Max Robinson was recently sitting at Los Angeles International Airport, talking with actor Ben Gazzara and his wife, Janice Rule. All were waiting for outgoing flights.

"They recognized me and I recognized them," the ABC anchorman said here yesterday in his hotel suite. "We had a good conversation going. Then I suddenly noticed the door to the plane ramp was closed. I tried to open it, but it was locked. I was about to panic."

Robinson's plane had left. But a clerk told him not to worry. She made a phone call and the plane taxied back from the runway to pick up Robinson (the Gazzaras were flying elsewhere).

On the plane the captain walked back and chatted with the newsman, told him how glad they were to have him aboard.

Surely, he wouldn't command such attention if he were still a local anchorman on Channel 9. "That's right," he agreed, making a cockeyed face. "Wait for the next flight!"

But that's only a small measure of the fame Robinson has acquired since leaving Channel 9 in June 1978 to halp set up the national desk in ABC's revolving set of anchors. The handsome 6-foot-3 newsman was back in Washington for three weeks, sitting in for vacationing anchorman Frank Reynolds. He looks fit until he opens his jacket when the beginning of a paunch becomes evident.

Completing it last night, it was his third substitute stint here at the network, back in the city where he started in television with WRC-TV in 1965.

"I miss Washington," he said, without a trace of lament. "The warmth, the people. Most of our friends are here."

And Washingtonians miss him, judging by the reception Robinson got on the street. Later while riding in a rented limousine, he looked out the window. A woman driver had stopped and backed up.

"Hi, Max," she cried out. "You're doing a beautiful job. But we miss you. How's Beverly and the baby (a reference to his wife and son)?"

He'd never seen her before.

At another spot, when he got out of the limousine momentarily, a young man raced up and exclaimed: "Max Robinson, I watch you all the time. You're great, man!"

But it's not just the unknowns that seek his attention. A few months ago he was walking through the lobby of a Los Angeles hotel and actress Denise Nicholas introduced herself before he could acknowledge he knew her.

"Brother, you're doing so much for us," she said. "You mean so much to us (blacks)."

Robinson said he tries not to let such adulation swell his ego. "It's so easy to get one's head turned around in this business," he added somberly.

Besides, he said, he doesn't have time. As head of the national desk that moves from one breaking story to another, he spends about 40 percent of his time on the road. And there is the unconfirmed rumor that Robinson and the national desk will be moving to Los Angeles, to both serve the West Coast audience and expand the network's geographical area. But the anchorman says no decision has been made on such a move.

Recently, after covering the Three-Mile Island story for a week, he returned hom to Chicago to his wife, Beverly, and 3-year-old son, Malik, on a Friday. The next day he left for Colorado Springs to deliver a speech. Then it was on to Los Angeles to anchor the news from there.

The network asked him to attend the Academy Award ceremonies (he changed into his tux at the bureau). Later that night he found out his reservations had been fouled up at a hotel and he had no room. So he slept for an hour on the sofa of a bureau secretary. He was too far from Los Angeles Airport to catch a regularly scheduled flight to Wichita Falls, Tex., to cover the tornado damage there. So he rushed to get aboard a charter flight.

"I'm three or four months tired," he said, laughing. "But that's the way it's been. I haven't been at home in four weeks. I miss my family. But I'm having more fun than ever - I guess, because I'm working so hard. Channel 9 was cushy compared to this. I felt guilty about taking the money.

"The pressure has been enormous. We move out on short notice to do a big story. I also do a lot of public speaking. The invitations for speaking engagements continue to roll in. I spoke at North Carolina A&T's commencement this spring, and I got an honorary doctorate of laws.

Strangely enough, in the midst of all this, I'm much more relaxed than I've ever been in my life."

His wife understands his busy schedule, he said. "Beverly reacts very well. She's extraordinary. She adapts."

"What also helps is her profession, he explained. A social worker, she is now setting up a program at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago to train professionals to work with foster parents.

But Robinson hasn't had time to devote to his hobby - painting. Shortly after they bought a condominium on Chicago's Near Northside (The Gold Coast) last year, he rented a nearby studio. But the only time he's picked up a brush since was to pose for a photographer.

Still, he has enough paintings of his own to sell. Twenty will be auctioned off here soon. "I sell my paintings to buy real paintings," he said, smiling and raising his eyebrows.

His collection includes prints, watercolors and oils by Modigliani, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Sam Gilliam, Lois Jones, Elizabeth Catlett. There are 120 paintings on his apartment walls. He also has about 75 pieces of African sculpture.

"Beverly's very much into art," he said."We enjoy going to museums and art galleries. If I only had time to do more of it. I want to take off about two months before the end of the year and spend some time with the family.

"Just go out. Relax. I don't care if people come up and say, "What's Max Robinson sitting here doing nothing?" But I can't count on doing that. The phone is always ringing with a call about another assignment.

"I know now why the rich and famous have their retreats," he said. CAPTION: Picture, Max Robinson, by Douglas Chevalier - The Washington Post