Gene Quintano is mildly apologetic when asked how he wound up playing a starring role in his own movie, a $3.5-million spaghetti western called "Comin' at Ya!" He has two degrees in English literature from Georgetown University, but he considers himself only a "fringe" actor.

Quintano is the co-producer. The producer is Tony Anthony, who got to be the star. Even the associate producer, Marshall Lupo, was assigned several minor roles.

"Us being in it is mostly a matter of economics," Quintano explained. "Tony is the star and he's very good, but this is not an actor's film. I mean, Robert Redford is not going to be sweating it out. The real star is supposed to be the 3-D."

Three-D? That moribund and eccentric film process that had a brief shining moment in 1953 with "Bwana Devil" and "House of Wax," but by the 1970s was relegated only to the occasional porn or kung fu epic?

That 3-D indeed -- technically improved but still requiring cardboard spectacles for the audience. "Comin' at Ya!" is a stereoscopic shoot-'em-up featuring flaming arrows, swooping bats and 100 imperiled beautiful women. Filmways, the distributor, opened it quietly a few weeks ago at one theater each in Phoenix and Kansas City.

The quiet was quickly broken by the sound of money. In its first week in Phoenix, "Comin' at Ya!" grossed $53,000 -- $2,000 more than "Star Wars" had in the same theater three years before. In the theater in Kansas City, the film grossed $26,500 -- or about as much as Filmways' other summer release, "Blow Out" with John Travolta, totaled in six theaters there.

Filmways promptly booked "Comin' at Ya!" in 200 other theaters, including 10 in Washington. We shall now see whether 3-D can make a comeback; but in any case "Comin' at Ya!" has come back, because Washington, D.C., is where the project began.

Quintano and Lupo were Xerox salesmen in the early 1970s. Lupo knew Tony Anthony -- an actor who was to star in the "Stranger" series of European spaghetti westerns, but who in Washington was better known as Tony Petitto. As in Petitto's Ristorante D'Italia on Connecticut Avenue.

The origins of art are often enshrouded, but through the mist this picture of collaboration and determination can yet be seen.

"I went with Xerox because I had to eat," Quintano said. "By 1976, I had actually become Washington-area sales manager, with about 15 guys working under me. One of them was Lupo." While at Xerox, Quintano used his spare time to write a novel and study acting.

"My mother was a serious writer. She lived in Washington, and had stories published in The New Yorker under the name Dorothy Palmer Hines. We decided to write a gothic romance together. She put in the woman's point of view and I put in the action stuff. We sold it to Doubleday for $1,500."

The novel was called "Weekend at the Villa." In the meantime, Quintano was also narrating industrial films and dreaming about an acting career. He later joined the First National Touring Co., a traveling dinner-theater troupe. But Quintano did not like sleeping behind bowling alleys, which is where he was billeted in Birmingham, Ala., during the run of "Boeing Boeing." "The sound of the pins woke me up," he said.

One of the artistic turning points was quitting Xerox. Quintano and Lupo decided they would found an office-supply company called Carta Corp. "Using our contacts, we could supply paper and toner, stuff like that," he explained.

Lupo introduced him to a friend named Tony Anthony, whose destiny was also about to be changed. The change was called MadEasy Ltd., a company founded by the three to publish and distribute games and books.

The stage was now set for the first 3-D spaghetti western.

"It wasn't so strange for me, really," Quintano explained. "My mother was English, and her mother had been on the stage. My father was a stockbroker in 1929, but my Uncle Leonard founded the Quintano School for Young Professionals in New York, and he had Sal Mineo, Carol Lynley, Tuesday Weld, Brooke Adams through there.

"I was on the fringe of acting, but Tony had done all those westerns. In fact, what got us going on this was that Tony had been asked to do a 3-D king fu movie in Taiwan, and he came to us. We got interested in doing one ourselves. It was a pragmatic decision."

So was 3-D.

"Well," Quintano said, "we figured that 60 to 80 percent of the moviegoing audience is 25 or under, and they'd probably never even seen one. Also, there is a mania for special effects just now, and we thought that 3-D could compete with what they can do in the studios, and for less money.

"We spent almost three years researching the new 3-D technology, and then the question became: What kind of a movie do we want to make? We could have done a horror film, but when we looked around we saw 100 of them and the market wasn't very strong. Science fiction would also have worked, but we were looking at $10 million or $15 million to do it right. So we were left with the western."

Ninety percent of the financing for the film was raised in Washington. "Mostly it came from individuals. Some friends from Xerox kicked in. We found a commodities dealer here who liked to take risks, and he put up $300,000. A son of a senator who shall remain nameless invested a couple of thousand."

The three partners, however, retained 50-percent ownership. Day-to-day expenses, Quintano accounts for this way: "We used to have money in the bank."

With themselves cast as leads, Quintano and Anthony then flew off to Almeri'a, Spain, to shoot on the famous sets used for Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood sagas.

Modern 3-D movie equipment is more versatile than that of the '50s, but the movie still had to be staged specifically to highlight the effect of flying objects that is the particular specialty of the process. They chose arrows, hundreds of which are shot at the presumably cringing audience, and bats that fly from the audience toward a passel of frightened ladyfolk.

"We had some class, but of course it was a tight budget," Quintano said. "Our art director had done the Italian scenes for 'Godfather II.' They gave him a helicopter to scout locations. We gave him bus fare.

"In the meantime, Lupo is back at home, handling all the disbursement of funds and the investors' money and so on. Finally, he gets on a plane and arrives to be in the picture. But the stunt men heard he was in charge of the money, and one enormous Italian guy grabs him and starts yelling, Non e bene! Non e bene! Why have I not been paid! This scared him away for a while. But he was quite good, and it's too bad one of his big scenes had to be cut. He was a bit chagrined."

Quintano attended four screenings of the finished film, and he was surprised at the reaction he found in Kansas City.

"The audience really reacted more to the story than I'd anticipated. I must say it is a pretty simple story, the good guys versus the bad guys. It's biff-bam comic-strip action. It's a very slender story."

As a two-degree man in English lit, Quintano may possibly not be his own best audience.

"Oh, there are a lot of things 3-D isn't suited for," he conceded. "I mean, you don't do 'Ordinary People' in 3-D. I don't think you'd want Edward Albee in 3-D."

With 200 theaters offering "Comin' at Ya!," 3-D perhaps has its first chance for a comeback since the days of gore or yore.

What happened in 1953 was rather strange. "Bwana Devil," the first 3-D extravaganza, galvanized a movie industry fearful of competition from TV. Variety ran stories that the "flatties" would soon go the way of the silents, and that "deepies" -- a 3-D term that failed to stick -- would be as important an advance as talkies.

Several studios considered turning their entire futures over to 3-D, despite the problem that showing such films required two cameras and two projectors. Cinerama, it was pointed out, required three projectors.

An MGM costume designer named Helen Rose issued a dire warning: Actresses could no longer pad themselves or even wear girdles because the new 3-D ruthlessly revealed all. However, she explained, MGM was not worried because Lana Turner, Ava Gardner, Esther Williams, Jane Powell and Cyd Charisse were not in need of padding. Of Elizabeth Taylor, she said, "She is a little overweight because of the baby. Otherwise her figure is superb."

In that brief shining moment, "Kiss Me Kate" appeared. It was the first serious 3-D feature, and became the subject of a cruel test. It opened "flat" in Texas, and in 3-D in upstate New York. Audiences flocked to both, which was not encouraging. The 3-D print was shelved. Worse yet, "From Here to Eternity" -- shot not only in 2-D but in black and white -- set a box-office record when it opened in New York. Hollywood concluded that quality -- always more difficult to control than process -- still could pack them in.

The man who killed 3-D was a Frenchman, Dr. Henri Chretien, professor at the Sorbonne and member of the Optical Institute of Paris. He did it by inventing Cinemascope, which permitted a movie screen 21/2 times larger than before, and gave the added drama the studios were anxious for. Twentieth Century-Fox converted all its productions, beginning with "The Robe."

Three-D never really died. Whenever "The Creature From the Black Lagoon" has been shown in its 3-D version, audiences have always appeared, as they have for "It Came From Outer Space" and "House of Wax." The Key in Georgetown did good business last year with a double bill of a "Three Stooges" short and Alfred Hitchcock's adventuresome "deepie" version of "Dial M for Murder." Three-D has even been tried on television -- on Selectavision in Milwaukee, with Polaroid glasses available through Sears, Roebuck.

"Comin' at Ya!" may show the future the glories of the past, or, of course, it may do a 200-theater belly-flop that empties the pool forever. Quintano estimates that it will eventually gross "$12 billion" and he and his partners are already at work on their second 3-D feature, a situation comedy.

"We might go ahead and sign a television star as the lead of this one, but I don't know yet," Quintano said.

One company that wishes Quintano, Lupo and Anthony all the luck in the world is the Marks Polarized Corp. of New York, manufacturers of those cardboard glasses.

The president of Marks told The Wall Street Journal that his company is now turning out 3 million pairs a week for theaters showing "Comin' at Ya!" Marks grossed $700,000 in its 1981 fiscal year. The company is projecting sales of $30 million for 1982.