Somehow the outsider would have the impression Calvin Lockhart would never be idle. There's the deep questioning in his sparrow eyes that dip and tremble like a whirlpool, the restlessness of his lean form as he eases into conversation, the roundabout, exploratory way he grasps each issue.

And though his small storehouse of film roles has been built in spurts, and has not challenged his acting potential, his presence as the irrepressible gangster, the sensitive teacher and the swindling minister outweighs the actual numbers. But he has dropped out three times, choosing personal odyssey as a tavern owner in Milan and a beach habitue in Nassau, periods that have been imposed by him, urged on by other circumstances. Right now he's in the first wave of ending a four-year hiatus, appearing in Ntozake Shange's "boogie woogie landscapes" at the Kennedy Center.

"Things get crowded, so you go into hiatus. Acting takes a tremendous discipline and I am a lazy person. So going away is a renewal of a lot of things. You get more knowledge away from the scene," says Lockhart. His musical voice is slow and low, as if the depth and savoring of the words give punch to his meaning. "One develops habits, styles of living, those devils I call the other side of your god-self. You want to party all night, then go to rehearsal, then go to the gym, then start the cycle again. You want everything. Going away helps you get, and understand, the balance." y

Everything about Lockhart says moody -- the way he plays with and weighs every word delivered in a philosophical rambling, his look of preoccupation where smiles are as rare as the orchid in a mesh fence, the way he rests his chin on the gold-handled walking stick.This moodiness fragments into various viewpoints: Women see it as mystery and sexiness; the powers of Holywood once categorized his attitude as belligerence and blacklisted him; the critics who saw him wipe up the screen at the dawn of the 1970s thought his suave independence would make him the next Sidney Poitier, and the black audience lauded him as a hero who wouldn't be compromised. But momentum and moodiness crossed swords.

His return to the stage, and to America, seems at once a necessity and a compromise for a dream that didn't work. "The out-of-sight, out-of-mind thing is right," says Lockhart. "But I also tried something, tried to live in Jamaica and work in Los Angeles. It didn't work. Hollywood is fickle." So he took the work with the National Black Touring Circuit sight-unseen, following "Reggae," a short-lived musical extravaganza about Jamaican life, politics and religion on Broadway.

The producer of "boogie woogie," Woodie King, who was also an artistic presence behind "Reggae" and "For Colored Girls," simply described for Lockhart the principles involved in his new show. "I had seen 'Colored Girls' in Los Angeles," says Lockhart. "I was interested." He smiles, the bronze fickle flicker of a lightning bug. "Of course I accepted it not knowing you had to learn 10,000 lines and and that we had only 10 days to do it in."

He talks about the work, the physical and psychological challenges of interpreting Shange, whose images and politics are as provocative as her words, in the manner of an actor who is accustomed to gambles. "Yet I've never worked this fast before.If prefer to work from the inside out and then the words seem to flow once you know the character. But now I'm learning the words and it's all supposed to match. It reminds me of the time in the English repertory when they say don't worry about the character, just say the lines, and the audience will interpret. That's not what I prefer," says Lockhart.

In the play, set in a four-hour dream-and-reality cycle of one woman's night, Lockhart explains, "At one point I represent a sinister character, sometimes the choreographer of the other characters, then the man who made the greatest impression on her, a lover, in that extraordinary love affair that one always thinks of -- it was all too mad but it was probably the most exciting -- and then, her father."

Lockhart is a product of dreams, striving and expectations. Born in the Bahamas in 1934, the youngest of eight children, he was sent to the U.S. to study engineering. He found acting more compatible with his own ambitions. "I would go into a theater and come out Brando, Poitier, Belafonte, Lee Marvin. I joined the drama club at school and the teacher said, 'Please don't go into acting, there are so few jobs, even for white people.' Then I knew I could do it. I have always felt if I could see it in my mind, I could achieve it," says Lockhart.

The first phase of his career started in the late 1950s when Lockhart appeared in "A Taste of Honey" and then "The Cool World," with James Earl Jones, Billy Dee Williams, Cicely Tyson, Raymond St. Jacques and Roscoe Lee Browne. When his role as Blood, a gang member, died with the play after two nights, Lockhart packed up and went to Italy, eventually Germany, and then England.

Then in 1968, he did "Joanna," a torrid love story with Genevieve Waite that sealed his reputation as the silken stud. Lockhart ushered in the contemporary burst of black films with "Cotton Comes to Harlem" in 1970, junketing through disasters like "Myra Breckinridge," and doing five films in one year. His work in "Halls of Anger," tales about his star-tripping on the set, and his own caustic analysis of Hollywood's treatment of blacks in a Life magazine article, ended the second period. "The whole experience had its validity in schooling one. I learned you don't make light of Hollywood's fantasy. I thought they had a sense of humor. I also didn't see any reason to say thank-you for my working for them," says Lockhart. "It became a very desperate thing. I found myself into alcohol. It was part of a rage. I didn't pinpoint Hollywood [as a cause], it was the inactivity."

For a long time he didn't have any work. "But in 1973 I got a call from the Royal Shakespeare Company. At the time I was living in the Bahamas. They said they were interested, I was on the next plane. And I went there expecting to hear, 'You are one of the best colored actors.' You know, one can be victimized by your own prejudices. And this man's answer was astonishing. He said, 'You communicate well.'"

While he was leading what appeared to be a carefree life, his two sons by his first marriage were growing up without him. "Between the ages of 6 and 14, they grew up without my attention and love. And when they came back, they had all the pains of teen-agers. My feelings were ambivalent. I was running away from facing what had happened to them. All I could say was here's the food, the house and the chauffeur. I had become corrupt, and I was afraid to be close," says Lockhart. One of his sons got involved with drugs. He wound up on angel dust and at age 21 he jumped off a building, feet first, and lost both his feet."

For a time Lockhart participated in the antidrug movement, making speeches and appearances until, he says, "I got disillusioned with the motives of some other people. I was there as a parent. I had a parent's anger."

His return to Hollywood was through Hugh Robertson, a black director who had worked on "Midnight Cowboy" and "Shaft" and who asked Lockhart to work on "Melinda."

"He said, 'We are doing it for MGM and they don't want you. But I want you and I've told them I will not do it without you. They are not going to pay you well, they have already cut the budget. But let's try.' And I simply liked the character that came through on the phone. And there I was, not with a limo but with a taxi cab to and from work. But we did it," says Lockhart.

That phase of the comeback was complete with "Uptown Saturday Night" in 1974 and its sequel, "Let's Do It Again."

But for most of the last six years he stayed away from Broadway and Hollywood, running a bar in the Bahamas. "I think I know some more of the answers, what I feel are the answers," says Lockhart. "I try to deal with knowing, not beliefs. Beliefs only separate people."