While Michael E. McGill was a guest on a recent talk show, an angry woman phoned in to complain:

"I'm sick and tired of you professors coming up with excuses for my husband's binges."

Her husband, it seems, had been stepping out on her. McGill's explanation that her husband was exhibiting a symptom of many men's stormy passage through middle age gave her little consolation.

Mention "male menopause" or the "male mid-life crisis" in conversation, and very often people giggle uncomfortably. It's prime material for cartoon strips TV situation comedies and movies -- Dudley Moore's pursuit of Bo Derek in "10" is a good example.

But to McGill and Edmond C. Hallberg, university professors who each have written a book on the subject the male middle years are "no laughing matter."

"Not funny at all," says McGill, author of "The 40 to 60 Year Old Male" (Simon and Schuster, 299 pages, $11.95). "Some are really tragic cases. Not only is a man's life in ruin, but he's caused the ruin of many lives."

At mid-life men start asking themselves, "Who am I?" says Hallberg, while their families and friends want to know:

"Why do middle-aged men start acting so differently?" "Why would a happily married man suddenly announce he's going to climb Mt. Everest or buy a Maserati?" "Why would fat old George perform the bump, and fondle his way through half the women under 30 at a neighbor's party?"

Wives seemed to be particularly concerned about the problem. After appearing on a nationwide TV show, McGill says, he got 3,000 letters, mostly from womwn. "One group wanted to know what they could do to help. Another wanted to be told, 'It's not my fault, because I've grown older and less attractive.'"

And a third group was "Mistresses, wanting to know what they could expect -- 'Would he stay with me?'"

At 35, McGill, who teaches organizational behavior at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, has not reached the danger age. He doesn't, however, expect many difficulties: He's following his own guidlines to smoothing the middle-age transition.

On the other hand, Hallberg, 48, wrote his book, "The Gray Itch" (Warner, 277 pages, $2.50 paper) only after he'd gone through a crisis of his own -- one that, he says now, brought "positive" changes to his life, as he believes it can for many men. For him, middle age meant divorce, remarriage and a change in jobs.

Hallberg was dean of students at California State University in Los Angeles during a period of campus unrest. The administrative hassles got to him. For awhile, he felt so "lousy," he says, "I'd go to Laguna Beach and watch the waves go out -- and not those coming in."

He now teaches at the university, where he is professor of counselor education and coordinator of mid-life counseling programs. He, too, believes that by being prepared men can make their middle years more sensible than silly.

While the two professors see generally similar causes for the problem, they differ on at least two points. Hallberg sets the mid-life age range somewhat earlier, from 35 to 55. And his findings, he says, indicate that as many as "80 percent" of American males -- married or bachelors -- will experience a crisis during that period McGill says it is probably only "a third."

Many of the symptoms are almost cliches in our culture, says McGill -- especially the husband abandoning home and family for a much younger woman. "Certinly that's the behavior that gets all the attention." But a great many men go through their crisis without "the other woman."

Other familiar symtoms are the man who sells all of his clothes" for a mod wardrobe, "the one who changes his hairstyle, wears gold chains or buys a motorcyle."

More subtle signs in a male, says McGill, can be:

General sense of irritability. "Nothing seems to go right."

Impatience. "You can almost look at theater lines and see men who are having problems."

Lethargy. "After work, he has a drink and watches TV. He doesn't want to go out with friends. Everything looks like a hassle."

Alcoholism and drug abuse. McGill defines the mid-life crisis "as a rapid and substantial change in personality and behavior," whether for good or bad. He and Hallberg agree that it is more psychological than physical. For that reason, they believe the use of the term menopause -- "fundamental hormonal changes that occur for all women" -- is misleading.

What happens to a man at mid-life that may plunge him into his crisis -- to make him alter his personality and behavior? McGill lists seven causes:

The Goal Gap: A man realizes he's not going to get the company presidency. "At middle age, you're near the peak of your career. If you're not a vice president by 40 or 43, you'renot going to make it."

Unfulfilled dreams: "A good friend realized at age 40 he'd never be a professional baseball player."

Stepping Aside: The boss may give younger workers "the more challenging, more arduous work assignments."

The Empty Nest: The wife goes to work and the kids leave home. "What's a father/husband to do when there's no one to father and no one to husband?"

Meeting Mortality: "At 40, people you personally know are dying."

Vanity and Virility Threats: "You're losing your hair and your muscle tone, you're gaining weight and there's a decline of your sexual ability."

Search for Adventure: "Routines at home and office become ruts. To get something started again" some men may embark on adventurous paths "from the heroic to the humble," taking up sky-diving or simiply buying a fast sports car.

Underlying all of these causes, says McGill, "is the threat to a man's sense of identity. The narrower his identity, the more likely he is to be threatened."

The men who are hardest hit "are those who are totally invested in their careers. If a younger man gets the promotion, that's rough to deal with."

At the same time, "men who are successful in their careers are as likely as not to be susceptible to the crisis. They often question whether it was worth it to give up their family and personal time to get where they are." Or they may have achieved their goal only to ask, "I've done all that -- what now?"

For the man who more closely identifies with his family, an empty nest may leave him feeling, "They don't seem to need me."

The "man who's prided himself on being trim, athletic and sexually active" suffers when age diminishes these attributes.

"For those men whose crisis is caused by vanity or virility or the search for adventure -- the need to do something different," says McGill, "the affair is almost automatic. That's not true for men whose crisis is career-related."

The key to avoiding a mid-life crisis, says McGill (and with which Hallberg would agree) "is to develop a multidimensional sense of worth early on. Have lots of things that can make you feel worthwhile."

In his case, McGill says, "I have multiple identies." In addition to teaching, he is a corporate consultant. "I'm away from campus a great deal, meeting with older groups of people on different issues." Additionally, there's his book and "I have an active family life."

Both Hallberg and McGill see the problem of the middle years getting worse before they get better for a variety of reasons, including "increasing role demands on men in our society." The feminist movement has forced the male to question his macho ethic, says McGill, while "the career ladder becomes more competitive" and "deteriorating economic conditions severely pressure his role as provider."

A complicating factor, they add is that many men, unlike women, have few close confidants of the same sex with whom they can unburden their problems.

For McGill, "Effective resolution of the mid-life crisis inevitably requires change. The middle-aged man must change his sense of self and his behavior if he is to creatively and constructively respond to crisis."

Hallberg urges the middle-aged male to seize control of his own life:

"You can wallow in your entrapment, or move out briskly to live the second half." CAPTION: Illustration, no caption, By Mulligan; Copyright (c) 1961, The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.