MOST promising movie projects end up abandoned. A high percentage of the rest are seriously compromised. Every ambitious filmmaker must resign himself to the likelihood and effort on unrealized "dream" projects.

"I'm a living example of how that kind of thinking can continue for nine years," said director Richard Rush, who survived almost every form of adversity from mere rejection to a heart attack in order to get "The Stunt Man" filmed and distributed.

How did he sustain a filmmaking obsession for a decade? "I was in love with it," Rush simply replied. "Whenever other directing offers came up, I decided that I liked 'The Stunt Man' better. So I'd dust off the script and give it one more try."

The final result is a lively, ingenious comedy about paranoid overreaction, in which a young fugitive takes refuge with a movie company and begins to fear that the director intends to take fatal advantage of him. It's possible that an apparent sanctuary may turn out to be a maze of booby traps ending in a deathtrap.

The original novel by Paul Brodeur came to Rush's attention soon after its publication in 1970. "Columbia had it," Rush remembered, "and I had just worked out a nonexclusive deal with Columbia thanks to the success of 'Getting Straight.' They thought it might be something I'd like, and I flipped. There was that irresistible metaphor in it, like a clothesline waiting for all the unfinished laundry in the back of your mind. It seemed a once-in-a-lifetime chance to play with all the crazed panic we feel about controlling our destinies.

"At the same time it had the makings of a good visual action story. The metaphor could be expressed within the structure of a bold, funny Hollywood movie, with all those enjoyable elements we ordinarily go to see. I hired Larry Marcus to do the screenplay, and nine months later we had a terrific script. By that time, Columbia was $120 million in the red, and the executives I'd been dealing with were on their way out.

"Still, we weren't concerned. We knew the script was great. After we reaquired it, my agent confidently predicted that we'd have a sale within the week. He overestimated by 7 years and 27 weeks. You know who my agent was? David Begelman!

"A few years later he's running Columbia, for heaven's sake. Naturally, I rush 'The Stunt Man' to David at his new place of business. And what does he do but reject the script. I came back with a letter he had written, back in '71, urging a particular star to jump at the change to do this script. I showed it to him. "That's still a hell of a letter,' he said. But it was still no deal on 'The Stunt Man.'"

Why the rejection? "Well, there was no precedent for it. At one time or another we were told that no one wanted a movie about Vietnam [in the original novel the figutive is a draftee who deserts en route to camp; Rush and Marcus transformed him into a returning G.i.], no one wanted a movie about the movies, no one wanted a movie about stunt men.

"In David's defense, once a script is turned down, you stick your neck way out if you decide to take a chance on it. If it flops, you look like a jerk, because everyone else had been smart enought to reject it.

"Self-fulfilling prophecy is one of the things we're constantly sliding downhill on. After a few rejections, 'The Stunt Man' became damaged goods. There was a certain vested interest in continuing to reject it. Greed has become a less dependable motive in Hollywood. Ego has replaced it -- a big mistake, because greed is more reliable and sensible."

Now nearing 50 but looking so fit that he could easily pass for 15 years younger, Rush graduated from the theater arts department at UCLA in the mid-'50s. He worked for an ad agency and established his own production company, shooting commercials and industrial shorts, before directing his first theatrical feature, "Too Soon to Love," on a budget of $50,000 in 1963. He made his reputation with a series of witty, visually inventive exploitation melodramas for AIP in the late '60s: "Hell's Angels on Wheels," "Psych-Out" and "The Savage Seven," an astonishing, demonic action epic in which moder reservation Indians and a gang of bikers acted out a mutant modernization of the standard Western conflict between cowboys and Indians.

All the AIP movies were photographed by a Hugarian refugee named Lazslo Kovacs, who transposed the spacious, fluid, vividly hued pictorial stype he and Rush had been evolving directly to the fashionable sensation of 1969, Dennis Hopper's "Easy Rider."

Rush had six features in release in 1968 and '69. His output plunged to three features in the '70s: "Getting Straight," Freebie and the Bean" and "The Stunt Man," which was finally shot in 1978 after Rush secured financing from a newcomer to Holywood, shopping-center magnate Mel Simon.

This decline in productivity was die to Rush's preoccupation with "The Stunt Man." His movies, sometimes crude but never dull, have always done well at the box-office. Rush turned down several offers that would have kept him prominently employed: "Klute," "Lenny," "Rocky."

According to Rush, the problems of the finished film began at a preview screening designed to attract the major distributors. "It was a unique, ill-advised move," he recalled. "We'd rented the big screening room at MGM. What we didn't realize until too late was that Barbra Streisand was throwing a big party that night. The two guys from every studio who actually had the authority to make acquistions were all partying with Barbra. That left us with all the guys who only had the authority to say no, which is what they said."

Rush tried to recoup by arranging a preview at a suburban Seattle theater. It was a hit: 96 percent of the preview cards registered good or excellent. Additional previews in Columbus and Phoenix duplicated the results from Seattle. Charles Champlin of the Los Angeles Times offered to sponsor it at the upcoming Dallas Film Festival.

"We still didn't have a distributor,"Rush said, "but the movie was beginning to acquire a cult following already." Finally he was offered a test engagement at a theater in Seattle. "That was 20 weeks ago," Rush said, "and we're still there."

The clincher was a follow-up test engagement in Los Angeles. When "The Stunt Man" became the highest grossing picture in town in its opening week, credibility was at last attained.

While trying to salvage his movie, Rush also survived another setback: a heart attack. "I suppose it's a usefulcase study of how stress can creep up on you," he recalled cheerfully. "I never thought of myself as the type for a coronary. I was always althletic, kept in good shape. I've never been a screamer on the set.

"They say the first symptom is denial, and I had strong denial, along with symptoms I identified as heartburn. When I got back to L.A., I decided to pay the doc a visit. I went on the stress machine and started feeling the heartburn again. A few days later it was getting worse, and I called the paramedics. It was a major attack. A strange sort of pain: I thought an elephant might have been tap-dancing on my chest.

"Anyway, that was 11 months ago. I'm on a strict diet and heavy exercise. Of course, on the road that discipline tends to slip away from you. I'm functioning fine again, except for being a little paranoid. You know how it is: If you've trusted the machine and it breaks down once, you can never trust it not to break down again."

Rush didn't anticipate how pleased audiences would be with the technical playfulness of "The Stunt Man." he'd like to expand on its games of deception in subsequent work.

"After my third picture," he recalled, "when I thought I'd finally mastered the art of getting a person into a car and having the car drive off in the right direction, I began to get restless. That was the first stirring of something that might accurately be called 'sytle.' What allowed me to experiment with it was taking a project I deplored, 'Hell's Angels on Wheels.' I didn't want it, the whole idea offended me, I thought of the Angels as a blot on our civilization.

"Oddly enough, the fact that the idea and the screenplay repelled me had a liberating effect. Disliking the material as much I did, began treating it in a cavalier fashion. The necessity to invent and improvise began producing a remarkably free style. We were looking at the most original, spontaneous dailies I'd ever seen. Lazslo and I kept coming up with new visual ideas, contrasting the ugliness of the gangs with lyrical countrysides, for example, or doing long riding cadenzas. The whole process acquired a cohesion, and I tried to build on it in 'Psych-Out' and 'The 'savage Seven.'

"Looking back, I realize that part of the appeal in 'The Stunt Man' was the opportunity it allowed to experiment, to play new games and alter the syntax of film a little bit, alter the sentence structure and phrasing so that it's the syntax that expresses the meaning of the time.

"I obviously thought of myself as a kind of stunt man too, walking a tightrope between melodrama and satire, trying to master the form without losing the entertainment values. I don't know precisely what I'm looking for, but it should try to mix styles and resolve apparent contradictions. I haven't seen the script, but the title would be something like 'Proust Meets Batman.'"