"You're not black in this country for as many years as Lloyd Richards has been and not develop a sense of caution," says Sidney Poitier.

As if to confirm the words of his friend and former student, Richards sat stiffly on the edge of a couch in his New York office, speaking in soft and reserved tones about the high-powered position he now occupies.

Richards is replacing the controversial Robert Brustein as dean of the Yale School of Drama -- the most prestigious post in American theater education. With the job comes the top spot at the Yale Repertory Theater -- a respected professional theater company. Richards will continue to run the National Playwrights Conference of the O'Neill Theater Center -- the most important workshop for new plays in America -- as he has since 1969. And he is oneof only two blacks to direct episodes of "Roots." His contribution was Chapter Six of "Roots: The Next Generations," which depicted the life of Alex Haley as a young man and aired on Feb. 23.

It's all very impressive, but his new position demands a dose of caution. Brustein is going to Harvard and taking much of the Yale Rep with him. When Yale President A. Bartlett Giamatti dumped Brustein, Brustein charged that Giamatti was trying to "deprofessionalize" Yale Drama. Even Richards' work at the O'Neill has not been spared reproach -- the programming philosophy at the National Playwrights Conference has been criticized as bland and too Yale-oriented (even before the appointment of Richards to Yale).

Brustein himself, however, has nothing but praise for Richards. He finds Giamatti's choice of Richards "heartening," he says, calling Richards "a very engaging individual, a very good teacher of acting."

Poitier calls Richards "an extraordinary theater person" and one of the two people "who taught me the most" about acting. Richards directed Poitier in the original production of "A Raisin in the Sun" on Broadway in 1958. It was the first time a black had ever directed on Broadway.

Richards is vague on the subject of what is going to happen at Yale, but his appointment and his experience may mean that the citadel of America's professional theater training is going to open itself up to minorities, women and common folk to a degree unprecedented in its history. Some fear that this means professional and academic standards will fall.

Lloyd Richards was born in Toronto, the son of a master carpenter. He became a naturalized U.S. citizen as a boy and grew up in Detroit.His first memory of theatrical stirrings is a speech from "Macbeth" he delivered to his class in grade school, he recalled. He also gave a speech at his grammar school graduation, but he wasn't active in plays during his school days.

"It was a mostly white school," he remembered. "It wasn't segregated but it wasn't integrated either." There were no parts for black kids.

Richards graduated from what is now Wayne State University, then served in the Army, "the segregated Army," during World War II. He believes this experience gave him a special affinity for directing his "Roots" episode, which included scenes of young Alex Haley's World War II experience in a segregated Coast Guard.

Some of Richards' first professional experience in show business was in radio. He was a disc jockey in Detroit for two years. As a New York actor beginning in 1948, Richards appeared on stage and radio. He portrayed Sam for two years in the radio series "Hotel for Pets." However, "even though people could not see who was behind the microphone," recalled Richards, he was rejected for some radio jobs because he was black. "Sponsors were wary of a black person doing anything other than the non-existent black parts," he said. "They were afraid they would lose sales in certain parts of the country."

In those early days as an actor, Richards also appeared on television shows ranging from "Hallmark Hall of Fame" and "Studio One" to "The Guiding Light" and "Search for Tomorrow." Off-Broadway, he portrayed Iago in "Othello" and roles in "Oedipus," "Home of the Brave," "The Little Foxes," "Hedda Gabler" and many other plays. Later he made two appearances on Broadway.

"I'm still an actor," said Richards. "I'd like to get back to it." Perhaps this explains why he declines to reveal how old he is -- a traditional gambit actors use to avoid typecasting.

As he grew older, however, Richards turned more and more toward directing and teaching. He was the resident director at several Michigan theaters in the mid-'50s.

He made "a late-night pledge" with Poitier one day -- "when neither one of us had the money to buy a hot dog," in the words of Richards -- that if they ever got to Broadway, they would try to go together. So when Poitier was tapped for Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun," he pushed for the selection of Richards as director. As Poitier recalls it, however, "It wasn't a solo choice. I wasn't ramming him down anyone's throat."

Unlike the last few years, when Broadway has been called "The Great Black Way," the '50s "were the days when a black show was not a viable commercial possibility," recalled Richards. So there was no big money invested in "A Raisin in the Sun." Instead, "There must have been more small investors than in any other show. The biggest investment was $700." It became apparent that "Raisin" would succeed during the Philadelphia tryout. "Despite the fact that Sidney was around the corner appearing in a movie, it took off," said Richards. "And the audience was 40 percent black -- evidence that blacks would come to a Broadway show that spoke to them."

"A Raisin in the Sun" may have been even more of a success for Richards than he knew at the time. At one performance two Yale students stopped to talk with Richards and Hansberry in the aisle. One of them was young A. Bartlett Giamatti, who would grow up to become the Yale president who hired Richards.

Richards went on to direct five more Broadway plays -- most recently the controversial "Paul Robeson" -- and seven off-Broadway plays. He also directed at regional theaters and colleges and taught acting at his own studio and elsewhere. He first directed at O'Neill in 1966, and three years later he became the artistic director of the National Playwrights Conference there.

His wife, Barbara Davenport, is a former dancer and actress who has turned playwright. One of her plays was produced at the Playwrights Conference, but Richards makes no apologies for this or for anything that has gone on at the O'Neill during the last decade. He refuses to discuss the charge of blandness that has been made about his programming, and he interprets the Yale orientation of the O'Neill as "a compliment to Yale and its concern for developing new playwrights."

Richards wouldn't discuss specific plans for the Yale Rep or Yale, but it will maintain its professional stature, he said. He did venture that he might revive more American plays from the past in addition to continuing Yale's work with new playwrights. And he is concerned that Yale theater should say something to everyone in New Haven as well as to the theater students. This includes blacks.

Brustein wrote an article recently lamenting the fragmentation of the theater audience. But Richards sees this as an opportunity: "The theater is now accessible as a means of expression to many more groups of people than ever before, and that's marvelous." (Brustein's response: "I believe in a pluralistic theater too, but one aspect of that pluralism is theater for a general audience. Just as we should be able to hear Beethoven and Mozart on AM radio as well as rock.")

Certainly blacks now find the theater more accessible than when Richards was beginning his career. A decade ago, the black protest plays poured out. "They were a very important part of the black theater's vitality," said Richards. "But now we are beginning to move beyond the immediacy of one's environment and one's problems. 'The Great Black Way' has revealed possibilities that have always been there."

Despite "Roots" and two "Visions" episodes that Richards directed, television is another story. Richards pointed out that public television's "'Visions' was never properly funded" and has now run out of money. And on commercial TV, Richards said it would be wrong "to say that all is hunky-dory on the basis of a few black faces in ads, which only come out of the recognition that blacks buy soap, too." Richards doesn't watch the black comedy shows. "I don't find fault with them, but one regrets that those are the only shows available for blacks."

"We are far from the millennium that accepts blacks as an entity in our culture," said Richards.

Brustein indicates he didn't think of such matters while running Yale Drama. He remembers producing one play by a black. "We didn't function ideologically or in terms of color," he says. "We tried to be colorblind. But maybe that's a passing fad. Lloyd Richards is more in tune with the decade."