The night before, Stephanie Zimbalist reports, a guy from Queens was flirting with her in the bar where she was waiting to meet her agent, and even as he was trying on her fedora he didn't have a clue who she was. No one is turning to stare as she walks through the lobby of the Waldorf, either.

Probably because she doesn't look all that much like Laura Holt, the ace detective she plays on NBC's hit series "Remington Steele." Zimbalist is noticeably freckled ("We shoot outside," she explain ). Her hair has a reddish tinge, and she's wearing a baggy orange sweater and a ponytail.

Which is okay with Zimbalist, not looking like Laura Holt. "I've been playing Laura for four years," she says. "I really wanted to do something else, for myself mostly."

Which is why -- to bring things up to date here -- she is starring in "Love on the Run," her first television movie since 1981, airing tonight at 9 on NBC. "It's your opportunity to show yourself and the public that you can be different," Zimbalist explains. "It's important.

" 'Gee, she's so different from Laura Holt,' " she mimics, envisioning viewers gossiping in their living rooms. " 'She has range.' "

As the attorney who is so smitten with her convict client that she sets up his jail break (but who is not -- NBC's legal department would like to make it clear -- meant to be the real-life Mary Evans, the Tennessee lawyer who helped her convict lover escape in 1983 and served almost a year in prison as a result), Zimbalist gets to be a blond and then an auburn mop top. She does not, she says a bit sadly, get to portray a character as complex as Mary Evans.

"There are unanswered questions," Zimbalist says of that case. "Evans had called her boyfriend -- a partner in her law firm that she was engaged to marry -- three days before. 'How are you, sweetheart? I miss you.' And then she broke her client out." The televised version makes it all simpler: The attorney is a repressed doormat liberated by lust (i.e., she lets a bit more of her hair out of her tight little bun each time she sees "Knots Landing" stud Alec Baldwin).

"It would be nice to have the scope of a feature film," Zimbalist says. "I could see Jessica Lange doing that, the real story of Mary Evans."

And why not Stephanie Zimbalist in the part? "Oh, I don't know, I'm just a television person, I guess," shrugs Efrem Zimbalist Jr.'s daughter, and then recovers. "It's not that I couldn't do it. I'm not saying she's a better actress. People think that if you do television you're not as good, and that's hogwash. I remember Rob Lowe saying that you're respected more if people have to pay to see you. Maybe that's where the stigma is."

Even with that stigma fading, Zimbalist would have trouble fitting heavy-duty filmmaking into a grueling series schedule. She's contractually committed to three more seasons of "Remington Steele" ("they can fire you, but you can't quit"), and she says for the record that it's still fun, and that she gets along "just famously" with suave costar Pierce Brosnan, "thank goodness."

Which is not to say there aren't certain irons in the fire. Zimbalist and childhood chum Robin Bernheim cowrote a "Steele" episode last season. "I must say it was wonderful," Zimbalist boasts. "Laura was very feisty in it; I like that aspect of her character." The episode was also "awfully silly, wacky," and Zimbalist and Bernheim are pitching other ideas. "We've known each other since we were 12, and when we write together, we're still 12, basically.

"I'd love to write a feature comedy and not be in it," she says. "Well, maybe be in it. Some terrific thing. Something really wacky, like 'Revenge of the Nerds.' Robin loved that."

She and Bernheim also make themselves singing phone tapes, like a western dogie song with yahoos and hoofbeat sound effects. The current offering, friends who ring up her Studio City cottage will find, is a Zimbalized version of "Hey Look Me Over." The day Placido Domingo called, the tape was sung to the tune of "Tah Rah Rah Boom De Ay."

"He informed me that it was really 'La Gioconda,' " Zimbalist says. She kept the tape of Domingo warbling back his message. So even though Zimbalist doubts that "Remington Steele" will last the full seven seasons of her contract -- series rarely do -- she's got plenty of prospects. Another TV movie, a remake of the 1949 Oscar winner "A Letter to Three Wives," will air in December. She and Bernheim may collaborate on "Daughter of Revenge of the Nerds" or something.

"If all else fails," Zimbalist smiles with practiced perk, "we'll make phone tapes."