"Sweeney Todd" and "The Elephant Man" two grisly tales of 19th century London, were the big winners at last night's 33rd Annual Tony Awards.

"Sweeney," the Stephen Sondheim/Harold Prince musical melodrama about a homicidal barber and his macabre accomplice, was cited for Best Musical, Best Book, Best Score and five other awards.

"The Elephant Man," Bernard Pomerance's play about a grossly deformed man rescued from a sideshow by a London surgeon in the 1890s, was named Best Play.

The Best Actress voting ended in a tie between Carole Shelley, as the actress who befriends "The Elephant Man," and Constance Cummings, the stroke victim in Arthur Kopit's "Wings."

Other principal winners were: Tom Conti, the charming paralysis victim of Brian Clark's "Whose Life Is It, Anyway?" as Best Actor; Angela Lansbury, a caterer to cannibals in "Sweeney Todd," as Best Actress (Musical), and Len Cariou, the "demon barber of Fleet Street" himself, as Best Actor (Musical).

For most of the nominees, the ceremonies at New York's Shubert Theater were charged with genuine and financially significant suspense - Tony Awards, like Oscars, have been known to keep struggling shows going and even, on occasion, to turn probable flops into modest hits.

But the Alexander Cohen-produced musical "I Remember Mama" knew ahead of time it would have a prominent place on the agenda of this Cohen-produced awards evening.

Star Liv Ullmann was scheduled as a recurring host, and composer Richard Rodgers had been picked to receive the special Lawrence Langner Award for Lifetime Achievement.

The result was that the ineligible "I Remember Mama" - neither a winner nor a nominee, but currently on Broadway - was able to claim a large share of the precious television exeposure.

Rodgers' award was preceded by two of his songs - written 54 years apart. Len Cariou sang a number from "The Garrick Gaieties of 1925," and Ullmann and her "I Remember Mama" stage family followed with the upbeat "A Little Bit More."

"A little bit more," said Walter Cronkite, appearing on the podium as if out of nowhere. "That's what Richard Rodgers has been giving us for a lifetime . . ." Cronkite then crossed to stage left to hand the special Lawrence Langner award to a waiting Rodgers, but the brisk pace of the evening would apparently brook no interruptions: Rodgers not only failed to speak but was on screen for only a few bare seconds.

This year's ceremonies were the 13th consecutive Tonys to be produced by Cohen and the 13th to be televised. But audience ratings have ranged from meager to miserable, which may explain last night's hard-nosed, entertainment-sapping effort to contain the show (almost) to its prescribed hour and a half.

The awards were established 32 years ago and named after the late Antoinette (Tony) Perry, actress, producer and executive director of the American Theater Wing.

The main criterion for being cast as a host, hostess or presenter was, as usual lately, TV or movie stardom, with recent stage experience preferred but not scrutinized too closely.

Accordingly, the faces seen last night included those of Henry Fonda, Ron Liebman, Dick Van Dyke, Jack Lemmon, Tom Bosley and Georgia Engel.

The presentation speeches were built around an improbable series of explanations for alleged backstage superstitious. Lemmon, for instance, sought to explain why performers are (or so he claimed) absolutely forbidden to whistle in the theater.

"Actually there's a very good reason for that, you see," said Lemmon. "In the 18th and 19th century, most of the stagehands were seamen, because they had more expertise in using ropes. And the stagehands would give signals to each other by using whistles. So you can imagine what would happen if some nutty actor went around whistling - he'd get 200 pounds of scenery on his hoo-ha."

Liebman, TV's "Kaz," told the audience that he has always made it a practice to audition for plays in appropriate costume. This policy entailed going to one audition dressed as a Nazi captain, he said, but he couldn't get a taxi and took the subway instead.

"Have you ever gone in the New York subway system in full Nazi attire?" asked Liebman. "The wonderful thing is that no one noticed."

One of the spectacular moments of the evening was Lansbury's rendition of "The Worst Pies in London" from "Sweeney Todd" sung, in the musical, before the quality of her meat pies undergoes a profound improvement as a result of using the human meat provided by Sweeney's razor.

Otherwise, the five songs preformed from current shows were a poor but accurate advertisement for the state of the Broadway musical. And the singing of Robert Klein, Ullmann and Dorothy Loudon, among others, appeared to suggest that the ability to sing has been pushed lower and lower down on the list of musical casting priorities.

One slight upset was Conti's win as Best Actor over Phillip Anglim (for "The Elephant Man"). Conti had been rated an underdog, partly because his appearance in the New York production of this English play had been vigorously opposed by Actors Equity, which wanted an American actor in the part.

A gasp followed by loud applause met the announcement by "Da" star Barnard Hughes, that the Best Actress voting had ended in a tie.

"Oh, I am so thrilled!" said "Elephant Man's" Shelley, who had the podium to herself because "Wings'" Cummings wasn't there. "Those who know me know I'm seldom at a loss for words, but I am tonight."

Another surprise, to all appearances, was the final special citation to Henry Fonda.

"He doesn't know that he's getting this award," said daughter Jane, and her father's shattered expression when he arrived at the podium a moment later quieted any doubts.

"This wasn't in my script," said Fonda, eyes tearing and voice breaking. "I've never been wildly happy about being me. I've never really liked myself. But in the theater I was given chances . . . You've gotta be sure I'm grateful."

1979 Tony Awards

Featured Actress in a Musical: Carlin Glynn, "The Best Little Warehouse in Texas."

Featured Actor in a Musical: Henderson Forsythe, "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas."

Featured Actress in a Play: Joan Hickson, "Bedroom Farce."

Featured Actor in a Play: Michael Gough, "Bedroom Farce."

Lighting Design: Roger Morgan, "The Crucifer of Blood."

Costume Design: Eugene Lee, "Sweeney Todd."

Choreography: Michael Bennett and Bob Avian, "Ballroom."

Direction of a Musical: Harold Prince, "Sweeney Todd."

Direction of a Play: Jack Hofsiss, "The Elephant Man."

Actress in a Play: shared by Constance Cummings, "Wings," and Carole Shelley, "The Elephant Man." (KEY OFF)(KEYWORD)ctor in a Play: Tom Conti, "Whose Life is it, Anyway?"

Actress in a Musical: Angela Lansbury, "Sweeney Todd."

Actor in a Musical: Len Cariou, "Sweeney Todd."

Book for a Musical: hugh Wheeler, "Sweeney Todd."

Score: Stephen Sondheim, "Sweeney Todd."

Musical: "Sweeney Todd."

Play "The Elephant Man," by Bernard Pomerance.

Lawrence Langner Lifetime Achievement Award:

Richard Rodgers.

Special Award: Henry Fonda. CAPTION: Picture 1, Philip Anglim in "The Elephant Man,"; Picture 2, Angela Lansburg in "Sweeney Todd" ; Picture 3, Tom Conti in "Whose Life Is It Anyway?"