Here's Max and Mimi Sokol, an average middle-aged couple out for a drive on Pennsylvania Avenue. Max slows their vintage Chevrolet convertible for a red light. A gorilla hops into the back seat.

"Max! It's a gorilla!" Mimi notes.

"It is a gorilla!" Max agrees. He and Mimi make for the driver's-side door.

This is not just any gorilla. This is the gorilla who bashes suitcases on TV for American Tourister; the gorilla who's currently appearing in two major films and who travels the nation promoting better human-simian relations.

This is Gorilla Man, the creation of California actor Don McLeod.

"I'm basically a mild-mannered Clark Kent type of person," McLeod explains several minutes later, after Mimi Sokol has stopped shrieking. "It's just that with this suit on, it's a license for craziness."

The Sokols seem to understand. After shaking hands and chatting for a while, they take McLeod/Gorilla Man for a ride around the block.

"He's really a lovely gorilla," says Mimi Sokol when they return. "I wouldn't mind going to the top of the Empire State Building with him."

Don McLeod/Gorilla Man is a star, a sex symbol. The protruding brow, flaring nostrils, huge yellow teeth, fuzzy auburn fur and little gorilla potbelly have even lured groupies.

"I've met some women who thought it would be kinky to have a gorilla come to their hotel room," says McLeod. "Lord knows what I could expect. I've never gone on those."

He is sitting on a sidewalk curb outside the Commerce Department building, sipping a Coke. Inside, a festival of American trademarks is underway. The Orioles' Bird, Ronald McDonald--all the big ones are there.

The Bird wanders by, points to McLeod's detached gorilla head on the sidewalk and laments, "Man, you're lucky. I could lose my job for taking my head off."

McLeod shrugs his hairy shoulders sympathetically. He knows you get advantages at the top, and at age 34, he has taken this gorilla business about as far as it can go.

He earns $1,500 a day to plug the luggage he can't break. He is featured in Steve Martin's "The Man With Two Brains," and "Trading Places," which stars Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd.

He can't find time for all the offers. He makes six figures after years as an out-of-work actor in Los Angeles. Trained in traditional drama, McLeod "never, ever intended to be a gorilla." He graduated from college with a degree in fine arts, later performing with the Pasadena Playhouse and studying mime with Marcel Marceau.

"I became a pro mime, doing ladies' tea parties and church gatherings, getting $25 a show," he recalls. Subsequent adventures included a mime rock 'n' roll theater revue ("sort of a cultural Alice Cooper, if you will") and small television roles.

He was offered his first movie part as a gorilla after a Hollywood producer caught his one-man mime show, "The Creation of the World." The film, "The Jupiter Scrolls," was never released, but gradually word got around that for monkey roles, McLeod was the man.

American Tourister gave him his big break in 1980, and McLeod won a Clio, the Oscar of the advertising industry.

"In person," he says, "I try to make Gorilla Man part cartoon character, so he doesn't scare little kids--sort of a W. C. Fields-Charlie Chaplin gorilla. But on the commercials, we went wild. They said, 'Get mean, and then we'll give you a check.' "

Part of McLeod's success stems from technical expertise: his mime training and his convincing $20,000, 5-foot 9-inch outfit, made from rubber molds of real gorilla parts, an intricate fiberglass frame and a subtle weave of synthetic fur and yak hair, which is "easier to get than the real stuff."

But there's more--that special something about a man in a gorilla suit. No matter how shabby the costume, it's always the hit of the party. A sight gag above reproach.

"People have a fascination with apes in general," says McLeod.

The experts confirm his theory on gorilla charisma.

"It's probably that we wonder whether this is what our great-great-great grandfathers looked like before coming down Mt. Sinai," says Helene Brenner, a Washington area social worker and lay analyst.

"I like him," concludes Taj Wilson, 6, after slapping five with Gorilla Man outside the Commerce building.

Exceptions exist, McLeod admits sadly: "A man who saw me on the street in Chicago started cursing at me because apparently he was with some religious group that believed that the Lord had cast all evil people from the Tower of Babel and turned them into gorillas. He thought I was some sort of tool of Satan as a gorilla worshipper or devil worshipper."

Policemen, McLeod adds, don't like gorillas either, especially behind the wheel. "I was arrested one time for driving a Winnebago in an ape suit. The cop pulled me over, came to the driver's window, and here's this gorilla. He didn't seem surprised. He just said, 'I want to see your wallet.' He gave me a ticket for driving with impaired apparatus."

There are other hazards. Working in uniform on a film in Puerto Rico, McLeod was paralyzed by heat prostration and almost died.

"I thought I was having a heart attack or something," he says. "Now when I see black dots, I get the head off quickly, get a drink and a damp towel."

Despite frequent breaks and liquid refueling sessions, McLeod sheds up to 10 of his normal 145 pounds on long work days.

Between assignments, he relaxes by playing left field for three different softball teams based near his home in Sherman Oaks, Calif., and writes screenplays. He hopes one day to "return to legitimate acting" as the star of his own movie: the story of "a person who wanted to be a serious mime, the next Marcel Marceau, and ends up a famous gorilla."

The answer to the obvious question: "Yes, I also go to the zoo. I watch them. They watch me."