"I play irascible but lovable old bastards," said Jack Albertson, looking neither. "In so many scripts that are submitted to me I play the catalyst in the retirement home, the one who's going around trying to get people to do something. Then there's the elderly lady pursued by a dirty old man, which is me.

"That reminds me of a joke I used to do about going into burlesque. When I told my mother, she says, 'Oh my poor boy, those terrible hours, all that drinking, those women running around naked.' And my old man is sitting in the corner saying, 'Take me! Take me!"

He may look a little frail, may be a little hard of hearing, may have tendinitis in his shoulder, but 72-year-old Jack Albertson is still a trouper. He was in town to promote a made-for-TV movie, "Valentine," about two retirement-home residents who have an affair and "enjoy each other's company to the fullest," as the publicity material puts it.

"They can't keep their hands off each other," is how Albertson puts it.

His costar in "Valentine" is Mary Martin ("a wonderful human being") and there is a scene in which they do a little song and dance. "Guess what song we sing," he says.

"Younger than Springtime"? a visitor suggests.

"No. Guess again. Think of the title."

"My Funny Valentine"? Right! Bingo.

Albertson's been singing, dancing, acting and telling jokes since about 1930. Did vaudeville, two a day, four a day, burlesque, shows, nightclubs, sitcoms, you name it. He's one of three actors who've won a Tony, an Emmy and an Oscar; he and Melvyn Douglas and Paul Scofield. He's done shows with names like "Strip for Action, (1942) and "The Lady Says Yes" (1945), and on the other end of the spectrum "Waiting for Godot" and "The Subject Was Roses" Then there was modern-day vaudeville like "Chico and the Man" and "Grandpa Goes to Washington."

He said he used to have such stage fright that he just looked at his feet because he didn't want to look at the audience. "Probably did them a favor." Now he doesn't have stage fright. "I know now that whenever I walk onto a stage I can do something that's entertaining.

"Once Joey Faye and I were doing a little revue together and we were up in Three Rivers, Canada. We really bombed. That audience was like facing the Nuremberg jury. So when we left the stage we asked the stage manager what was wrong with them. He said, 'Those people are French. They don't speak English.'"

He was in his day a mean tap dancer, danced with Paul Draper, one of the greats. But he pulled an Achilles' tendon a few years ago and doesn't leap around so much anymore, he said. "Oh, come on, you were Offto-Buffalo-ing in the Decatur House just a few hours ago," said his wife, Wallace, who is big in Democratic politics in California and had an oppointment at the White House yesterday morning.

"Waiting for Godot" changed his career because it allowwed people to see him as a dramatic actor, but it was "The Subject Was Roses" that brought him the Tony and the Oscar.

It was a play about a mother, an irascible bastard of a father, and their son. The family's inability to communicate seemed to produce unusually strong emotions in the audience. One woman stromed into the lobby during a performance, he remembered, grumbling loudly that his character was just like her husband. Another time, during the scene in which the father is trying to get his son to go to mass, a woman got up from the fourth row, walked up to the stage, and pounded her fist on the apron.

"She yelled out, 'You can be ati-Jew, you can be anti-nigger, but you can't be anti-Catholic!'" Albertson recalled, acting out the scene for the benefit of an audience of three. After her tirade, he said, the woman yelled, "Go to hell," and walked out of the theater. He started the scene over. "The audience thought it was part of the play," he recalled.

At that point, Albertson got a little emotional and his wife got up to gett him a Kleenex. He dabbed at his eyes. "You see, when I laugh, I cry," he explained.

He was a big hit in Neil Simon's "The Sunshine Boys," in which he played an irascible ex-vaudevillian who was hard to hearing. "Typecasting," said his wife. He laughed. He lost the part in the movie version to Walter Matthau, because the studio wanted a "major star."

"I don't think he was such a major star," said Wallace Albertson. "If you'll permit a wifely aside. I was so p----- off about that."

"Now, don't say that," Albertson said. "He was very good. It wasn't his fault."

Well, Albertson was asked, does he consider himself an old man? A senior citizen?

"Naw. That reminds me of a joke. This old guy does to the doctor and says, 'Doc, I want you to lower my sexual potency,' and the doc says, 'What do you mean? You're crazy, it's all in your mind.' And the guy says, 'That's what I mean, I want you to lower my sexual potency . . . .'"

Retirement? "I hope to go out with boots on." CAPTION:

Picture, Jack Albertson, By Harry Naltchayan -- The Washington Post