EVER SINCE Otto Preminger's 1944 "Laura" made him a star as the tough-talking, soft-hearted detective, actor Dana Andrews is a veteran of 72 movies, including such memorable films as "The Ox-Bow Incident," "The Purple Heart," and Samuel Goldwyn's "The Best Years of Our Lives," and a few Broadway shows, including "Two for the Seesaw" with Anne Bancroft.

Before an interviewer can pop a question, Andrews, an ebullient 74, has already launched into his life story, with a rapid-fire delivery and few pauses for breath. "My hair is now absolutely white, but you can tell by my voice that I'm not feeble," he boasts on the phone from New York, where he attended the opening of a Goldwyn retrospective.

"Actually, I'm retired now," Andrews says. "I've made all the money I want. So I just do what I feel like doing. If I act again, it has to be something meaningful." When Andrews does perform, in dinner theater or films, it's with Mary Todd, his wife of 44 years, whom he lives with in the San Fernando Valley.

Andrews, a former president of the Screen Actors Guild, didn't always want to be an actor. He ran through several mundane accounting jobs in Houston before ditching it all and hitchhiking to Hollywood in search of a singing/acting career.

"I spent all my money on a black alpaca trench coat and a homburg hat and a white silk scarf and I got one ride all the way to L.A.," Andrews remembers. "When I got there, the most glamorous job I could get was driving a school bus for $10 an hour. I wound up pumping gas in Van Nuys. Hell, everyone wanted to be an actor then, everyone wanted to get into those studio gates."

So Andrews decided to put movie stardom aside for a while and trained in a local opera company, learning roles in "Carmen" and "Camille," among others. "When I was there, someone told me, 'If you ever get to the Met, they'll put you in the chorus.' And I wanted to make it big." So it was back to acting, this time at the Pasadena Community Playhouse, a well-known actors farm, where he met his future wife.

"I was doing a tribute to Marie Dressler, and just like in the movies, someone left me a note saying, 'I'm an agent, call me.' Well, I pooh-poohed it and didn't call, but Vic Mature and Robert Preston encouraged me." The agent landed him a screen test with "Sigrid Curie, horrible actress, everyone thought she was a Swede or something. She was from Brooklyn for God's sake!" His first movie was "Lucky Cisco Kid," a 1940 quickie Western with Cesar Romero, which led to a string of pictures of varying quality, from the low comedy "Sailor's Lady" to John Ford's "Tobacco Road."

Andrews is frank about the alcoholism that choked his film career. "No one ever said anything to me about my drinking, but word gets around, and the pictures dried up. It was Goldwyn who finally said to me, 'Look, young man, you're drinking far too much, you had better cut it out.' " Andrews is now a member of the National Council on Alcoholism.

After Goldwyn dropped Andrews from his roster, the actor free-lanced as a leading man and in supporting roles. "I still worked regularly--I've done about 72 pictures, worked for practically every studio in town." Andrews even had a four-year run in "Bright Promise," a daytime soap opera. But there was a scarcity of good roles and Andrews never surpassed his Goldwyn years.

Although Andrews could have lived off his film earnings after the pickings grew slim, he parlayed his former business experience into a string of real-estate development deals. "I earn more money with all my apartment buildings and hotels than I ever did when I was a movie star," Andrews says. "When I first started in 1938, I got $150 a week. That was pretty good -- Robert Preston started at $100 and Vic Mature got $125."

Are these "The Best Years" of Andrews' life? "No, I'd have to say the best years of my life were when I was working on those good pictures."