He tells a story that paints the paradox.

It was a bankers' meeting in Utah, some years ago. "I didn't know anything about banking," he says. "They just wanted Robert Redford. And I got up to make some sort of standard speech - until I looked out at this sea of faces and thought about all the complacency out there and all the money that could be put to good use. So I started haranguing them about what they should be doing with it. I really let them have it."

And after it was all over, he braced himself for a barrage of hostile questions. Finally, the first question came.

"The guy got up and said, 'Did you really jump off that cliff in "Butch Cassidy," or was that a stand-in?'"

He is not, of course, the first of his constellation to find his activism trapped by his public persona, Film stars from Charlie Chaplin to Jane Fonda have been ridiculed for the causes they supported and even John Wayne once growled about getting "bad criticism of my pictures because of critics trying to criticize my political inclinations instead of my pictures. Jesus!"

Robert Redford is 42. He's already carved his cliche. He has charged his roles with roguishness and romance and topped all sorts of lists of top box-office attractions and best-looking men and stoked the daydreams of the desk-bound for a decade. What he diesn't understand is why that means to some people that all he could possibly have to say on a very serious subject is, as he says in self-parody, "'Hey, I'm Bob Redford, and I'm here to get mellow. Let's all get behind the sun!'"

He does maintain a flash of humor over his predicament. Halfway through a statement he was reading at a recent press conference held by the Solar Lobby, the group that gave us the exuberant masses of Sun Day last spring, the bright lights of a hand-held camera clicked off, throwing him into shadow. He smiled the smile of the Sundance Kid. "Was I just getting too boring?" he said.

On the wall of his New York office hangs a Doonesbury cartoon which mentions "recluses like Redford," a reference to his devotion to privacy and dislike of interviews. In the rumpled hideout deep within the gleaming corporate coils of Warner Communications, he says very little that is not directly related to the subject of alternative energy sources, a subject shifted by Iran's revolutionary fervor from the merely topical to the exquisitely urgent. The press, he says, just wants to "cover every" nook and cranny of my life." Reporters ignore what he has to say about solar energy in favor of describing yet again "what color my hair is and that I'm wearing handtooled cowboy boots. Even when they're not handtooled."

For the record: The boots are not handtooled. The eyes are ice-blue. The hair looks as if it might be an alternative energy source. The dilemma is as odl as the blond who wants to be loved for her bon mots, the math whiz who wants the winning touchdown. The sense of irony over his situation is missing or, at the very least, masked.

He shrugs, and walks the line between disappointment in his own press-conference impact and a desire not to sound like a walking wounded ego.

"I was there for the draw," he says. He mentions that his presence was not mentioned in the press. "Of course, it's better that I go to the press conference and not be mentioned than I take away from what the Solar Lobby is trying to do. But I wouldn't go just to be the fatted calf."

He doesn't want to sit gleaming with his gold hair and gilded mystique trapped in the cage of his own glamor. The involvement -- in consumer action, solar energy, Indian rights, strip mining, Political fundraising, endangered species, lands and life styles -- is serious.

And he talks about it seriously, the language at times difficult -- "You know about photovoltaics?" -- the urgency and intensity clear. Occasionally the anger flashes. The Department of Nergy is mentioned. "Putting Schlesinger in charge of energy," he says, "is like putting Dracula in charge of a blood bank."

In the beginning, he sought publicity for his causes. In 1976, for instance, he tooks his opposition to a proposed nuclear power plant to national television. A public burning in effigy was one of his rewards.

"I was a little naive about what the reaction would be," he says. "I began to learn in what ways my participation in a project did harm and in which ways it could be helpful."

Now, Robert Redford channels his involvement into the more traditional, less glamorous tributaries of the actively committed. He visits local Chambers of Commerce. He talks to farmers in Iowa about the uses to which they could put solar energy. He writes letters to newspapers rebutting the big splashy ads the oil companies pay for.

"There is," he says, "a revolving set of people who just go from cause to cause. They're into being into things. You encounter a lot of that. Like Sun Day -- after it was over, a lot of the people just disappeared. I don't want mu involvement in something to be like that."

So he takes the dreary little shuttle to Washington and lobbies for the bills he cares about and asks Sen. Kennedy about SALT. He is making a six-minute film on solar energy, to be used in movie houses. He is involved in starting a National Resources Institute that would educate policy makers on energy alternatives.

And to underscore the fact that it is not all senators, champagne-drenched fund-raisers and solar-heated swimming pools, he is the Sewer Commissioner of Provo Canyon, Utah.

His emphasis is on passive forms of solar energy, the ways in which individuals can economically make use of the sun's potential The constant theme is decentralization - the need to free individual homeowners from the bureaucratic and corporate entanglements that govern their decisions.

The vision is a shade romantic -- "There was this tremendous warmth on the farms I visited [in the Midwest], this tremendous feeling about the work ethic and what it could produce. The people I met had an uncomplicated air, a radiant look. There was a depth of devotion, a sense of place and permanence."

The statistics and the analyses flow like a mountain stream, but he does not talk as easily about the personal motivation behind it all, the drive that leaves him looking, at the end of the afternoon, as frizzled as any penurious Washington public-interest type. Despite the silver-studded cowboy belt.

He hasn't made a move in more than two years, in part to have time to devote to his causes, but he is making one now. "I am, after all, an actor first." The film, "The Electric Horseman," is about an aging rodeo star in wild rebellion at the end of his career.

He wrote a book during part of that time. "The Outlaw Trail" is about a trip he took along the escape routes once haunted by Butch Cassidy, areas now threatened by the encroaching demands of development. Some have said he romanticized the characters he wrote about, made light of their rather murderous ways.

"I've heard that comment," he says. "But it isn't an affection for outlaws I have. It was more that I identified with them. In those days, the smart money was on the outlaw."

He himself came from what he describes as a "perfectly normal middleclass environment," the son of an accountant for Standard Oil in Santa Monica. He tried college at the University of Colorado; it involved "being drunk for a year" before setting out for France with an ambition to be an artist.

"I've always been an outsider," he says. "I was just a product of the times. It was the '50s - the whole neat lawns, short hair, best foot forward sucess-oriented Dale Carnegie mentality wasn't mine."

Back in New York, art led to acting. The theater took him to Broadway and "Barefoot in the Park." A spate of television plays and several movies later, it was stardom in 1969 with "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid."

He is asked if the activism is a counterweight to the hordes of melting women that followed, the devotion offered wholesale to his good looks and his way with a smile. "I don't think I'm that good looking," he mutters, and ducks his head. "But I don't want to get into that."

But year, it is a matter, in part, "of feeling more complete of figuring out where you fit into the scheme of things. Doing something outside yourself helps the private self as well." Perhaps some of that self has some insecurity of its own to combat. "I'm not well-educated," he says. "Maybe I want to prove something to myself. To be taken seriously."

It should all be so simple, but because he's Robert Redford, it isn't. "I'm just trying," he says, his voice muffled by the walls that separate the mystique from the mystified, "to carve out a place for myself to live."

Robert Redford heads for the door. In the reception area outside his office, a young woman stares. "Excuse me for asking a dumb question," she says. "But is that... Is that... ?"

"Yes," says the secretary. "It is."