The sunset cast a mellow glow onto the face of the actor playing the senator. He was wearing a vintage-1968 Ivy League suit, and his Brooks Brothers coat was slung over one shoulder, Kennedy style.

His muscular arm wound around the waist of a miniskirted blond, her face intended to be jarringly familiar, her tan meant to recall a summer 10 years ago.

Just as the November sun dipped over the surf, a London newspaper grabbed shots of the two nuzzling each other, surrounded by snow-white sand. A 1968 Oldsmobile loomed ominously in the background.

Three days later the romatic photos flashed across the pages of a London newspaper with a caption: "Teddy Kennedy and Mary Jo Kopechne from 'Chappaquiddick,' the film version," and the headline: "Is This the Film That Will Wreck the Kennedy Bandwagon?"

The snowy beach was a gravel pit road next to a floodwater channel in Playa del Rey -- a knuckle of beach jammed between the Los Angeles International Airport and Santa Monica, Calif. The car was a half-running wreck from a used-car lot, and the faces were those of actor Jack Knight and actress Sherri Kurgis.

The movie project, however, is quite real, a political docudrama called "Chappaquiddick." Five days of exteriors have been shot at Chappaquiddick, and production is scheduled to begin next month in California. The end result is destined for 1,500 drive-ins and suburban theaters next summer.

"Sure, it's an exploitative film," said its producer, Glenn Stensel. "But what's wrong with exploitation of an important issue?"

Stensel's stab at publicity came less than a month after Sen. Edward Kennedy announced he would run for president. And it was only the first sign that Hollywood's race for Chappaquiddick was on.

For the last two months, Hollywood's trade papers have reported plans for the feature film, a possible TV news special, the reissue of two old books and a rash of talk shows on the aging tragedy. The pattern was hardly new, with "Chappaquiddick" following the rush to capitalize on the Manson murders, the execution of Gary Gilmore, the kidnapping of Patty Hearst and the mass deaths in Guyana.

The Hollywood term for low-budget quickie film projects (almost all of them with budgets less than $1.5 million) is "the new B's," a genre of films that are being channeled through independent distributors into a network of high-profit suburban theaters throughout America.

These new B's -- which return a 50 percent share of profits to their owners compared to the 30 percent or less the theaters get from major studios -- are fast becoming a staple of the modern marketplace. Pictures costing less than $1 million got 20 percent of the total $3 billion American movie gross last year. (For instance, a prestigious horror quickie, "Halloween," has returned $10 million so far in the last 18 months; "Macon County Line" brought Max Baer Productions $30 million, and "Helter Skelter" is still earning many millions overseas.)

The legal repercussions of portraying the Chappaquiddick story on film are uncertain. ABC-TV made "Young Joe, the Forgotten Kennedy" into a TV movie in 1976, and since then several other dramatizations involving members of the Kennedy family have appeared on television. Lawyers who work in the entertainment business and with book-and-movie agencies believe that the Chappaquiddick story probably can be dealt with on film because of the public nature of the event.

Leading the Chappaquiddick hype race is Stensel, the disinherited heir to a multimillion-dollar Illinois funeral parlor fortune and producer and chief executive, he says, of "Chappaquiddick Productions."

Stensel, whose profile flashed across the screen in bit parts in "The Godfather," and "The French Connection," had tried in late 1978 to produce a movie called "Peanuts," which was to star Billy Carter. The project never materialized.

Stensel made his next big splash on Tuesday, Nov. 6: the week the U.S. presidential campaign got under way. On the front pages of Hollywood trade papers and the London Daily Mail, Stensel blithely said that he knew "things about the Chappaquiddick incident that have been revealed to nobody else in the world."

Stensel, who said at various times that "I'm paying for the film out of my own fortune," that "I have most of the $800,000 to make the movie" and that "I have quite a lot, at least $300,000, and hope for publicity to raise the rest," also told the Los Angeles Time and Rona Barrett that he had an "unbelievably unique cast."

At the time, Stensel said he had assembled the following cast:

Sherri Kurgis, 24, a former oceanographic photographer and champion diver, who was to play Mary Jo Kopechne and, Stensel said, "would do her own crash stunts."

Jack Knight, a respected Broadway and Hollywood veteran of 18 years and an alleged Edward Kennedy look-alike, who would play the senator. (The actor said he got his part by "sidling up to Stensel on the basketball court of the Hollywood YMCA and saying 'I pawk my caw in the Hawvaad yaawd.'")

Former Edgartown, Mass., police chief Dominic Arena, now police chief at Lincoln, Mass., who was to not only play himself in the movie but was to act as chief technical adviser.

A few Chappaquiddick residents who, Stensel said, would be asked to play themselves.

And, said Stensel, "probably Billy Carter who had been asked to play a cameo part as the gas station owner who serviced the Kennedy car."

After the initial publicity, however, some of the principals began issuing plaintive denials of their parts in the Stensel project, some of them expressing disgust that "Chappaquiddick" was acutally a politically motivated, anti-Kennedy hatchet movie.

But behind almost every denunciation was a separate Chappaquiddick cash-in -- all part of the general rush to capitalize on the presidential election. For instance:

Actor Patrick Campbell (who was to have driven the car off the movie bridge) and actress-stuntwoman Kurgis staged a series of quiet press conference in Los Angeles coffee shops, saying they were leaving the cast of Chappaquiddick because it compromised their basic integrity.

Yet almost immediately, both announced they were seeking major Holywood financing to make "A documentary on Chappaquiddick" with Campbell (a former private detective producing and Kurgis doing the diving and stuntwork.

"When I opened up the London Daily Mail and saw that spread of pictures I burst out in tears," said Kurgis who had done her own makeup and costuming to portray Kopechne in the simulated filming. "I was so glad that those pictures were over in England and not in our own U.S.A.," she said.

However, Kurgis obtained a second set of the same pictures to run in America and carried them to producers of "The Tonight Show," for a possible future appearance to plug her planned documentary with Campbell.

Why did she leave Stensel? "Well, I just knew there was a script but Stensel would never show it to me," said Kurgis, an Esther Williams-type beauty. "We began to feel that it was a hatchet job after those headlines in London. And there were other things wrong, like Stensel told me to go out and find a California bridge to use in the movie -- handing me $15 in expense money."

Three days after Stensel's announcements appeared in the press, Chief Arena in Lincoln, Mass., began issuing denials of his own. "People were calling me up, telling me that Rona Barrett and the Los Angeles Times said I would play myself in this Hollywood movie," Arena said. "Now this just isn't true. Sure, I saw this Stensel when he came out here and joked with him about playing myself. I even considered being technical adviser, but I would never have played myself."

Arena said he gave up thoughts of advising Stensel when the producer came to Chappaquiddick and started filming exterior scenes without producing a script. Chief Arena did not, however, forget Chappaquiddick. "I've hired a writer and hope to get my own book out as soon as possible," he said. "Do you think this book might serve as the basis for a movie?"

Kurgis, who became an important aquatic model and oceanographic photographer in her native Florida, said, "It was so tempting at first. I had just gotten out here and I thought, 'Gosh, I could be a star with this one picture.' Then I began to see how potentially damaging it was in spite of the publicity."

And, down in Plains, Ga., spokesmen for Billy Carter said Carter ignored Stensel's telegram. "He certainly never considered playing a gas station owner in any Ted Kennedy movie," a spokesman said. "Billy had enough of that guy (Stensel) during that 'Peanuts' episode."

"Beats all, doesn't it?" said Stensel, holding forth in one of the three Los Angeles coffee shops where he holds his press meetings and does much of his production huddling. "When you get a good publicity thing going everybody tries to jump on and get a piece of it."

Stensel wore a many-colored Mexican shirt, jeans and sandals and hunched over a bowl of Cream of Wheat.

About Police Chief Arena, Stensel said: "I think he's missing the chance of a lifetime. Think of the publicity he would get for his own book if he played himself. I'm not worried. There are plenty of other people to take these roles."

In a 90-minute interview, Stensel told of leaving central Illinois in the '60 and his career as a mortician: "I got a local part in a play with Jerry Van Dyke [the actor, Dick Van Dyke's brother]. People said I was good and I headed for New York. I've been acting ever since."

About the financing for Chappaquiddick, Stensel said: "It is true, not all of the money is in yet. And I'm counting on publicity to generate a lot more. I can drum up $800,000, but I'm hoping to get more. The more money I get, the better picture I do." Stensel then supplied an address where "backers can send in money." (it was, in fact, the mail drop he uses regularly).

Financing is a big question in this and the other Chappaquiddick projects. While Campbell and Arena both appear confident about their projects, no financing sources have be announced. Stensel has discussed his own financing for weeks to a dozen reporters. To the London Daily Mail, he said: "I've already had offers to buy me out. I don't need that money. My family is worth $10 million and this film is the chance of a lifetime for me."

Finally last Friday, with Kurgis and Campbell rattling the Hollywood publicity rafters, Stensel revealed the identities of two of his "prime backers":

Jack Hardy of Farmer City, Ill., a blustering redheaded major in the Illinois state police who also heads a real estate corporation, owns a chain of tire stores and is called a major subdivider by the Farmer City weekly paper. "I've gotten up a group of Illinois developers, and we're all planning to invest in Glenn's picture." said Hardy in a telephone interview. 'I think it's a great idea for a film."

Hardy's backing is not entirely a selfless gesture toward his lifetime friend, Stensel. "Actually, I'm going to play the police chief in the movie," said Hardy, who became a media Figure in Illinois during a recent struggle against politics in the state police force. "I'm ready for the role because, for years, I have played the Apostle Peter in the world's largest indoor Passion Play in Bloomington, Ill. And all this will be good preparation for me to play myself in an upcoming Glenn Stensel production, "The Jack Hardy Story.''

Stensel is indeed, he said, making "The Jack Hardy Story," a sort of junior "Walking Tall" about Major Hardy fighting organized crime on the highways of Illinois. "It will pack them in," Stensel said.

Jim Myron, a los Angeles disco entrepreneur, who said, "I'm investing in this movie pure and simple because it will make money. Quite often these lowbudget, quickie movies pull in a tremendous lot of ticket buyers. I don't care if it's good, bad or indifferent. It will make an awful lot of money."

Stensel will not comment on the other backers. "But none of this is political. That doesn't mean I would turn down any cash if it's tied to politics. That would not affect in any way the way I make this movie. I am sticking strictly to facts, and Kennedy might even emerge from it a hero."

The one perplexing figure in the project is Knight, a respected veteran of Broadway (including Lincoln Center revivals of "South Pacific" and "Wonderful Town"), television (including "James at Sixteen," "The Rockford Files," and "Charlie's Angles") and network commercials.

"It is just a tremendous role," said Knight, an athletic actor who is starring in his own Los Angeles play "Vachel Lindsay Enters Into Heaven."

"I was born five miles from Sen. Kennedy and have been a Kennedy supporter all my life. I will vote for him in the election," Knight said. The actor cracked his knuckles and paced the Hollywood improvisation theater where he is staging his show. "The minute I believe this is a hatchet job or an attempt at pure exploitation I will back out immediately." Knight, just back from Chappaquiddick after doing exterior shots, said "I tried to see the senator in Washington but got a polite brush-off. So I'm trying to work on my characterization from hundreds of photos I've collected showing Kennedy during the late '60s."

Knight likes to remind interviewers that part of his job will be "to portray Kennedy moving around with that heavy back brace he had to wear during those years. Nobody takes that into account when they think of Chappaquiddick."

But Knight is not above making hay out of the publicity surrounding the movie. He conducts his own, private interviews (without Stensel) but attended by his team of well-known Hollywood publicists -- who come equipped with a glossy, 24-page book on the actor, a staged picture of Knight dressed and made up like the senator looks now and pictures of the Chappaquiddick bridge as it is today.

"When the final script comes I will make my decision," Knight said. To date the Stensel script has been invisible. "I'm writing it with the technical help of Tom Tedrow, who wrote 'Death at Chappaquiddick,'" Stensel said, adding almost in the same breath, "but don't judge my script on that book. My script will have its own point of view.

Tedrow, whose book is being reissued in paperback, said he is involved in preparing "Chappaquiddick's" script. "I was out in Los Angeles in November and will go back in January just before filming starts," said Tedrow from Houston. "i'm convinced that Stensel is quite interested in accurate background about the accident." Tedrow said he is on salarly but would not discuss details.

One person who has no intention of capitalizing on the Chappaquiddick tragedy is Dr. Donald Mills, the veteran coroner in Edgartown and a doctor there for 44 years.

"I won't play myself nor be involved in a book, movie or television show," he said. Stensel came to see Mills about the project. But, Mills' wife said, "The doctor kicked the guy [stensel] right out of his office. Didn't tell him a single thing. I was right there."