NBC may be hot on the trail of an anti-soap-opera saboteur who apparently stole the tape for today's episode of "Search for Tomorrow," forcing the network to produce its first live daytime drama since 1966.

The scene at the network's New York City headquarters yesterday was part James Bond, part "Tootsie," NBC employes said.

"I'm caught up in a maelstrom of rumors, innuendo and insanity," said "Search" producer Joanna Lee. The tape, made July 22, and a copy were discovered missing from an editing room of the Reeves Teletape Theater in Manhattan the following Monday, Lee said. Yesterday she said she received an anonymous telephone tip accusing the jilted boyfriend of a cast member.

Lee, who termed the lead "entirely unsubstantiated," refused to identify the actress. NBC has requested a police investigation of the alleged theft.

"It seems to me that the darned things were stolen," said Lee. "I can only imagine that maybe it was a disgruntled ex-employe--every place has them."

Performers, meanwhile, were hastily preparing for a rare all-or-nothing stint in front of the cameras.

Cain DeVore, 22, who makes his television debut in today's episode, compared the confusion at NBC with the climactic scene in the recent movie "Tootsie," in which a character played by Dustin Hoffman uses a live soap opera performance to reveal his true identity and gender.

"If something like that happens, at least you'll know who took the tapes," said DeVore.

He added that rumors had circulated among employes that someone from within the network might have engineered the crisis to hype the show.

"People have said, 'Well, it's a great idea,' " said DeVore. ". . . After all, we need the ratings. We need the viewers."

Virginia Holden, a network spokeswoman, denied rumors of an inside job. "To the best of my knowledge, what Joanna Lee has told us is accurate and true," said Holden.

"The taping schedule is just too tight to allow us to retape," Lee said, "so we were forced to go live."

DeVore, who plays a character named Danny Walton, said the cast "is very excited by the challenge . . . We kind of love the controversy, and we're loving all the press."

"We can rely on adrenaline when push comes to shove," said Marie Cheatham, who plays Stephanie Wyatt. "In the theater you don't think, 'Oh my God, there are a lot of people out there.' You go out and play a scene and play a character. This is a very professional group of people."

Said Lee: "I don't expect anyone to pull off a wig and show that they're a man."