Acting swiftly and apparently without a smile, Vatican officials yesterday reportedly detained actor Don Novello for appearing in the land of papal infallibility in his "Saturday Night Live" role as the Rev. Guido Sarducci.

To be more specific, when detained, Novello was clad parlty as a priest -- impersonating a man of the cloth -- according to his photographer and sidekick, Paul Solomon. Such impersonations are not smiled upon in the pope's backyard.

Last night it was not immediately clear what the Swiss guards at the Vatican thought they had on their hands: a clerical imposter or a nut case. Novello was said to be wearing a priestly black cape, as well as pink glasses and cowboy boots, not to mention a spaghetti plate as a hat.

And so they took him into custody, questioned him for several hours, and then turned him over to Rome police officials.

Anyone who has ever received a traffic ticket in Rome knows what a wonderful experience that could be. In the typically leisurely manner of official Italy, Novello was released after 6 1/2 hours.

Solomon told the Associated Press that Novello was standing in front of the offices of L'Osservatore Romano, the official Vatican newspaper, having his picture snapped, when, to his wonderment, the Swiss guards took Novello into custody. Apparently they did not know that for years Novello played the role of gossip columnist for the newspaper on "Saturday Night Live."

According to Solomon, Novello was also accused of taking unauthorized photographs, which is against the law in Vatican City -- although usually tolerated in the case of tourists.

Novello was in Italy reporting a piece called "Father Sarducci's Rome" for Attenzione, a monthly magazine published here for Italian Americans.

"We had no idea we were doing anything that was forbidden," Solomon said. "We told them we were not trying to pass him off as any priest or anything, it's just that's his schtick."

The mind boggles at the idea of translating schtick into Italian. Neigher Vatican nor Rome police would comment on Solomon's report on the incident.

Novello, quite possibly America's most laughed-at clerical impostor, created on "Saturday Night Live" a successor to Lenny Bruce's infamous parody of a priest. Novello would joke about the outrageous appearance of nuns' habits, relics of the True Cross, the Baltimore Catechism (a concise compendium of Catholic dogma), "The Last Brunch" and the problems of confirming clerical gossip for the column he supposedly wrote at the Vatican newspaper. His humor became so well known that journalists would often call Novello to comment -- in is Sarducci role -- on matters concerning the pope and Catholicism.

After leaving "Saturday Night Live," Novello covered the U.S. visit of the pope for Rolling Stone. He has also published a collection of wacko correspondence called the "Lazlo Letters" documenting interchanges between Novello and various public and private leaders.