For a man who was supposed to have quietly retired from acting last year, Kris Kristofferson seems to have made a surprisingly rapid comeback.

He had finished the four-hour TV drama, "Freedom Road," in which he stars opposite Muhammad Ali. And now he is off to Montana to start "Heaven's Gate" -the new title for Michael Cimino's "The Johnson County War" -in which he stars with Chris Walken and John Hurt.

Sitting in a restaurant at Malibu recently, gazing out of the windows at the ocean foaming along the beach, he laughs at the memory of that "retirement," flashing those teeth which Barbra Streisand swears contain not a single filling.

But a year ago there was little to laugh at.

Although he'd never actually said "I quit" -everyone seemed to think that he had. He had withdrawn from the film "Hanover Street", which he was supposed to make in London. Then, after viewing an old movie of his on TV-it was "Viglante Force"-he was said to be so disgusted with his performance that he decided to pack it in.

And suddenly the telephone wasn't ringing and his agent (Stan Kamen of the William Morris Office) wasn't getting in touch and there was a letter from Burt Reynolds regretting his decision but adding: "I realized when we were making 'Semi-Tough' together how umcomfortable you were with fame."

Well, that much at least was true. "Suddenly," says Kristofferson, "it was sort of taken for granted that I'd retired from films. And as the months went by and I heard nothing it looked as if I had, whether I liked it or not."

On top of all this, the makers of "Hanover Street" were suing him for breach of contract.

When he didn't hear from his agent for a long time, "I don't mind admitting I got real worried." Finally, he came up with a script which he proposed we take to the 'Hanover Street' people and offer to do as settlement of the lawsuit.

"They didn't want it, however. It was 'The Johnson County War' and the director was Michael Cimino and at that time nobody had ever heard of him. I didn't know him from Adam, but I really like the script. So I said I'd do it even if the 'Hanover Street' people didn't want it.

"Now the lawsuit's settled amicably and Michael Cimino's real hot with 'The Deer Hunter' and so everything's turned out perfect. And because I said I'd do 'Heaven's Gate' before 'The Deer Hunter' came out it makes me look real smart. In fact, when I finally saw that film I thought I was the smartest sucker in the world for making the right decision.

"I'll tell you something else. When I saw 'The Deer Hunter' I knew that one of the actors in it was going to star in 'Heaven's Gate' with me. I didn't know which one, though. When I saw Chris Walken I said to myself, 'Boy, I hope its that sucker. If he's in our film it's going to be real good.' And he turned out to be the guy.

"Chris and I just spent a week learning how to ride and shoot and look like gunfighters for this new film. First thing Chris said was, 'I can't stand firing weapons.' But by the time we finished he was blasting the hell out of everything. Of course we'd had a good instructor, a former Green Beret."

The beard which Kristofferson shaved off last year in preparation for his role in "Hanover Street" has now grown back again. But he liked being clean-shaven. It meant he could go around without being recognized. "Nobody knew who I was without this beard," he says happily.

But producer Zev Bruan and director Jan Kadar wanted him hirsute for "Freedom Road" so he began growing it again. He didn't get very far, because there wasn't time, so the beard in that film is actually a false one.

"Now Michael wants me bearded for this," he says, "so I guess I'm stuck with it. But I'm better now at dealing with attention since I did that film with Muhammad. I'm no so scared of being recognized. Just being around that guy and seeing how he deals with people taught me a lot.

"Maybe I could have learned the same thing from Burt Reynolds when we did 'Semi-Tough,' but I wasn't in such close contact with him. Muhammad and I were together every day. And here's a guy who refuses to turn away anybody asking for an autograph. He's got a greater sense of obligation to the public than any star I know. So I'd felt uncomfortable turning down somebody while Muhammad was sitting there. Anyway, it doesn't kill you to sign a few autographs."