Art is imitating life. No wait a minute. Life is imitating art. no. Art is imitating art. But this isn't art, it's television. That is, journalism.

Take two.

In the beginning there was real life. Then there were newspapers to tell people about real life. Then there was television, in the form of "Lou Grant" to tell people about newspapers telling them about real life. Then there was Robert Walden, who plays reporter Joe Rossi, who has agreed to write a sidebar to this story.

Walden looks scared. A lot more scared than Rossi ever looks when he sits down to a typewriter. Which is exactly what Walden is doing. On deadline. He's also chainsmoking. He's got that words-are-dancing-through-my-head-at-the-speed-of-light look on his face. Actually, it's nice to see him taking it so seriously.

"This is the hardest profession I've ever had to play," Walden is saying. "Hey, wait a minute, that's my angle! That's what I'll write about!

Where's an editor?"

This is not Walden's first experience at the typewriter. The first was over a year ago when he wrote a story for the Los Angeles Free Press on a transcontinental protest march, "The Longest Walk," that 100 Indians took to protest anti-Indian legislation. "Yes, I was here, after telling the Free Press that I wanted my first assignment to be nothing local or ordinary," Walden wrote in his story. So much for real life.

"Look at he lede," he says, looking very much the reporter in his herringbone jacket, striped tie and blue jeans. "I rewrote the lede nine times. It grabs you doesn't it?" The lede reads, "Delta, Utah-Standing outside the high school in this one movie theater Mormon town, I am looking into the eyes of the last surviving traditional Chief of the Sioux Indian Nation."

Walden was upset about the hyphens they took out of his first sentence, and he hated the headline-"The Three Thousand Mile Warpath." "I couldn't believe they did that," he says. "If I'd known, I wouldn't have let them run the story." Now it's beginning to sound like real life.

Walden is 35. He's worked with George C. Scott, Woody Allen, Robert De Niro. As the brash young reporter Rossi, his status in his profession is right up there. As Robert Walden, however, he can see a time where he might like to do a lot more writing.

""I want to be accepted as a writer, and I will be," he says with a very Rossi-like self-confidence. "I would love to work at something where intellect is a necessary and accepted factor in the profession."

Someone remarks that the presence of intellect in reporters has always been considered questionable, particularly by some of the subjects who appear in print, and, occasionally, by a few ill-tempered editors.

This, says Walden, is only one of the similarities he's discovered between reporters and actors. "Actors, unless you're a superstar, are the low men on the totem pole, and they're treated as such, even though they're absolutely necessary. And reporters, like actors, go after the details, the specificity. They can't work without it."

"How do you spell 'secretary'?" Walden is asking. He is told reporters don't have to know how to spell."How about this joke? Is this funny?"

There are times when the lines between Rossi the reporter and Walden the actor seem as vague as an overwrought metaphor and Walden admits to a certain "schizophrenia" between the two roles. "With actors in general, you're dealing with a shaky sense of identity," he says, "but I'm beginning to feel more solid. I'm working hard at life these days."

Until shooting for his show begins again in June, Walden has been hanging out at dozens of newsrooms asking reporters what they think of "Lou Grant." For a story he's writing. For a daily newspaper. "I know," he says. "After awhile the whole thing is so twisted, it starts entering the fourth dimension. It's sort of Einstein's theory of relativity applied to journalism."

Reporters, he says, "feel more affectionate to the show than they do to their loved ones." Which sounds like a pretty accurate reflection on reporters, but not one that would back up Walden's claim that "Lou Grant" is "humanizing" the public's attitude toward the media.

It's getting late. Walden's editor is gliding menacingly forward. He's looking for his ending.He looks upward. He looks downward. He reaches for the cigarette. He looks desperate.

"I'll tell you one thing," he says, "you're gonna see a lot more of how hard this is in the next season's episodes." CAPTION: Picture, Robert Walden, by Frank Johnston - The Washington Post