Walter Cronkite now seems to have evolved from his position as the dean of American anchormen to something more like the Obi-Wan Kenobi of television. He isn't just "avuncular" any more. He's so darned iconographic and venerable, he's like a spiritual presence, one who retains his dignity even when a monkey smacks him in the face, as happens tonight on the season premiere of "Walter Cronkite's Universe," a pretty wonderful CBS News show at 8 on Channel 9.

The way to use Walter on "Universe" is just the way executive producer Jonathan Ward uses him here: as a relentlessly inquisitive, colloquial character--the proprietor of Unca Walter's Old Curiosity Shop--who combines the persistence of Diogenes with the cuddliness of Grandpa Walton. He also appears to be an insistently good sport, else why would he go to Baboon Island in the Gambia River and let chimpanzees leap all over him?

He made the trip in pursuit of the opening story on tonight's program, the plight of chimps who are considered has-beens when their service to science is over. At 10, a chimp has his whole life ahead of him (minus the first 10 years, of course), but the scientists toss them out, into cages at zoos. This story is tied in with the cases of Lucy, a 16-year-old chimp who grew up being treated like a human child in an Oklahoma City home, then faced a crisis of adjustment when introduced to the wild; and Ham, the first monkey in space, 19 years ago an astronaut and a hero, today a grizzled old-timer retired to a North Carolina zoological park. He bears a slight resemblance to Edward G. Robinson.

Ham spent 17 years alone in a zoo cage, Cronkite reports, before the relative liberation of the park. But it will cost $14 a day to keep him there, $250,000 per chimp lifetime, Cronkite says, and so the gnawing question remains: What do we do with domesticated chimps who no longer have a scientific role to play? The "parents" of Lucy, a psychologist and a social worker, are shown films of their once-rambunctious former tenant now living in Africa, and the wife, watching, says proudly, "She looks wonderful. She's made good."

With naturalist Janis Carter in The Gambia, Cronkite observes chimps exiled from the civilization in which they grew up and now in the process of being mainstreamed, as it were, into jungle life. They have to be convinced to sleep in trees so the hyenas won't eat them, but the chimps of course appear to want nothing so much as a nice quiet evening by a television set. Cronkite is dressed in his safari gear, including khaki shorts, for this expedition. He is having an infectiously good time.

The second segment on the program is Charles Osgood's equally fascinating report on Baltimore's Loiseaux family, the master destructors whose Controlled Demolition company reduces proud tall buildings to imploded heaps in just a few seconds of extremely photogenic obliteration. The Cornhusker Hotel of Lincoln, Neb., seems to sink into the earth with the aid of 300 pounds of explosives. In slow motion, this continues to be a magnificently eerie sight, and the producers erred the way news producers invariably err on the air: They let Osgood talk too much, instead of letting us watch the spectacle and come to private conclusions of our own.

Ruth Streeter produced the chimp segment and Jody Perkins did "Demolition." The senior producer for the series is Brian T. Ellis, and the superior new packaging includes zippier pacing and a handsome new opening logo, classy and striking as CBS graphics invariably are.

Of course the star and the raison d'e tre is the man whose name is above the title, even when the title is "Universe." It is possible to enjoy royally Dave Thomas' cunningly blustery impression of Cronkite on NBC's "SCTV" show and still be totally disarmed by the genuine article, because there is really no one to compare with him.

For a future segment of "Universe" dealing with computer animation (there will be 13 new shows this summer), Cronkite donned top hat and tails and did a little soft-shoe dance at Disney Studios in Hollywood, but a CBS News spokesman said yesterday it was not clear whether this footage will be aired, or, if it is, whether it will be part of the "Universe" series. One can only hope. Walter Cronkite should be allowed to come on television and have all the fun he wants.