OF HIS MANY talents Samuel Arkoff claims to be proudest of his ability to take a shower with a lit Cuban cigar in his mouth.

Every morning, he puts his penguin-shaped body under the hot water and, with his eyes closed and his cigar aglow, experiences bliss. At the appointed time, he steps out of the shower, his cigar still burning, and faces the day.

"I'm the only man in the world who can do this," he boasts. "As my wife - she'll tell you. I ought to be in Hennessey's Book of World Records or whatever you call it."

It may be the secret to the remarkable peace of mind that the 61-year-old B-movie mogul maintains in the face of criticism.

"You have been accused, Mr. Arkoff, of being a crass, commercial exploiter of lousy movies,"; he was told recently.

"That's me, kid," he replied without missing a beat. "Exploitation is not a bad word."

But it's a strange word for a man who is suddenly being feted by the cream of the cultural world - a world that had dismissed him and his definitive B movies since he began making them 25 years ago.

First the Museum of Modern Art in New York and now the American Film Institute in Washington are honoring Arkoff with 25-year retrospectives of the films of American International Pictures, the company he founded with the late James Nicholson in 1954.

"I look at it all with a substantial amount of amusement," Arkoff said last week in his suite at the Regency Hote, in New York. "I'm finding all of these people who know a great deal about my pictures. I don't know where any of them were when they were coming out."

His company has endured so long because Arkoff has an unerring eye for the market - or at least some of its youngest parts. "During the '60s, I used to screen films at home every Friday, Saturday and Sunday night for my family and friends," he recalled. "Sometimes we'd have 50 or 60 kids at our house watching them. It was a great way to find out what they liked and what they didn't."

And he gave them what they wanted. "We never used the term B-movie," he said. "It has a derogatory connotation. We called them combination pictures."

And he gave them what they wanted. "We never used the term B-movie," he said. "It has a derogatory connotation. We called them combination pictures."

He gave them horror movies like "I Was a Teen-age Werewolf." "There'll always be a market for horror movies," Arkoff believes. He gave them motorcycle misfits like "Wild Angels." And he gave them muscle operas: "We kept changing genres," he recalled. "After the combos, we found ourselves with no money and no pictures. Joe Levine had just come out with "Hercules' with what's-his-name, so we went off to Italy to look around." The result was "Goliath and the Barbarians."

And, of course, he gave them "Beach Party" and its look-alikes. Arkoff admits that "they weren't really surfing movies. The beach was just an attractive background. They were basically boy-meets-girl films.

"No one smoked in "Beach Party," let alone marijuana. There was no sex, no offensive language. They even airbrushed out the bellybuttons on the ads. C'est la vie." And if those films didn't capture the social upheaval of the '60s, Arkoff doesn't thin we missed much: "middle-aged men wearing beards - what else is left?"

Despite their commercial potential, Arkoff was never interested in X-rated projects. "I don't do porno," he said. "I have no moral or legal objection to it, I just don't want to get involved. I don't like political pictures either. They're usually diatribes."

Samuel Arkoff's opinions are rarely in doubt. He will even lambast his son's alma mater, the University of Southern California, as an example of what's wrong with films today. "That's where the elitist crap comes from," he said only half in jest. "All these guys from USC film schools with this hauteur business have ruined movies."

American Film Institute, known admirers of elitist films among others, will present 25 AIP films this Thursday through Aug. 30, with special midnight shows featuring its Edgar Allen Poe series on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Edward Cockrell, the AFI program's planner, acknowledges the irony, but defends the attention that Arkoff is getting.

"We're going to have all of the main genres of the films - sci-fi, horror, the Poe series, the beach and motorcycle films, and the oddities. "Wild Angels," "Gas' and "Beach Party" were shockingly accurate recreations of the '60s mentality, Arkoff's films succeed as satire and as documentaries. They go over well because they had no artistic pretentions."

Arkoff found himself seated next to Happy Rockefeller at one party two weeks ago. "None of my pictures were made for you," he told her flatly. "But I don't mind if you see them."

There is nothing haphazard about such bluntness.Arkoff has carefully nurtured an image of unpretentious candor and crudeness - a diamond in the rough who pokes well-deserved fun at the "arty" Eastern intellectuals who now threaten to turn him and his films into cult items.

But Arkoff also is a well-educated man - a good lawyer, a shrewd businessman, and one of the most sensitive readers of the American psyche around. He can appear as vulgar or as sophisticated as he wants. And right now, the earthy counterpoint to the cultural adulation is simply too much to resist.

"Messages in movies? I don't believe in them," he said. "If you want a message, send it by Western Union."

Arkoff has never given the American public anything close to messages. His 500-odd films have included the likes of "The Man With the X-ray Eyes," "Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women," "The Amazing Colossal Man," "Born Losers," "Bloody Momma," "Wild in the Streets," and "Girls in Prison."

None of these was ever in contention for an Academy Award, a fact that bothers Arkoff not at all. Many were made for under $100,000 in two weeks. AIP churned them out year after year, oblivious to consistent criticism from reviewers and citizens' groups.

Part of their current legitimacy stems from the host of major figures in today's film world who paid their dues in front of or behind Arkoff's cameras; his films were the boot camp of the stars.

The grunts included Jack Nicholson, both as writer and actor, Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovitch, Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, Bruce Dern, Richard Dreyfus, Brian DePalma, Michael Landon and John Milius, among others.

Then too, there were the AIP stalwarts, often in bloody Roger Corman films, like Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, Boris Karloff, Peter Lee, Peter Lorre and Basil Rathbone.

In 1958, AIP turned out 22 films, all "combinations" that Arkoff sold in package deals to exhibitors around the country. He was the one who invented the combination approach three years earlier when he and Nicholson packaged "The Day the World Ended," and "Phantom From 10,000 Leagues." The second film was financed in part by a Japanese company called Nacirema, which, Arkoff points out, is "American" spelled backwards.

AIP sent the package into Detroit shortly before Christmas that year. "We crocked 'em, Arkoff said through a haze of Cuban cigar smoke.

He and Nicholson wrote the horror and science-fiction combinations staples through the late '50s and paused breifly with the Italian musclosos before entering the '60s with those benign films examining what was supposed to be the California surfing scene.

Although former Mouseketeer Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon, fresh out of south Philadelphia, produced precious little electricity on screen, they brought a lot of money to the box office in movies like "Beach Party." Once again, Arkoff had spotted the appeal in those years of a Gidget mentality and rode with it before Vietnam and clear-lite acid took over.

True to form, Arkoff's pictures exploited and mirrored the violence of the rest of the decade. "Wild in the Streets" dabbled in gonzo politics; "Born Losers"; brought us our first glimpse of the psychotic Bruce Dern straddling a Harley; and "The Trip," written by Jack Nicholson, showed us what he, Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Dern remembered about their LSD experiences.

But despite its effective exploitation of national moods, AIP never enjoyed overwhelming financial security for any extended period of time. Arkoff was always hustling to catch the next wave. And now in his 60s, when he should be spending more time by the pool consuming his dail ration of a dozen cigars, he'll be kicking to stay afloat.

AIP lost money for the first time in its history last year, due in part to the skyrocketing costs of movie-making. Relatively inexpensive made-for-television movies also have cut deeply into his turf, Arkoff feels.

AIP, the company that is now his extension, has just been ingested by Filmways, a larger entity that will privide AIP with the funding it needs to compete in the '80s in exchange for some of the independence that Arkoff treasures.

The recent turn of events has prompted some to declare that the retrospectives amount to his eulogy, the epitaph of the man as a force to be reckoned with in the end of the era of the B-movie.

"Nonsense," Arkoff snaps. "It can still be done, but it's tougher. There's a movie out called "Halloween" which John Carpenter made for under half a million dollars with no names, and it's making a lot of money.

"There will always be some young person with the energy and the enthusiasm and the talent to keep making them," he concluded.

In classic AIP tradation, Arkoff's son produced a film to be released this fall called "Gordk."

Arkoff admitted that it has only been recently that he can accept with good grace the term, "Grade B." "Grade B is a budgetary distinction," he said. "It meant no stars, a small budget, and none of the pre-sold novels that you see today."

But Arkoff knows that the Grade B was more than a financial term. He knows that there is a reason why critics either ignored or panned most of his films. But he will always appreciate them for their modestry and, usually, their bottomlines.

"I remember when Warners would come out with something like "Paul Muni in the Life of Louis Pasteur" - prestige crap," he said. "It was Cagney and Bogart before they were big who were making the money. They were Grade B by today's standards, and they were damned good."

Arkoff has been putting up with "arty" critics for years. "Spinster groups" occasionally picketed the box offices of his films during the '50s. He even got a letter from the late Sen. Paul Douglas of Illinois complaining about "I Was a Teen-age Warewolf."

"I could tell by the nature of the letter that he hadn't seen the movie," Arkoff said. "I invited him to a screening in Washington. I never heard back. That's my answer to the people who complain. "Come see them and judge for yourself," I tell them. It always works. They never come."

Arkoff has come a long way from his youth in Fort Dodge, Iowa, where he had the only subscription in town to "Variety." But he still loves movies, money and a good fight. He seems to be blessed with all three.

"You know what Woody Allen's only mistake is," he said as he sipped a Tab. "He should make all of his movies in color. Then the drive-ins would play them. He's missing the drive-ins now." CAPTION: Picture 1, no caption, By Donal F. Holway for The Washington Post; Picture 2, "I Was a Teen-Age Werewolf"; Picture 3, Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon brought a lot of money to the box office in Arkoff films like "Beach Party."