Ruth Gordon used to call the part of Maude in "Harold and Maude" the best role she ever had.

As an elderly survivor of Auschwitz (as if by accident, the camera glances at the number tattooed on her forearm) who gives a suicidal young man new zest for life, Maude is a flamboyant optimist who revels in the moment and flings convention to the winds with the joyous energy of a natural force.

"She's like me," Gordon once said. "She has this zing."

The movie opened in 1971 and flopped. But college students kept it alive as a cult film, and 12 years later it finally made a profit. This was such a shock to all concerned that when Gordon got her $50,000 check in the mail she very nearly threw it out.

"I thought it was one of those sweepstakes from Reader's Digest," she said.

You can almost see her, riffling through the envelopes on the hall table, thinking about something else, talking the whole time. Stopping in midword. Dropping her jaw. Bursting into exclamation points.

If there were no exclamation point in the English language, Ruth Gordon would have invented it.

She died yesterday at 88.

A few years ago a reporter, assigned to interview Garson Kanin, found that Kanin had brought her along. She was his wife, after all.

"I hope you don't mind," Kanin said.

"Mind!" the reporter said.

"Mind!" Gordon said.

And right there, over the white wine and Perrier at the Madison Hotel, the two of them casually made the stale air sparkle. They lived in Manhattan, Kanin said, near Garbo.

Is that in the 80s? the reporter asked.

Gordon, quick as a flash: "No, I'm the one in the 80s!"

They were married in the Willard Hotel in 1942. Kanin was in town for the OSS and Gordon had some time between the matinee and evening show of "The Three Sisters" at the National. She was also writing a play, "Over 21." She was 46, he 30.

Her comedy was a hit, of course, soon followed by Kanin's "Born Yesterday," which made a star out of Judy Holliday, and his other vehicles for that brilliant comedian, "The Solid Gold Cadillac," "Bells Are Ringing" and so on.

But it was the films Gordon and Kanin wrote together that really put them on the map. Films about couples. Tracy and Hepburn. "Adam's Rib," "Pat and Mike." A few years ago Kanin wrote "Together Again," about the great screen teams. He should know. He was a member of one of the greatest himself.

Even in that brief interview at the Madison, you could sense it instantly: the generosity, the closeness, the freedom they gave each other, the magnetic pull always beneath the surface like a tide.

She hadn't read his book before it came out, she said. They never previewed each other's stuff. "I was amazed the way Garson could take these teams and make me want to see their pictures all over again," she said. Kanin never did discover why the chemistry worked between Bogart and Bacall, Astaire and Rogers and the rest, he admitted. All he knew was that "they made one plus one equal a hundred and one."

"What you mean," Gordon chirped, "is one plus one equals one! Isn't that brilliant? That's me!"

In someone else it could be irritating. In Ruth Gordon it made you smile.

When she put herself into a part she stretched it so it was never the same again. Remember "Where's Poppa?" costarring George Segal's tushy? This was supposed to be a senile old lady?

Her Dolly Gallagher Levi in "The Matchmaker" radiated so much joyful energy that it made people break into song, not just any people but slit-eyed Broadway entrepreneurs, and next thing you knew, there was "Hello Dolly!" With an exclamation point.

Her warm, chatty, perfect-New York-apartment-neighbor who happened to be a witch almost blew away the rest of "Rosemary's Baby" and won her an Oscar and another generation of admirers.

In "Maxie," a movie scheduled for release next month, she plays a 1920s flapper who invades the body of a San Francisco housewife. That sounds like her.

She won an Emmy in 1979 for a part in TV's "Taxi" and was nominated for another one this year. She wrote three plays and three nonfiction books and published her first novel at age 85. When she walked down the street policemen would shout, "We love you, Ruthie."

She said once, "I don't care who remembers me, or for what. I love it. I never get over it. I never get used to it."

She said once, "Don't be helpless, don't give up, don't kill yourself, don't look for trouble. Stuff gets in your way, kick it under the rug. Stay well, stay with it, make it come out . . . "

"Never, never, never give up," she said.