THE Elephant Man" is a play about a man so horribly deformed that one doctor called him "the most disgusting specimen of humanity I had ever seen."

But what was disgusting to Dr. Frederick Treves -- whose writing about the pathetic 19th-century freak, John Merrick, formed the basis for the play -- was a beautiful part for an actor.

And in a strange twist of fate, the history of the play has reincarnated the story it was based on: Merrick, once he was taken under Surgeon Treves' wing, became something of a society darling, visited by generous ladies (those who didn't faint) who were fascinated, as was Treves, by his deformity as well as his person.

The play started as a nonprifit oddity in an off-Broadway church theater, quickly became the hottest ticket in town, and went on to make a star of a formerly unknown Yale gratuate named Philip Anglim, who plays the part of Merrick.

Recently turned 27, Anglim looks more like an overgrown preppie than a deformed freak. (He once got a mash note from someone who had seen the play that said, "I thought your performance was great, but your legs are better.") But he evidently knows that playing the unusual is far more interesting than the juveniles for which he would be typecast.

"I'm fascinated by spectral people," he said last week, "people on the fringes of society, whether they're artists, extraordinary soldiers, or whatever. It's the aliens, the ones who are ostracized, who really tell us about ourselves." This from a man who wrote a play in college (blessedly unproduced, he said) called "The Plague of Promachus."

And his next part, when he leaves the touring production of "The Elephant Man" in July, is a one-character, two-hour monologue called "Judgment." It's about a Russian soldier who survives incarceration for 60 days without foot and water by eating some of his fellow officers.

"The playwright told me not to get upset if people leave during the performance," Anglim said. "Some just can't take it. Apparently one woman who turned out to be a vegetarian ran out of the theater and threw up in the lobby."

"The Elephant Man" -- which opens Wednesday at the Eisenhower Theater -- is not revolting. Indeed, Anglim uses no makeup to create his version of Merrick, who some latter-day anatomists theorize was a victim of neurofibromatosis, multiple tumors of the nervous system. On state, Anglim gradually turns his body "into a sort of U.

"The hip becomes displaced, the right shoulder drops, the left shoulder goes up, the arm goes out. . . . It's as if gravity's trying to pull you over to the right," he said.

Playing the part eight times a week is a physical strain, Anglim said. A masseur and Epsom-salt baths help ease the cramps. He warms up with about 10 minutes of calisthenics before going onstage, and a little lemon and honey for his voice.

What is important to Anglim about the character is that despite a life of incredible "degradation and squalor," of being exhibited in freak shows and abandoned, Merrick was able to enjoy what small crumbs were left to him.

The play has become a sort of rallying point for many handicapped people. There were two sisters, Anglim said, who came to a performance in New York, wearing veils to hide their deformity, who wrote the cast that they were "havers" of neurofibromatosis. There are others in wheelchairs or with canes who come backstage, and letters from people who identify their own deformity with Merrick's. Anglim has been invited to address the Neurofibromatosis Society. (He was also threatened by a physically normal man who claimed that he was the long-dead Merrick, and that Anglim had stolen his life. Anglim was trailed by Pinkerton guards for a few days.)

Treves wrote that after he had placed Merrick in a hospital at the age of 20, he asked a young woman to go to Merrick's room, smile and shake his hand.

"As he let go her hand, he bent his head on his knees and sobbed until I thought he would never cease. . . . He told me afterwards that this was the first woman who had ever smiled at him, and the first woman, in the whole of his life, who had shaken hands with him. From this day the transformation of Merrick commenced and he began to change, little by little, from a hunted thing into a man." He died at 23.

Anglim became entranced with the character of Merrick when he first saw Bernard Pomerance's play in London in the fall of 1977. Richmond Crinkley, who had produced an off-off-Broadway showcase that Anglim had been in, had read a review of the play and asked Anglim to see it and get the script while he was in London. (The story that Anglim discovered the play himself and badgered Crinkley into producing it has become a popular rumor.)

"It was one of the two or three most compelling nights I had ever spent in the theater," Anglim said, the others being seeing Laurence Olivier in "Long Day's Journey Into Night," Christopher Walken in "Caligula" at the Yale Rep, and Rene Auberjonois in "Tartuffe." "The audience was demanded to create the extent of the Elephant Man since no makeup was used -- it was the kind of collaborative dynamic the theater is and should be.

"It celebrated something which hasn't been in vogue, the individual, the triumph of the individual's spirit, the overcoming of enormous adversity."

It took Crinkley six months to get the rights to produce the play, which has since spawned a flock of imitators including a musical and an upcoming opera. The theatrical producers of "The Elephant Man" are suing one of the off-shoots, a movie produced by Mel Brooks based on the same story and using the same title.

"Philip was vehemently determined that he was the best person for the part," Crinkley recalled. "He was like a lot of young actors who stop by a producer's office every six weeks or so to see what's happening. By the time we got the rights and were ready to cast it, he'd already been working on the character for six months. He was about the readiest person among living actors for the auditions."

The performance has won Anglim a Drama Desk Award, an Obie, an Outer Circle Critic's Award and a Theater World Award. Beats walking dogs for a living.

He was like many actors when he came to New York 5 1/2 years ago: out of work and used to rejection. After Yale, he'd applied to three drama schools and been summarily rejected by all of them. He went home to San Francisco for a few months to "lick my wounds," and then decided to hit the pavements of New York.

It took him only nine months to land his first job -- the part of Charles Adams in "The Adams Chronicles" on public television. From then on, he managed to work "at least 30 weeks a year -- enough to qualify for unemployment." He had parts in regional theater in Cincinnati, Indiana and Massachusetts.

He is used to the impermanence of the actor's life; home is where the part is. Also where his dog is. When the troupe goes to Los Angeles his dresser will drive the dear mutt, a 150-pound wolfhound named Kelty, all the way across the country.

And is the alien, the spectral misfit, perhaps a metaphor for the role of the actor in society?

"Well," he answered slowly (and dramatically), "there's a line in 'Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead' that goes: 'We're actors, we're the opposite of people.' I've always liked that line. . . ."