The minute he walked in the joint, they could tell he was an ape of distinction.

Joe Malhotra and Mo Sussman, the owners of Joe and Mo's, spared no expense in getting their restaurant ready for C.J., the orangutan star of the upcoming Bo Derek film, "Tarzan, The Ape Man." They had a large table set aside in the main room, and they had a huge banana split waiting for him. Malhotra and Sussman were especially glad to see C.J. because, as Sussman said, "This proves our place isn't going to dogs."

Initially, there was a big hubbub over C.J.'s presence. After all, it isn't every day that an orangutan, let alone a celebrity orangutan, climbs in for a discreet, naked lunch. (Joe and Mo were tactful enough not to insist that C.J. put on a jacket and tie; it might have looked foolish considering he didn't even have on pants.)

As you might have expected in Washington, diners approached C.J. to inquire about his ecological views, his assessment of the Reagan administration, who does his hair, how he keeps in such good shape and what stock market advice he might have. Richard Morgan, a businessman seated behind C.J., offered his card and told C.J., "You may want to reach me someday." Other people were overheard saying, "I don't believe it." rWhether that referred specifically to one of C.J.'s answers, or to his table manners (which were impeccable), could not be determined. One man pointed at C.J. and said to his luncheon companion, "How'd you like to be sitting at the bar having a few pops and see that walk in? You think it'd be time to go home then?"

But soon the crowd settled back down and let C.J. eat in peace, proving that Washingtonians take most things in stride, knowing that at least once a day someone famous is going to make a monkey out of himself.

C.J., who was born in the Dallas Zoo almost 10 years ago and now stands 4 foot 2 and weighs 135 pounds, was accompanied by his trainers, Paul Reynolds and Bill Gage, Who work for "Gentle Jungle," a California company specializing in training animals for movies. C.J. had agreed to do an interview over lunch and even allowed the reporter to ride to the restaurant in the limo with him. (C.J. loves to ride in limos. He sits in the back, folds his arms and gazes serenely out the windows, as if to say, "Pretty hot stuff, huh, Slick?") C.J. insisted only that he not be asked to comment about his rumored feud with Benji over which gets top billing in the all-animal remake of "Gone With the Wind." (In order to gain ape expertise, this reporter recently attended a two-day seminar at Sweet Briar College entitled "Hominids and Pongids -- What We Can Learn About Humankind From the Apes." There, conversations were held with Dr. Birute Galdikas, the noted primatologist who has spent many years studying wild orangutans in their native habitat in Borneo. Plus, I saw the televised ads for the Clint Eastwood movies, "Every Which Way But Oose" and "Any Which Way You Can.")

Although orangutans are silent animals, making sounds naturally only when mating or when giving a mating call, C.J. spoke volumes with his gestures and expressions. When asked the most obvious question -- what he really thought about his glamorous costar, Bo Derek -- C.J. smiled broadly, as if to say, "Bo and I are close personal friends, and I think she is a 10. But to tell you the truth, I've got a girlfriend back in Borneo who puts Bo to shame; she makes Bo look like a 4. You should see her when she swings through the trees. She's the gorilla my dreams."

C.J. was then asked about the R rating that "Tarzan, The Ape Man" has received, and he was very explicit about that. He took a spoonful of his banana split, as if to say, "I don't see what the fuss is about. I was just as naked an ape when I was Clyde's understudy in 'Any Which Way You Can,' and that was PG. I read the script and I saw that my nude scenes were essential to my character's development. And believe me, they're quite tasteful." Speaking of his relationship with Eastwood, C.J. picked a cherry off a mound of ice cream, as if to say, "Clint wears women's clothing." Then C.J. scratched his ear, as if to say, "Just kidding. Clint is a great guy and a helluva doubles partner."

Turning to some more serious questions, C.J. was asked what he thought about medical research experiments that use monkeys as guinea pigs. He stared at his glass of water, as if to say, "That whole thing really makes my fur fly. Let them use the researchers as guinea pigs. Let's see how they like being poked with needles and sent up in rockets."

C.J. was equally adamant on another subject of major importance to endangered species like orangutans -- the wildlife and conservation policies of James Watt, the secretary of the interior. C.J. grabbed a Coke bottle and began to chug, as if to say, "Everyone knows that the biggest threat to orangutans is habitat destruction, and here you have someone who won't be happy until the whole world is covered with condos. I can't see Mr. Watt getting much support in the jungle, and that's a fact, Jack."

Not wanting to offend C.J. to the point where he would make a scene by eating the table -- or one of the patrons -- this reporter switched the subject back to movies and asked C.J., What's it like to be a sex symbol? C.J. closed his eyes and tilted his head back suggestively, as if to say, "Chicks dig me. They call me up. Want to run their fingers through my long red hair. I seem to be real big with sheep. They send me fan mail with little tufts of wool tucked inside and ask me to graze with them. I can only suppose it's pure animal magnetism."

C.J. also seemed to enjoy being asked about his favorite rock group, which (no surprise here) turned out to be The Monkees, and about his favorite movies. C.J. took another swig of Coke, this time from a glass, as if to say, "I must have seen each 'Pink Panther' movie 15 times. And, of course, I loved 'Planet of the Apes'; I'm a big Roddy McDowall fan. I liked 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' because so many of my friends are snakes. iBut I can't stand those cheap animal exploitation movies like 'In Search of Noah's Ark' or any of those wilderness cowboy movies. Feh!And deliver me from Francis the Talking Mule. So what if he can talk -- he ain't got nothing to say."

What was surprising was C.J.'s reaction to the question, Who's tougher, you or King Kong? C.J. pursed his lips, as if to say, "Kong's a wussy. The truth is, Kong's acrophobic. That wasn't him climbing the Empire State Building; that was a stunt ape. Kong was too scared. When a bunch of us orangutans get together we tell Kong Jokes. Like, how many people does it take to help Kong screw in a lightbulb? Two. One to hold Kong's hand, and the other to call the electrician."

Time was beginning to run short. There were other people to see and C.J. wanted to get back to his cage to freshen up. (He sleeps in a cage in an air-conditioned van when he's on the road rather than in a hotel room. "When he's out of the cage he's always working," said trainer Reynolds. "When he's in the cage he knows it's time to sleep. He's happy in the van. He can eat like he wants; he eats mostly fruits and vegetables, and he likes a broiled chicken every day. And in the cage he can do what he wants. Read the paper. Play an album. Whatever. He goes right to sleep when it's dark; orangutans are afraid of the dark.") So there was time for only one more question.

C.J., do you feel you're being taken seriously as an actor? C.J. waited a long time before answering. He really thought about this one. Then he stuck out his tongue, as if to say, "What I'd really like to do is direct."