It is, first, a solid face, broad, anchored by a bulbous nose, flanked by hound-dog cheeks, lit by bright, alert eyes. It is a face that has coldly encapsulated the joy of a hanging judge, wearily hinted at the anguish of a salesman who's lost his pitch, uncovered the madness of an over-the-edge super-patriot or the confusion of a father who is out of touch with his children.

It is a face that has been connected to many costumes -- cop and robber, judge, outlaw and sheriff, rich and poor man, senator and president, psycho and savior. What is projected is less stellar than human. It is a face to be believed, splendid with expression, full of character.

It is the face of one of the great character actors, which means the face is more widely known than his name -- Pat Hingle. Last night, Hingle was in town to read from an early triumph, the Pulitizer Prize-winning play "JB," as part of a tribute to the works of the late Archibald MacLeish at the Library of Congress' Coolidge Auditorium. MacLeish was a former librarian of Congress (1939-44), as well as a respected poet and playwright.

Hingle is an American Everyman. He grew up in a blue-collar family; his father was a building contractor, his mother a schoolteacher. "It was fortunate I wasn't a drama major at Texas," he says with a laugh. "That faculty was trying to turn out 'theaturrrr' people. I was the nutty radio major that they left alone. I've never used anything but the reality of my own life."

Hingle recalled that there were two actors "responsible, without their knowing it, for my being a professional actor: Walter Huston and Hume Cronyn." As a Texas college student after World War II, the Colorado-born Hingle majored in advertising and radio, earning money by working in the campus movie house. "There were the Gary Coopers and the Clark Gables, but they didn't really appeal to me," he says. "And I thought people who played 'character' things played smaller things and my logic told me these wouldn't give you much money or muscle and that didn't appeal to me either.

"But in three weeks' time, I saw Walter Huston and Hume Cronyn in about 10 movies and I saw that it was possible to play a wide variety of roles where there was no connection between one or the other; they weren't put in a slot where they were just as typed as the stars. I saw what was possible . . . and I've been able to have that career."

Hingle's credits are not only long but also outstanding. On the big screen, he's played memorable father roles to Sally Field in "Norma Rae" and Warren Beatty in "Splendor in the Grass"; the power-mad owner of radio station "WUSA"; the greedy construction boss in "The Ugly American"; cops in "Sol Madrid," "Supercops" and "The Carey Treatment"; and crooks in "Invitation to a Hanging," "Jigsaw" and "Nevada Smith."

Hingle has graced the best and the worst of television ("Studio One," "Kraft Television Theatre," "Hallmark Hall of Fame," "The Untouchables," "Route 66," "The Fugitive," "Mission Impossible," "Felony Squad" and a host of others). Most recently, he portrayed a senator on the made-for-television movie, "Washington Mistress."

But the actor seems proudest of his theater credits ("the films haven't had the size or the significance of the stage roles") and it's easy to see why: Hingle was in lead or major roles in the original Broadway productions of Tennessee Williams' "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" (1955), William Inge's "Dark at the Top of the Stairs" (1957), MacLeish's "JB" (1958) and Arthur Miller's "The Price" (1968). Last winter, he was in Washington co-starring with Jean Stapleton in "The Late Christoper Bean."

Film writers have a nickname for actors and actresses who become essential in their supporting roles: the versatiles. "I can go from one to the other without ever thinking about it," Hingle insists. "I think of everything we do as group storytelling. It just depends on where the object or the person or persons are that you're telling the story to."

"The stage is my favorite, it's the actor's medium. The curtain goes up and it's us and the audience, we're like mother and child, still connected with the umbilical chord. Film wears me out popping in and out of character . And in television, the first usable take is the one people are going to see."

After working as a laborer, waiter and construction worker, Hingle went on to study at the American Theater Wing, the Berghof Studio and Actor's Studio, where he became friends with founder/director Elia Kazan. Kazan gave Hingle his first movie role, the waiter in "On the Waterfront" (1954), and it was the beginning of a long, fruitful relationship.

"Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" was Hingle's first hit, and he recalls his progress into the role of Gooper after getting the call from Kazan. "The outer office was filled with actors of my age and I realized we were all there for the same part. Word went in to Kazan and I was sent in immediately.

"They handed me this one little onionskin with a scene of Gooper's on it and I read the thing. Of course, I knew Gooper, it was no strain for me to play him. Kazan turned to Tennessee Williams , it was just the two of them. And Tennessee said, 'I think we've found our Gooper.' Then this divine thing happened: Kazan walked into the lobby with his arm around my shoulder and said, 'Gentlemen, there's no need for you to wait because we've cast the part.' "

Two years later, he received great acclaim for his portrayal of the traveling salesman's father in Kazan's production of "Dark at the Top of the Stairs," a moving chronicle of a 1920s small-town family. The best, however, was to come the next year with "JB." The producers, envisioning the retelling of the story of Job as a classical Everyman tale, had originally wanted Sir Laurence Olivier in the title role of the victim of modern calamities; Olivier, however, didn't have an opening in his schedule, at which point Kazan's wife, Molly, "suggested that since Elia had never done classics per se, he should think about Americanizing the play.

" 'And if you do,' she said, 'you've got your J.B., he's playing for you in 'Dark at the Top of the Stairs.' " Kazan handed Hingle a script and a biography of Wendell Willkie, asking "If J.B. was an American industrialist but with the point of view and personality of Wendell Willkie, do you think you could play him?"

Hingle studied the role and, once again between a matinee and evening show, auditioned for Kazan. "I didn't even know MacLeish was out there, he was just a voice in the dark. Afterward, he asked, 'Mr. Hingle, do you think you can play J.B.?' I said, 'Mr. MacLeish, I know I can play J.B.' He said, 'Mr. Hingle, that's a very J.B.-like statement.' That cemented it."

After a tryout in Washington, the play and its star opened to stunning reviews. "It was so challenging and very depressing for me to do because the character of J.B. loses all of his children so senselessly. In making that real for me, I went through agony every night. I was not the happiest of men while I was doing that."

Six weeks into the Broadway run, a Job-like tragedy hit home when Hingle fell down an elevator shaft: "I was trying to leave a stalled elevator and fell 54 feet. By rights, I shouldn't even be alive." While recovering from amnesia, Hingle remained hospitalized for several months. Friends started coming up with roles he could handle: first, a Los Angeles production that allowed him to stay in a bed, followed by an Alexis Smith show, which he played on crutches. Next season Hingle returned to Broadway in Friedrich Duerrenmatt's "Deadly Game" -- on a cane; finally, there was the film of "Splendor in the Grass" (Kazan again) with "that awful limp. That was as good as I could walk then."

During his recovery, Hingle missed out on a role that might have changed his career. Just before the accident, Richard Brooks had offered him the title role in "Elmer Gantry." "I think I was ready," he says softly of the role that eventually went to Burt Lancaster. "I'm very aware that my career would have probably been quite different if I had done that role. I would have tended to have more of a movie career."

Still, Hingle's rarely been out of work, and his face pops up often on television. "What with afternoon and evening reruns, I've sometimes seen myself on two or three shows in one day," he laughs. "It's amusing to see how young I look he's almost 58 . I watch with total interest because a lot of the time, I can't remember how it came out!"