A slightly bent-over Sir Ralph Richardson crisscrosses the living room of his hotel suite, nose forward, scouring the various horizontal surfaces of the room for . . .

For what?

He never says. He has his pipe, tobacco pouch and smoking accoutrements in hand, and he is handsomely attired in a red striped shirt, pink tie and black blazer, with the neatly folded corner of a white handkerchief peering from the breast pocket. At 78, he is healthy of voice and limb -- he played tennis Monday at the Chevy Chase Club -- and his face retains the slightly bashed-in, unforgetable geometry of old.

He seems as ready as he'll ever be to meet the Kennedy Center's official photographer. But when the photographer arrives, Richardson scrutinizes him from a safe distance. "Can I have gas -- or do you only give the injection?" asks Sir Ralph, who has been one of the luminaries of the English-speaking theater for nearly 50 years. The photographer laughs appreciatively, and the subject takes a seat in the sturdy chair he has chosen in order to avoid the squeezed-down look that comes from being photographed on low, soft furniture.

During his circumnavigations of the room, he has been discoursing on American versus British newspapers, black versus gray squirrels, the weather birds, novels and the quality of the Watergate's decor, which he regards highly. A visiting journalist ventures to ask about the time Richardson played Othello at the Old Vic -- the time when Laurence Olivier, playing a latently homosexual Iago, forgot to mention his plan of kissing Richardson on the lips during the course of the performance. It isn't the most original question, but one must begin somewhere, mustn't one?

"Oh, you won't use that boring story, will you?" says Richardson. "Surely we can give you something better than that." But is the story true? "It's absolutely true," he says. "It's been written again and again, so it must be true." He pauses. "I won't say it's not true." He pauses again, and raises his right eyebrow significantly. "But I won't embroider it."

The sound of a plane bound for National Airport prompts a tribute to the view, which looks across the Potomac toward Rosslyn.Richardson likes watching the planes pass by, he says, and the thought embarks him on an account of his career as a pilot during World War II, attached to the fleet air arm of the Royal Navy. He volunteered on the first day of the war, and was eagerly accepted because "I had my own plane [a Gypsy Moth] and knew how to fly."

When he joined up, he was under verbal contract to Alexander Korda, the movie producer for whom he had made "Things to Come" and "The Four Feathers." Seeing Richardson in his pilot's uniform, Korda asked (in a thick Hungarian accent that Richardson reproduces), "What are you doing in that silly costume?" On hearing the answer, Korda summoned his secretary and asked what they had been paying Richardson, then patriotically announced that he would give, his star half-salary through the duration of hostilities. When the war was over, Richardson spoke of this as a "debt," and Korda tore up his only record of it. He was a "princely" man, says Richardson.

He describes his war service as "very lucky," explaining that he suffered only a single injury in five years. Forced to make a crash landing in the south of England, he leaped from his plane just as it exploded in flames, and "tore my trouser leg." It had to go to the "invisible menders," he adds.

Richardson and Oliver were released prematurely from military service so they could lead a revived Old Vic in 1944. "They said they thought, with the help of the Americans, they could just possibly defeat the Japanese with me," he recalls. Then came his greatest stage triumphs, as Ibsen's "Peer Gynt" and Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya," as Bluntschli in Shaw's "Arms and the Man" and as an unusually poignant and noble Falstaff in both parts of "Henry IV." Critic Kenneth Tynan called the Old Vic's three seasons under Olivier and Richardson "the high-water mark of English acting in the 20th century." Richardson was knighted in 1947.

But when both stars went on international tours that year -- Oliver to Australia and Richardson to America -- the Old Vic had a poor season and its directorate was fired in absentia. "We intended to make it our life's work," says Richardson, "but we couldn't. Perhaps the mistake we made was to both leave at once."

(The Richardson/Oliver relationship goes back to their childhoods in Brighton. They began working together in the '30s when, according to one account, they "vied with each other in the construction of putty noses." But there was a period of personal strain between them when Richardson kept causing mishaps in homes that had been carefully furnished by Viven Leigh, who was married to Olivier through the '40s. On one prewar visit, Richardson came armed with fireworks and launched a rocket on the Oliviers' lawn, only to have it land in their dining room, set fire to the curtains and destroy part of a collection of antique crockery.

(In 1946, the Oliviers had converted a 15th-century abbot's lodge into a suitable home. Olivier took Richardson on a tour of the attic, to see the remarkable frescoes the monks had painted there, and this time Richardson fell through the ceiling, landing in a heap of plaster and broken furniture in the bedroom below. "I felt pretty dogsbody, I can tell you," Richardson said later in an interview with Tynan. Leigh was considerably upset, and "there was a rational basis to her fury, which we must salute.")

"Do you actually have two cameras?" he asks the photographer, who has begun repacking his gear. Told this is a fact, Richardson nods: "Yes," he says, "I thought I felt a twinge on the right and then a twinge on the left."

He departs for lunch, accompanied by photographer, reporter and his wife Meriel, with whom he co-starred in a 1935 melodrama called "The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse," and to whom he has been married since 1942. They are out in the corridor, headed for the elevator, when "Mu," as he calls her, casts a whimsical glance downward. "You're going to keep your slippers on, are you?" she says. All eyes, including Sr. Ralph's, are suddenly on his slipper-shod feet.

After a change of footwear, he accompanies his wife to the bank to cash a $500 traveler's check. It would be dangerous to let her walk the streets of Washington inpoverty, he explains. Someone might stop her and "offer her money, and then they'd offer her terms, and she might never come back." By her restrained reaction, it would sem that Mrs. Richardson has heard the joke before.

After his wife has gone shopping, Sir Ralph descends to lunch at a restaurant deep in the bowels of the Watergatge complex. He chooses his wine carefully, because the brand he had at lunch the day before "nearly killed me." The waitress suggests a non-lethal vintage, and he sips it and accepts delivery of the bottle -- but threatens to reject it later on: "'Disgusting!' I'll say as I down the last drop."

He waits for the waitress' laugh, and sighs when he realizes he must be content with a weak smile.

Richardson praises David Storey, the author of "Early Days," for "his lack of banality, his beautiful writing where no ugly sentences are written . . ."But he concedes that Storey and Harold Pinter, another playwright with whom he was often associated in the '70s, are "not for the uninitiated." "Early Days" was designed for a 400-seat auditorium in London's National Theatre complex, he notes, and the production has had trouble adjusting to larger houses.

Another piece of Richardson lore is submitted for his inspection. Is it true, as one admiring co-star alleged, that he doesn't believe in looking other actors in the eye and prefers to avoid physical contact on stage? "Well, of course, some people will say anything," Sir Ralph replies. Not true, he adds.

And is it true he doesn't care for his face? "I think I have a most unfortunate face," he says. "I could be very rich if I were fine-looking." A pause, in which the listener has the option of looking for irony in that last remark. "I think it's very nice for an audience to see a handsome face. Charles Laughton, of course -- you wouldn't have called him handsome . . .He was a really very great actor, a born actor. I'm just a very experienced actor."