooper," balanced admirably between salty, mocking humor and ingratiating sentiment.

Finally, earlier this summer Reynolds even scored a modest triumph with "The End," which appeared to have all the makings of an Interesting Failure. Now, in the wake of "Hooper," the public might insist on Reynolds as Rhett Butler if producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown acturally had a "Continuation of Gone With the Wind" ready to go.

While "Hooper" may establish Reynolds as the acknowledged king of current male stars, it also serves to clarify the differences in style and personality projection between him and Gable, when Reynolds isn't foolish enough to imitate. He borrows only as much of Gable's masculine self-assurance as a modern star could realistically get away with, given the passage of time and the obligation to invent a winning identity in accord with altered social, romantic and film-making conventions.

Reynolds may recall Gable's "Man's Man" protoype, a popular romantic fiction in its own right, but he refrains from the take-it-or-leave-it approach Gable adopted with women. Reynolds' best characters have the traditional appetites, but they aren't indifferent to rejection. They're inclined to flirt, but in a wary, considerate way that owes something to the diffident, watchful example of Gary Grant. Beneath the sly come-ons one may also detect a Man's Man who is basically a One-Woman Man, a combination that may gratify men and women fans more or less equally, and looks convincing beacuse of the tender, comic rapport Reynolds can establish with his leading ladies, especially Sally Field.

But expert and satisfying as it is, Reynolds' performance probably looks too easy and inconsequential to attract Oscar consideration - in part because his timing has become so precise that he can make every remark appear casual and spontaneous, even the obvious nifties and squelches.

Keith might be in a better position to waltz off with acting awards, although "Hooper" itself offers formidable competition in the supporting category - Klein as the wretched Deal, Alfie Wise as his undersized flunkey and James Best as Sonny's solicitous sidekick. And Jan-Michael Vincent gets his first lucky break in some time in the role of Sonny's up-and-coming young rival.

Keith has two extended conversations with Reynolds that are quietly revealing and touching gems. Needham and the writers, Thomas Rickman and William Kerby, seem to have mastered the treacherous art of evoking sentiment without getting sloppy about it.

At its most proficient, "Hooper" recaptures the pleasures movie freaks generally associate with the vintage comedies and daredevil adventure romances directed by unpretentious pros like Howard Hawks, Henry Hathaway or Tay Garnett.

Had "Hooper" opened at a thousand or so theaters at the start of the summer, the movie would have soared as spectacularly as the rocket car Reynolds and Vincent are supposed to be piloting during the elaborate stunt finale of "The Spy Who Laughed at Danger."

Released piecemeal in late summer, "Hooper" seems destined to duplicate the history of "Smokey and the Bandit" and emerge as this year's sneakiest blockbuster.