MY HUSBAND always said you needed a drink at the end of a day's work," says Claudette Colbert, fresh from a performance of "The Kingfisher" at the National Theater and sipping a glass of Stolichnaya vodka in a quiet corner of the Watergate Terrace Restaurant. The cynical thought that her onstage youthfulness might be a contrivance of makeup, lighting and distance, a trick of the trade, a special effect, is dispelled with a vengeance by Colbert at close range. In between healthy forkloads of broiled snapper, this 76-year-old woman talks clearly and vigorously of a long career at the top, and neither her words nor her gestures fade as the hour aproaches midnight and sweeps past it.

"I saw the last of the horse-drawn trolley cars and I saw the men going up on the moon," she says, her voice as full and flavorful as a glass of Bordeaux. "God, what's happened! When I think of the span of my life!"

The moon-landing made her cry. She heard it, courtesy of a star-struck pilot, over the cockpit radio of a British Airways flight from Barbados to New York in 1969. The second and third moon-landings made her angry. "People were calling in [to TV stations] and saying, "You've turned off our favorite program.' I mean, you want to kill people!"

Some women work hard at looking younger than their years. Some would have to work hard to look otherwise. Both propositions hold for Colbert, who, in addition to her appearance in "The Kingfisher," will be the subject of an American Film Institute Theatre retrospective from March 6 to 31.

Her hair is still reddish-brown and still curls over her wide forehead in neat bangs the way it did in 1934, when she sat on Clark Gable's lap in "It Happened One Night." "colbert regards makeup and clothing as matters far too important to delegate, and she never goes anywhere looking less than her best. Even so, she takes care not to be photographed from the wrong angle, or by a camera representing an unknown interest.

But her voice, her appetite and her ememory are features beyond cosmetic influence. "Moss Hart once said I had total recall," says Colbert, who has dismissed all publishers' overtures about memoirs, claiming her private life and 35-year marriage to the late Joel Pressman, a Los Angeles surgeon, would be hopelessly bland for today's market. "To quote the old French saw," she says, "'Happy nations and honest women have no story.'" Whatever secrets Colbert might have to tell, the people and doings of her early years -- in New York until 1933, then in Hollywood -- remains so vivid to her that she guards all indiscretions, evenones on which the statute of limitations would seem to have long since expired.

In Hollywood, on Broadway, wherever, "Colvert is a star who travels first-class. Her parents, who came to New York from Paris when she was 5, were not rich but cared about comfort in food, clothes and surroundings, as the French tend to, regardless of class. Her father was a banker. Her aunt, a dress designer, taught her all about clothes. Growing up in such an environment, "You have a sense of chic that starts when you are a baby," says Colbert, wearing a black suit with a bow, a pearl necklace, matching pearl bracelets and, flopped over the back of her chair, a Blackglama mink coat.

During her 14 years as a Paramount contract player, her dressing room complex was nicely situated between Carole Lombard's and Mae West's, "and then came Marlene." Last week in Washington, her hotel phone was answered by her housekeeper, who, when asked, "Is this Miss Colbert's room?" replied, gravely: "No, this is Miss Colbert's apartment."

She has not made a movie since "Parrish," a soap opera with a tobacco-farming background and Troy Donahue and Suzanne Pleshette. "I was so disgusted," she explains. "I suddenly thought, If this is the kind of thing I'm offered, then forget it!" The disgust welled up again when she learned "Parrish" was to be on the AFI series schedule. An AFI employee, who had phoned to ask for a personal Colbert visit to honor the series, explained that "Parrish" had been chosen because of Karl Malden's archetypal Karl-Maldenly performance. Colbert listened politely, and politely suggested that something -- either "Parrish" or her visit -- would have to go.

"It was "Parrish." Colbert will appear and discuss her films after the showing of "Midnight" the evening of March 6.)

She got into movies, full-time, after the stock market crash of 1929. She had been acting on Broadway at the time, in Elmer Rice's "See Naples and Die" -- a play, she recalls with glee, that inspired one critic to write, "Claudette Colbert knew when the lines weren't funny and she was saying them all upstage."

"The day before the crash, we were about two-thirds filled, and the night of the crash there were 47 people in the house," she says. "Inside of one week, everything was absolutely dead; and everybody who could speak, they [the movie producers] were after you." These were the days, she notes, when massive microphones had to be hidden in flowerpots, when moviemakers were "floundering about" in the sea of strange technology. Two years earlier, she had acted in her only silent picture, For the Love of Mike," directed by Frank Cpara. She would go on to make 63 talkies.

But 19 years after the last one, she doubts she will do another. Around the time of "Parrish," other actresses of her generation were making horror movies like "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane," with Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Colbert is still horrified.

Even in the theater, "There are very few parts for older women," she says. "I know that everybody knows my age, so I would be self-conscious about doing parts that were younger than that." After her last Wednesday appearance, in a play called "Community of Two," she "swore I'd never go on tour again -- it just missed and there's nothing worse." But "The Kingfisher," first performed in London with Ralph Richardson and Celia Johnson, wooed her back. She heard about it from a fellow swimmer in Barbados, where she lives about half the year (she lives in New York City the other half). "To be sent a play where I can be my age, which is over 70," she says, "where the man opposite me is over 70 -- whether it's a light bubble or not, it's a chance to get on the stage."

Reminded that her 71-year-old co-star Rex Harrison, is about to become the 40-ish Henry Higgins again in a revival of "My Fair Lady," Colbert grows wistful about the show's original Broadway opening 25 years ago. "It was the best thing I ever saw," she says. But can Harrison still play the part? And does it bother her that actors get away with these things and actresses don't? "I'd like to pinch you!" says Colbert in lieu of an answer, reaching across the table with her fingers poised threateningly. "Anyhow, I know he can play it beautifully and he will."

Harrison has taken a sixth wife, Mercia Tinker, who is 51. If she were to marry a man that age, says Colbert, eyebrows would be raised right and left. The notion that a day might be imminent when it won't matter which party is of which sex in such a relationship seems to startle her. "It hasn't changed, it really hasn't," she says.

Yet coexisting with Colbert's conservatism is, and always has been, a risque itch, an impulse to stretch the bounds of what the bosses, the censors, the arbiters of good taste regarded as tolerable. In "Midnight," one of the screwiest of '30s screwball comedies, Colbert played an ambitious chorus girl torn between cab-driver Don Ameche and millionaire John Barrymore. When Barrymore gave her a leer and a bouquet of flowers, Colbert thought she should have a saucy retort. "This is a very smart chorus girl who's been through the mill," she told director Mitchell Leisen. She'd have something to say." "Colbert had even proposed a something. Taking the flowers, she would lament: "And I haven't a pot to put them in!" tBut the Hays Office, Hollywood's self-employed censoring agency, said a stern no. (Eventually writers Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett gave her this acceptably vague comeback to Barrymore's come-on: "The minute you looked at me," she would say, "I had an idea you had an idea.")

"How stupid the censorship was in those days!" she says. Then she breaks a piece of Watergate bread into halves and lays them on the table, illustrating the postures of herself and Ray Milland doing a love scene in "Arise, My Love" (which "started out as a mad comedy and ended with the fall of France," she says -- and which, to her delight, s the AFI's "Parrish" substitute). Colbert and Miland were supposed to be lying under a tree in the forest of Compiegne as the Nazis rolled across the frontier. The censors, she recalls with fresh exasperation, ordered them to have their feet pointed 180 degrees part.

But Colbert was one of those actresses who could somehow cheat the censors with a curl of her lip or a toss of her head. Rehearsing a scene in "Bluebeard's Eighth Wife" (yet another Brackett/Wilder screenplay, directed by Ernst Lubitsch), she was called on to eat scallions and blow them in Gary Cooper's face. "I was married to him," she says, "but I didn't want to go to bed with him -- to teach him a lesson, because I was his eighth wife. And this one night he was trying to get me tight with champagne." Lubitsch, her favorite director, was dissatisfied with the force of her scallionfire. "No, no, no!" he shouted, "I will do it!" And he sat down on Cooper's lap and played the scene. "I laughed myself sick," she says. In the film, because of Lubitsch's inspiration-by-example, "I did 10 times more than I would have done."

Lubtisch "had been an actor himself and a great comedian," she says. Remembering a day on the set of "The Smiling Lieutenant," the first film they made together, Colbert unlooses a loud, hearty laugh. "He said, "I just thought of something very funny: A man walks by a beautiful girl with a low-cut dress and drops a quarter down the woman's bosom and a chocolate falls out of the bottom of her dress.' I said, 'Ernst, I don't think there's a place for this here. 'But he was thinking of things like that all the time."

Preston Sturges, who wrote and directed comedies, with the shaggy, intricate madness of Edward Koren's cartoons, was another Hollywood genius drawn to Colbert's talents. "He had an outrageous sense of humor," says Colbert, recalling "The Palm Beach Story" in which she took a wild train trip from New york to Florida with a drunken band of huntsmen and their hounds. Not long ago, Colbert was invited to Mike Nichols' house in Connecticut for a showing of the film, and she says she laughed so hard "the mascara was running down my face."

Although there are films and plays she would rather forget, Colbert takes undisguished pleasure in the ones that worked. At the same time, she regrets that "nobody realizes how hard comedy is. Do you know how easy it is to miss a laugh?" That may be the commonest of comics' complaints. It is followed by the second commonest: "I wanted to do [more serious parts], and after "It Happened One Night' they only wanted me to do comedy."

There have been other casting grievances. Lillian Gish recently played an old servant in a Chekhov play. "If I'd done that," says Colbert, "they'd never believe it because I've never done that sort of thing." Part of her would like to be in England, she says, where "there's repertory and there's Shakespeare, which, alas, I have never played." If there are meaty stage roles for women her own age in her own country, Colbert says, "They don't send them to me."

But she gives the feeling that such decisions are not entirely beyond her control. Touring, she makes clear, is a bit of a come-down, although Washington is a happy exception because she has friends here, and "of course, it's a great pleasure to be active." Regional theaters are no more than a blur on her horizon. It is hard to imagine her, in short, going to the mountain if the mountain failed to come to her. And harder still if the mountain were not a major landmark.

In her Hollywood days," It was a curse to look like a lady and be able to speak the King's English. You always played the long-suffering wife and so on." Before that, before she was a movie star, Colbert's English once was brutally criticized by Alexander Woolcott, the autocratic "New Yorker" writer and the model for Kaufman and Hart's "The Man Who Came to Dinner." Even 50 years later, as her limousine waits to take her back to her hotel, she nearly cringes at the thought.

Meeting Woollcott unexpectedly on the boardwalk in Atlantic City, she point to a German shepherd and commented, "Isn't that the most beautiful police dog?"

"Say 'po-lice dog,' not 'pleece dog'," repolied Woolcott.

"I though, Oh heaven I could die right now!" says Colbert. I said, "It was nice seeing you, Mr. Woolcott."