JAMES Cagney was at sea -- on the Queen Elizabeth II, returning from London, where "Ragtime" is being shot. Cagney prefers not to fly, so a car was dispatched to meet him in New York and drive him down to Washington.

Actress Lynn Fontanne was on her farm in Genesee Depot, Wis., looking forward to her 93rd birthday, which she will observe on stage tonight.

In New York, choreographer Agnes de Mille (who is suddenly much in demand again) was rehearsing almost around the clock.

Soprano Leontyne Price, back from a West Coast tour, was taking a December vacation, preparing for the holiday season and enjoying quiet times with her family.

Leonard Bernstein was in Key West, "working, resting and clearing my sinuses" until a few days before the celebration. Then the composer-conductor returned to New York, where he found "about 100 decisions to be made" waiting on his desk.

Last week, as the date approached for tonight's third annual Kennedy Center Honors, the lives of the five recipients had little in common except a lofty reputation in the performing arts and a special pride and excitement at the honor.

Their ages vary by 40 years. Price, at 53, is the youngest recipient of the Honors in their three-year history; Fontanne, who was born in England, has American stage experience dating back to 1912, 15 years before Price was born. Except for Fontanne, who is retired, all are busy -- but not too busy for tonight's gala ceremonies hosted by Beverly Sills in the Kennedy Center Opera House.

The honorees were chosen for "life-time achievement in the performing arts" by the board of trustees of the Kennedy Center from a list nominated by a committee of 100 artists. They are receiving a distinction that the Kennedy Center calls the highest national recognition in the performing arts and compares to Britain's orders of knighthood, France's Legion d'Honneur and the Soviet Union's Order of Lenin. Last night, the honorees were to be given their awards by Kennedy Center board chairman Roger Stevens at a private dinner for 200 colleagues in the State Department's Benjamin Franklin Room. This afternoon, they will be guests at a White House reception hosted by President Carter.

The honors program -- produced by George Stevens and Nick Vanoff -- will be taped for broadcast on CBS TV at 9 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 27.

"I'm very excited," said Lynn Fontanne in a telephone conversation. "I've received tons of awards, and I don't want to compare one award to another, so let's just say that I'm very excited."

Fontanne's first performance in Washington -- at the National Theatre in June, 1919 -- was also her first stage appearance with her future husband, Alfred Lunt. Since then, they have been here many times -- including a visit in 1964 to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedon and one in 1976 when they saw the Kennedy Center for the first time. But Fontanne has been less active since her husband's death three years ago. "I go to Milwaukee once in a while, she said, "but not usually to the theater. I saw Bob Hope there, and he was very entertaining -- but I haven't gone anywhere else for a long time."

Leontyne Price has attended both of the previous Kennedy Center awards. "I was at the first one to help honor my idol and model, Marian Anderson," she said. "It brought tears to my eyes when I heard that I would receive the same award only two years later."

Leonard Bernstein, who seems to visit Washington more often than some members of Congress, was happy to receive the award for other reasons. "I feel very close to the Kennedy Center," he said. "I feel that I helped to put up the building. I was down there at the Watergate, preparing my 'Mass' for the dedication, while they were hammering next door, finishing that beautiful opera house. I remember Roger Stevens had a heart attack at that time. I visited him in the hospital and asked, 'Is there anything I can do to help?' He told me, 'Yes -- finish the Mass.'"

Agnes de Mille can be reached by phone only around 8 a.m. on weekdays. Once contacted, she said breathlessly, "I can only talk for a minute -- I have to run off to an early rehearsal."

The choreographer's schedule would be hectic for a person with only half of her 72 years, even if she had not been disabled by a stroke a few years ago. "It's incredible how busy I am lately," she said. "I'm crippled and I'm heavily under drugs -- not happy pills, but very potent -- and I'm working harder than ever. I don't do anything else. I come home and go right to bed, where my faithful husband brings me my dinner, and sometimes we watch television.

"We're getting 'Oklahoma!' ready for a road tour, 'Brigadoon' is jumping along in New York, I'm rehearsing 'Rodeo' with the American Ballet Theatre for its opening at the Kennedy Center and I'm preparting a little thing called 'Texas Fourth' for Sunday night.It's a bit of Americana -- a Fourth of July celebration in Texas in the mid-'30s, when people were dancing the apples: the big apple and the little apple.

"I don't have a company for this production, so I had to get people off the streets -- people who have responsibilities to other companies. 'Oklahoma!' and 'Brigadoon' are releasing some people from three performances so they can come down with me. We consider it a sort of command performance. It will only run for one performance, but we have to rehearse it as though it would run forever."

The Kennedy Center Honor will be the second award given to De Mille in less than a week. "I'm getting a prize this afternoon from the Commonwealth Fund in Wilmington," she said a few days ago. "It's cash -- that's the unusual thing about it. All I have to do for that one is go up to the Players' Club, say 'Thank you' and grab it. I also have 15 doctorates in a drawer, though I don't call myself 'Doctor.' But I think the Kennedy Center award is the best."

Jimmy Cagney, halfway between London and New York when he was contacted, said that the Kennedy Center award pleases his very strong sense of patriotism. "Patriotism is a part of everything I do," he said, "including this award. 'Yankee Doodle Dandy' is my favorite picture because it had all the elements necessary to make it a good film -- comedy, drama, music, dancing and patriotism -- last but not least."

Leontyne Price said that she, too, feels patriotic about the Kennedy Center Honors: "It's a thrill to be accepted internationally and have wonderful things happen to you in Europe, but what makes your heart throb is recognition at home. That's what gets me out of the house and working in the morning. And now being honored by the Kennedy Center -- the cultural kernel of my beloved country -- makes me happy beyond belief."

The Kennedy Center citation is destined to join all the other awards Price has received "in a little study room that I call my career room," she said. "That's where I do my thinking and learn my roles -- surrounded by myself, looking at myself in the past and headed towards the future. I work in there among awards, pictures and other memorabilia. My recordings are filed under 'Price,' to the left of my stereo set, and I consider it a luxury to listen to myself although I am disgustingly self-critical. I talk back to my recorded self often, but it doesn't improve the performance."

When the 1980 honorees were announced in the fall, Roger Stevens said that the Kennedy Center "has happily fulfilled many of the goals the trustees set for this national cultural center at the time of its creation. We now have a national tradition for recognition of great achievement in the performing arts, and the 1980 recipients clearly personify this tradition." t

The 1978 honorees were 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 Tenessee Williams. The 1980 Honor Roll

The recipients of the Third Annual Kennedy Center Honors are:

Leonard Bernstein, 62, a musician equally eminent in popular and classical music: conductor of the New York Philharmonic from 1958 to 1969 and now one of the most eagerly sought-after guest conductors in the world. He is the composer of three symphonies and numerous other classical orchestral works as well as such Broadway hits as "West Side Story" and "Fancy Free." At present, he is taking a year's vacation from conducting, which he interrupted only to participate in the celebration of Aaron Copland's 80th birthday. "I am now working on a piece for flute and orchestra which will have its premiere in Israel next year if I ever finish it," says Bernstein. "Then I will be busy preparing scores to conduct next year -- making up for things I didn't do this year."

James Cagney, 80, a veteran of more than 60 movies since his first credits in 1930, one of the prime "tough guys" in Hollywood films, winner of an Academy Award for his portrayal of George M. Cohan in "Yankee Doodle Dandy" and an actor whose way of saying "You dirty rat" is still an inspiration to countless impersonators. Cagney says he came out of retirement to play in "Ragtime," which is now being filmed in London, "on doctor's orders and because my wife thought it might be good for me to occupy myself."

Agnes de Mille, 72, who began her career in choreography in 1936 and helped to create a revolution in American musical comedy with the dances she designed for "Oklahoma!" in 1943. A year earlier, she had revolutionized classical ballet with her choreography for Aaron Copland's "Rodeo." With a score of productions to her credit -- including "Carousel," "Brigadoon" and "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" -- De Mille has lived to see her show-business efforts recognized as classics and reflects that "if you live long enough, you can become fashionable again." De Mille, who is also the author of several dance books, says that she "never expected to be a classic, but I had been a concert artist and I knew how to put a dance together. Suddenly, when I moved into shows I was given an opportunity I never had in the ballet world: the time to really put the dances together, practice and perfect them. Now, I get very impatient with people who scoff at Broadway -- particularly composers who would give their eyes if they could write a Broadway hit."

Lynn Fontanne, 93, who had a unique stage career for more than 50 years with her actor-husband Alfred Lunt, playing in repertoire that included the classics and serious modern drama, but made its most memorable impact in the comedies of their friend, Noel Coward. According to show-business legend, Lunt tripped over a chair and fell at Fontanne's feet when he first met her, on stage at a rehearsal in Washington. This gave their friend, critic Alexander Wolcott, material for one of his most-often-repeated lines: "Alfred fell for Lynn at their first meeting." From this unpromising beginning grew a career that was notable particularly for lightness, alertness and dexterity of style.

Leontyne Price, 53, a soprano widely acclaimed as one of the greatest voices of the century and a pioneer in breaking down operatic barriers against black singers. Price began her career in the early 1950s in a production of "Porgy and Bess" which ran for years on Broadway, then on tour in the U.S. and Europe. In 1953 Samuel Barber chose her to sing the premiere of his "Hermit Songs," and the following year she sang in a television production of "Tosca," but she did not join a regular American opera company until 1957, when she sang in San Francisco and Chicago. Before making her Metropolitan Opera debut in "Il Trovatore" in 1961, she had already triumphed in "Aida" at the Vienna State Opera and La Scala. Currently enjoying what she calls a vacation at home in New York, Price rehearses regularly with her pianist, preparing for a busy season of recording and international touring after the new year. "I keep busy," she says, "but this I don't call work. It's only work when I travel."