Morning comes elegantly to the Carlyle Hotel, which looks as if it could serve the sun itself on a silver tray, and Burt Reynolds is there to greet it, with vindication in those deep-set eyes, with conversation full of the future, without his mustache.

This absence of mustache is most disconcerting.

He looks . . . "I know, less sexy," he says in quiet tones. "I do look less sexy. Now I look like I make love in the bedroom and not on the living room floor."

Now he looks like a man who would sip decaffeinated coffee and wear a soft yellow pullover, and who would want to make serious movies and have the respect of his peers and would wince from the same splinters of doubt and anxiety that worry the rest of the world.

Burt Reynolds is tired this morning. The night before, he accepted an award from the National Association of Theater Owners, who were very pleased that his last four movies had made over $400 million in the last 18 months.

"The fans who go to foreign movies wouldn't be caught dead slumming at a Burt Reynolds movie," he says with a cultivated restraint. "But last night, Sidney Lumet walked over and said, 'I'm dying to work with you.' And Jane Fonda said, 'When are we going to do a film together?' Initially I was surprised that they knew who I was."

Not know who Burt Reynolds is?

$400 million later? This is the Burt Reynolds who crashed through enemy football lines at Florida State and has been flinging himself at life and the manic business of making it ever since, who careened around the borders of show business doing stuntwork and summer stock and was buried in a gaggle of failed television series like "Hawk" and "Dan August" only to make a success of his failure by laughing at himself on the "Tonight" Show and exposing himself rather gloriously in the pages of Cosmopolitan in 1972 and laughing about that and igniting the rumors of his romances with Tammy Wynette and Chris Evert et al, then surprising everyone with his courtship of Dinah Shore, 15 years his senior.

And in the last five years, the movie characters he has played in films like "Semi-Touch" and "Smokey and the Bandit" and entwined around his public persons seem to have soothed all sorts of psychic ties in his ever increasing audience, comprised, from his own point of view, of "the people who can't talk back to the cops and the landlord the way my characters do."

He has played urban outlaws and brash gamblers who broke the future on a strong preference for the present - bootleggers and football players and stuntmen, even the hustlers of the real estate business, and they all laugh at themselves and the pretensions of this world and drown their doubts in self-deprecation and walk rather jauntily through love's treacherous terrain and drive hell-for-leather along the lunatic fringes of the American dream.

He is the man the critics describe as among the last of the great American movie heroes of the Gable-COoper-Bogart tradition, the man the gossip magazines call Mr. Macho and who he himself describes as "the best possible Burt Reynolds."

The star stares thoughtfully at his slice of honeydew melon as the waiters gleam quietly in the background. Everything in this hotel sparkles like burgundy and just about everybody in a Burt Reynolds movie drinks beer. There is a gap here that he would like to close.

At 42, the best possible Burt Reynolds would like to be Cary Grant.

"That's the direction I think I want to be heading," he says. "I want to make romantic comedies about neat people."

And so now he is to star in a movie that is to be a male version of "An Unmarried Woman," all about another denizen of the Upper East Side who must run for cover in the sexual combat zone of the recently single, a character who is invested with little of th breezy self-confidence of his other characters. The Upwardly Mobile Hero

Of course there's no reason the country's mythic figures can't be as upwardly mobile as the rest of the citizenry, but heroes who know about laughter as well as strength are a necessary artifact, and what will become of a certain corner of the American consciousness if Burt Reynolds wants to be Cary Grant?

"Oh, I'll still be fighting," he says. "And, as long as the character's believable, they'll still be cheering, even if it happens to be an upper-middle-class situation and a Neil Simon script."

He has not abandoned the importance of heroes, he says. "No, you've got to have them. There's something frightening happening out there - 'I,' 'me,' they're becoming dirty words.The guys come back from the moon, and nobody knows their names, it's not like it was for Lindbergh. Even the balloonists who crossed the Atlantic, who knows who they are? They've already been forgotten."

Which is why, he says, "when I win something, I'm going to say 'I did it,' I'm not going to stand up there thanking all the little people who made it possible." He simles. "Because they didn't."

He has his own heroes, he says, Willie Nelson among them. "Wille can do what I'd like to be able to do, to be a poet. To talk and sing and say things like I'd like to be able to say. They nominate him every year for everything and he never wins."

Three months ago, Willie Nelson was singing in Nashville and Reynolds talked to him in his dressing room and then, on impulse, joined him on stage and sang a few songs with him. "I wanted him to know that I was just as crazy as he was," Reynolds says. "If he only knew how much courage that took." Humility and Its Rewards

The men in his audience appreciate the courage of his character, but there is something else as well. "The men know I'm not a threat," he says. "I'm accessible. The hardest problem I had with doing the centerfold was to force the men not to hate me. I just went out on the Carson show and destroyed me. By the time I finished, I got an ovation. They like seeing a guy set himself up."

It carries over as well, he says, from the tube to Burt Reynold's version of real life. "I've been in so many situations where the women have come on so strong and their boyfriends don't get upset, they know I'm not going to take advantage of it, no matter what a terrific looking bod she it."

Soon it will be time for his lunch with Gloria Steinem, a meeting to totem and taboo wonderful to contemplate. She wants him to campaign in Florida for th Equal Rights Amendment. He walks to ask her some questions about it. "They're pretty basic I guess, but I don't want to embarrass myself.

"I respect and like women," he says seriously. "I've remained friends with most of the ladies I've known." His constant girl friend for the last two years is Sally Fields, who has played that role opposite him in "Smokey and the Bandit," "The End" and "Hooper."

"I'm the last of the great flower givers," Reynolds says, "a romantic to such an extent, it's embarrassing."

But then again, there have been moments on the Johnny Carson show when his broad leering humor has had little to do with the spirit and much more to do with the flesh. "Oh, well," he says, "It's not my fault if the biggest and best endowment on some women happens to be their ass."

But Cary Grant, of course, would never leer, and the times, Reynolds feels, are making that sort of approach a trifle outmoded. "That tenth-grade mentality, you know, 'Hey, Lear jet," just doesn't work anymore. The kind of interesting women you have around these days, a guy's just gonna get blown away if he uses a line like that."

Or has an image like that. "Sometimes I find that the macho, 'hunk' image turns off a lot of women I'm very interested in. I was talking to the head of the Florida State Theater Project and his daughter were there, one of them was studying her doctorate, and they weren't interested in me at all." He pauses. Visions of the centerfold float silently by on the stream of conversation. "I guess I half blame myself for that." Centerfold Reverberations

"They want you to be what they want you to be," he says, thinking back on the centerfold's impact on his image when it first hit the stands, melting the frozen-food sections of supermarkets across the country six years ago. "They took me to be a dumb jerk who thought himself as a male Marilyn Monroe.Now they tell me how they want to work with me and how great they thought i was in 'Deliverance.' That came out in 1972. Where were they then? They destroyed me in 'Deliverance'. I was never given any credit for the role."

He talks in modulated tones about how happy he is that people in his industry seem to be taking him more seriously these days, even if their interest is prodded in part by the amount of money his movies make, and he talks about how he hopes people are beginning to understand how hard it is to play the parts he plays when finally the pale fire of this newly minted modesty burns itself out.

He puts down his fork and shakes his head at the unspecified 'they' who "have a tremendous loyalty to seeing me the way they want to see me. If Robert Redford had done 'Smokey and the Bandit' . . . but Redford couldn't have taken 'Smokey' any further than I did. I took that character to its zenith.

"Maybe," he says, "maybe I look like I'm having too much fun at what I'm doing."

The conversation ambles on in desultory fashion, and Burt Reybolds talks about Renoir and about earth tones and about being a "voracious reader," and it's not as if you expect him to bust up the Carlyle like it was the Palomino Room or something but this change of image gets to be somewhat disconcerting - what about the wisecracks? What about earthly rather than earth tones? What about the women? Isn't this transformation a bit calculated?

And so, what the hell, he obliges with a piece of the old persona. "Well," he says, as he turns up the voltage in those cavernous eyes, and lowers hi voice to the proper ration of decidels, "It's like a seduction. If I were trying to seduce you, for example, I would be very cerebral in my approach, perhaps I'd quote poetry, and that would be very calculated, but it would still be genuine."

And then it's back tothe renaissance man, which, he says, "is what's most interesting and attractive to women these days. They love it if you can speak 12 languages and say, 'Oh, by the way, do you mind if I photograph you with one of these 45 cameras I happen to be expert in?"

It will be a new image, but then the old one, he seems to feel, is wearing a trifle thin. In the movie 'Hooper,' Reynolds plays a stuntman who is the best in the business but who is getting older and facing competition from a talented young rival.

"I look over my shoulder and see John Travolta coming. It's going to happen, you can't stop it." But, like Hooper, he's got some turf to defend: "I'm here now, and I've earned my stripes, every one of them. Eventually, they're going to race ahead of me, but first, on the way up they're gonna see that I put some real holes in that tree."

Looking backward, he says, with wonderful ingenuousness, "All I ever wanted was to be popular."

And looking forward, "I'll be a wonderful old man. I've had a very full life, I've never badmouthed being a movie star - I've enjoyed every minute of it. You get away with even more when you're older. The stories you have to tell sound even better. "And I'll have some stories to tell."