Leonard Bernstein, James Cagney, Agnes de Mile, Lynn Fontanne and Leontyne Price have been chosen to receive the third annual Kennedy Center Honors for career achievement in the performing arts.

The 1980 recipients will be honored at a Kennedy Carter gala on Sunday, Dec. 7, which will include performances and tributes by their colleagues.

Honorees are American artists chosen for their lifetime contributions to the fields for dance, music, theater, opera, film or television. Recipients are selected by the Kennedy Center Board of Trustees from nominations made by the Artists Committee, which is composed of some 100 people active in the perfoming arts.

Beverly Sills will be among the performers in the 1980 Honors Gala, which will be held in the Opera House, according to George Stevens Jr., who is producing the gala along with Nick Vanoff. The producers are not sure who else will be performing. "We'll just have to dream up some other people," said Stevens.

Among those who have accepted invitations to attend the gala are Eddie Albert, Jane Alexander, Douglas Fairbanks, Ellen Burstyn, Eugene Istomin, Diahann Carroll and Count Basie. All are members of the Artists Committee.

"[The gala] is becoming a tradition in the performing arts," said Stevens. "People look forward to it as a weekend in Washington."

Bernstein, 62, was conductor of the New York Philharmonic for 11 years until 1969. He composed the music for the Broadway musicals "West Side Story," "Candide" and "On the Town," and scored Jerome Robbins' ballet "Fancy Free." Bernstein has taken the year off from conducting to devote the time to composing. "However, I will bereak that vow of not conducting when I come back Nov. 14 to the Kennedy Center for the celebration of Aaron Copland's birthday," said Bernstein last week when he was in town for the National Symphony Orchestra's 50th anniversary gala.

Agnes de Mille, 72, is known for her revolutionary choreography in such musicals as "Oklahoma!," "Brigadoon," "Carousel" and "Paint Your Wagon," and in the ballet "Fall River Legend."

"For my taste, the shows of today just don't have the same good scores that the shows of my day had," De Mille said when she was here earlier this month for the opening of a revival of "Brigadoon." "But, my God, look who was composing them! Richard Rodgers, Irving Berlin. But the staging today is first rate."

Soprano Leontyne Price, 53, first came to national prominence as Bess in revival of "Porgy and Bess" in the early 1950's. In 1966, she sang the role of the Egyptian queen in Samuel Barber's "Anthony and Celopatra" at the Metropolitan Opra House at Lincoln Center in New York. She rose to international fame after appearances with La Scala, the Vienna State Opera and the San Francisco Opera.

James Cagney, 80, was Hollywood veteran Tough Guy, playing gangsters and G-men, and smashing half a grapefruit into the face of Mae Clark. Among his best-known films are "Public Enemy" (1931) and "The Roaring Twenties" (1939). He won an Oscar for best actor for his portrayal of song-and-dance man George M. Cohan in "Yankee Doodle Dandy" (1942).

Actress Lynn Fontanne, 93, was born and educated in England, but game to Broadway in 1916. She is best known for her longtime partnership with the late Alfred Lunt. They performed together on the stage in "Taming of the Shrew," "Idiot's Delight" and "The Visit." Lunt died in 1977.

The Kennedy Center honors were first awarded on Dec. 3, 1978 to Marian Anderson, Fred Astaire, George Balanchine, Richard Rodgers and Arthur Rubinstein. Last year's recipients were Aaron Copland, Ella Fitzgerald, Henry Fonda, Martha Graham and Tennessee Williams.