He called himself, in a typically eccentric metaphor, "a salmon who's covered some 40 spawnings," who on bad days now "feels himself disintegrating fin by fin, gill by gill," but John Huston's friends never would allow him just to fade away.

So, from Orson Welles, who described him as "playing Mephistopheles to his own Faust," to producer Ray Stark, who said he wanted to be reincarnated as Huston, "a tall, handsome WASP," they gathered at tables decorated with chocolate Maltese falcons in the Beverly Hilton Hotel as the 76-year-old writer-director-actor was given the 11th annual American Film Institute Life Achievement Award.

The AFI dinner has become the pleasantest date on the Hollywood social calendar, the night when the hatchets are buried and everyone beams beneficently at the guest of honor. At Thursday night's tribute, to be telecast by CBS on March 22, clips from the most memorable of Huston's films, including "The Maltese Falcon," "The Treasure of Sierra Madre," "The Asphalt Jungle," "The Misfits," "The African Queen" and "Beat the Devil" were shown.

And everyone from "Annie's" 11-year-old Aileen Quinn, who said, "I think he's the greatest and I love him a whole bunch," to 92-year-old Sam Jaffe, who remembered trying to coax a horse into Huston's Greenwich Village apartment, joined in the tribute.

But just as Huston always has been a great iconoclast as a director, someone whose films have no discernible running theme and who was brassy enough to tell a reporter during the making of "The Mackintosh Man," "I don't know which of my films is the best, but I can tell you which is the worst and that's the one we're shooting now," so, too, the man's rambunctious history had trouble fitting into the AFI's hagiographic mold. Despite enough encomiums to make jockey Billy Pearson, an old friend, crack, "I didn't know when they asked me here that John Huston had died," the man's anarchic personality kept oozing over the edges.

There was fellow life achievement winner Frank Capra, for instance, saying, "Never has there been a bigger hellraiser than John"; Jeff Bridges vowing he'd never play backgammon with Huston again; producer Sam Spiegel describing how Huston had, as a practical joke, left "a huge frowning tombstone on my doorstep in Beverly Hills, it took me weeks to clean up the lawn"; and writer-director Richard Brooks telling how he and Huston had urinated on the set of "Key Largo" "for luck." So when Charlton Heston made a slip in reading the obligatory telegram from President Reagan and referred to "disturbed" instead of "deserved" recognition, it seemed one of the most fitting moments of the evening.

Much was made of Huston's reputation, rare for such a lauded director, for saying as little as humanly possible to his actors. Michael Caine, whose appearance with Sean Connery in a clip from "The Man Who Would be King" got the biggest applause of the night, explained, "He feels, for the kind of money we get paid, we ought to know how to do it ourselves."

The best examples of that technique were given by Robert Mitchum, who described, in his usual bemused fashion, what it was like working for Huston on "Heaven Knows Mr. Allison." "He asked me after a shot, 'How was that, kid?' and I said, 'This is no novelty to me; if it's okay with you, print it,' and he just said, 'Swell, kid, swell.' The most advice he gave me was one scene where he said, 'Even more.' I said, 'Really?' And he said, 'Even more.' There was another scene with Deborah Kerr where I finally said to her, 'What are you doing?' and she said, 'I thought you knew' and finally John said, 'Cut. What are we doing?' "

Some of the evening's funniest lines came from people who barely knew Huston, like Zsa Zsa Gabor (from "Moulin Rouge") saying, "John, darling, you made me what I am today, rich and famous, but you never wanted to marry me."

Yet there were, from older friends, genuinely emotional moments. Robert Blake, who played a 10-year-old boy in "The Treasure of Sierra Madre," told how frightening and exhilarating it was meeting Huston for the first time, and Ava Gardner, who flew in from London to sit at Huston's left--daughter Anjelica and her friend Jack Nicholson sat on his right--broke into tears and kissed Huston in the middle of her remarks.

The most memorable performance of the night came from Billy Pearson, a friend for close to 40 years, who lived up to his description in Huston's autobiography, "An Open Book," as someone with "the gift of being able to go beyond the limits of acceptable behavior and yet never lose his membership in polite society."

Pearson leaped to his feet at the head table, pointed a finger in mid-air and said, in a ringing, theatrical voice, "Genius . . . writer, art expert, one of the world's ranking horse people . . . legend . . . but enough about me." He then described how Huston showed him "a script about three black basketball players who wanted to be samurai warriors. It was a musical. I rewrote it, and it's history now. You all know the end of the story: 'The Treasure of Sierra Madre.' " Pearson's last anecdote was about "Huston, the father. This is heavy. I remember him loving and passionate and tender, tiptoeing into the nursery and covering the children . . . with hundred dollar bills." How much of all this will make it into the final telecast is anybody's guess.

When Huston's turn came to accept the award and speak, he lumbered up to the platform like a bemused Father Christmas and began by relating that when asked to what he attributed his longevity, "surgery was my answer." He admitted to "a certain detachment about my work. I rarely stay with my films on TV and I can't be dragged to a Huston retrospective." But then he described a series of indelible moments from his career, everything from seeing baboons lined up to watch Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn perform in "The African Queen," "attentive as any movie audience," to suddenly finding his small boat "two feet up in the air balanced on the back of a surfacing hippo's back. After an interval of several years, during which I developed Parkinson's disease, he lowered us back."

"Tell me, though," he concluded with wonder in his voice, "what other pursuit, what other occupation, could offer such a rich, wild, rushing variety of incidents." As host Lauren Bacall said at the close, quoting Sydney Greenstreet's line from "The Maltese Falcon," "It was neatly done, sir, neatly done."