If you saw him loitering at a splashy movie opening, it was probably the man. If he wore a black fur cap with the side flaps swinging furiously in the chilly evening, making him look like an itinerant World War I bomber ace, then you can be sure (sometimes it's a violent-mauve wool cap). If he wore shocking red plaid pants with white shoes trying desperately to keep their shine through a thick film of dirt; if the artificial fur jacket that covers his midsection looked as if it could use a run at the dry cleaner's, or maybe even the sheep dip; if he held a black briefcase awkwardly against that furry middle like some Norman shield . . . If you saw all this, I can tell you -- with the authority of a notary public -- that you saw Bladen (Joseph) Forest, Washington's autograph hound to the stars.

Only Barbara Walters, Rona Barrett and David Hartman can dare claim to have yakked with more celebrities (Arch Campbell, you don't come close). Forest, a study in long-term tenacity, may well have bagged every star and starlet who has set foot in the nation's capital in the last quarter century. He'll get 'em if he has to camp outside their hotels, hound their public relations agents, badger their chauffeurs or hang around endlessly at "Panorama." To determine precisely when they'll be where, he has developed a network of sources that a KGB officer would give up his vacation by the Baltic Sea for.

"He calls me once every 10 days or two weeks," says Ernie Johnston Jr., of the Ernest S. Johnston advertising agency, "and says, 'What's going on?' or 'What are we going to miss?' I think he gets scheduling information from 'Panorama' and Channel 7, too."

Arch Campbell, Channel 4 movie critic and host of his own late-night show, has known Forest "as long as I've been in town, which is 12 years. When I first noticed him, he shows up here at NBC for 'Meet the Press' on Sunday morning . . . Then, practically every big event I go to, I see the guy. In fact, it's a signal: If you see him, it's going to be a hot event. He's got better information than I do . . ."

According to WTTG-TV receptionist Cathie Daniels, Forest congregates with other autograph hunters at the station during the morning talk show, "Panorama." "They just stand outside the door, wait for stars to come out of their cars, run up to them and get their autographs. It's like watching a movie when I sit here."

If anyone remotely famous is on the show, says Daniels, "he'll be here."

A frigid December night greets the Washington premiere of "The Color Purple." The flapping-capped Forest waits just inside the outside doors of the Tenley Circle Theatre with a handful of other autograph hunters, a group of tired men with shabby clothes but eyes afire. Some of the stars are scheduled to appear, and the collectors are waiting, like so many good-natured vampires. Tonight the stars (Margaret Avery, Rae Dawn Chong, Oprah Winfrey and others) are late.

"You really can't blame them," says Forest, as if he knows each star personally. "They've already seen the movie."

You see him close up as he paces the theater lobby, and the first things you notice -- aside from the ensemble -- are the thick glasses and the sharply defined facial lines. He's a tall man, easily six feet. And he fidgets, not with pure impatience so much as with an agitation entirely customary with him; part of his accepted lot. Waiting is, quite simply, his main activity in life.

Talking stars, Forest is never at a loss for words. He is not interested in Rae Dawn Chong, since he "got" her earlier that day outside a TV studio. He wants Avery, he says, clutching a glossy photograph of the actress. "Yeah, I'd be interested in her. She's got about three films in the can. I hear she's good in this," he says, as if he gets on the horn with Spielberg every other Tuesday.

Finally, the stars arrive and the autograph beseechers beseech. Forest lets Gloria Steinem breeze right past him and goes straight for Avery. Except it's not Avery. Undaunted and unembarrassed, he returns to the door, waiting for the real Avery to come.

Which she does, and Forest persuades her to sign the photograph. Waiting for the autograph, he fumbles with his briefcase and drops it. The ensuing crash makes more than a hundred people in the movie line turn around to see a gangly figure scrambling to return a newspaper, cassette tape recorder and batteries to a splayed-open briefcase. And actress Margaret Avery looks down with astonishment at this unknown man at her feet.

Autograph collecting "is very silly," says Joe Forest. "I don't want to be classified as a typical autograph collector. I don't think like them people. I'm not knocking them, okay? I just don't want to be classified like that. I want to be treated as an adult person with more ideas of intelligence, not just getting autographs."

Now Forest, a security guard at GSA, is trying to think about why he has spent much of his free time over the past 22 years collecting autographs. "I think it's loneliness more than anything else. I think most collectors are very, very lonely people. If I had it to do over, I wouldn't do it again. But when you're into something it's hard to break. It's one of the most stupid things I've ever started . . . I mean, who are they? Some human beings that got some breaks. No gods, just individual people."

If stars are merely individuals, Forest has collected plenty of scribblings from just plain folks. If stars are gods, then Forest has spent much of his time at the tradesmen's entrance of Mount Olympus. Either way, he's done a whole lot of heel-cooling in foyers and movie entrances (especially the old Capitol Theater, he recalls) waiting for the eternal signature. Forest says he has not counted his collected names, but he estimates them to number substantially more than a thousand, with "maybe a hundred good ones."

What's a good one?

"Rita Hayworth, would you consider her a big one? Or Lana Turner, what about Jimmy Stewart, Fred MacMurray, Robert Taylor? . . . Sinatra I got. Bing, and I got Bob's Hope . Hedy Lamarr -- I saw her walking down the street. She was nice about it. Rex Harrison and Claudette Colbert . . . He's a nice man, Rex. He's very nice. Alfred Lund, Lynn Fontanne -- they were pretty nice. Of course Carol Channing . . . "

Spencer Tracy "wouldn't do it," says Forest. "Gary Cooper -- there's a nice man." And as for Ingrid Bergman, "God, I love her." He got Bergman's autograph when she was doing a play at the Kennedy Center. He has Jack Benny's, too ("What a guy"). But the two biggest catches, for Forest, were Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe.

"Gable was a pheenomeenum and always will be a pheenomeenum. The biggest, overall, I've met in person. He came into town to push a movie called 'Teacher's Pet' with Doris Day. They had a dinner for him on Capitol Hill. Kay, his wife, was an ex-model, she was pretty nice. When you're on a public relations tour you're nice. You're trying to push something. I've heard Clark has never been that mean, you know what I'm saying?"

He caught Monroe on one of his New York hops.

"Marilyn, she was in a party for Lee Strasberg at Sardi's. I used to go to plays up there and all. That was when New York had 30, 40 plays all the time. It's not what it used to be. I'll go to plays till I die, you know what I'm saying?"

Marilyn, Joe, Marilyn.

"She went into Sardi's and we waited all night practically. They didn't want her to give autographs , but she did. She said, 'I'll do it,' so she signed for everybody."

Forest will not show the autographs to anyone, he says, because "anything could get displaced." They are kept, along with alphabetized movie stills, in a back room at his home in Mount Rainier, Md., he says. He rarely goes in the room himself, except to "put something back, you know what I mean?" He shows the autographs occasionally to close friends, "but I gotta really, really like them . . . I don't even want my wife back there."

"I don't care if nobody believes me, you know what I'm saying?"

Says Ernie Johnston Jr.: "I can say I have known Joe for my whole life, honestly. As long as I can remember, Joe has been around. He really represents the glitz of the film industry. He's at every single event that we've had here in Washington, no matter how big or small. If there's a star involved, he's there. If a star's coming for an interview he'll be there and get that. I've also seen him pay to get into an event, if he feels it'll be such a major thing to get within 50 feet of the stars . . . especially if it's a benefit . . .

Arch Campbell remembers seeing Forest "at hundred-dollar-a-seat events. I remember seeing him at the Washington Opera, I think it was, at an event for the opening of the movie 'Carmen' with Placido Domingo and Julia Migenes Johnston and think it was $100 a seat. He was there, and then afterwards at the Watergate Hotel, there he is getting their autograph. He's everywhere! He could be the most culturally saturated man . . ."

When comedian Billy Crystal appeared on Campbell's show, Campbell mentioned Forest. "Crystal says, 'I know the guy. He came up to me at WMAL and got my autograph. He said, "I know you're going to Arch's show and later to 'PM Magazine.' " This is Crystal telling me. He immediately knew who I was talking about."

"You know what I'd like to know?" asks Kelly Williams, who used to work at "Panorama." "How does he afford it? He can't have a job. I always said to myself, 'What do those people do?' "

"He goes out on his days off -- Wednesday and Thursday," says Joyce Forest, Joe's wife. "And I know that sometimes he goes to different shows like 'Panorama' or 'Morning Break' on WDVM, things like that . . . He does that pretty regularly, and he may go out in the daytime when he has to go to work that afternoon ."

Forest, says Ernie Johnston, is "very big on having his photo taken with the stars. He brings his own camera . . . And for the stars -- I think at worst, they don't mind it, and at best, they like it . . .

He researches the stars in advance, Johnston says. When the then-little known Tom Cruise and Rebecca de Mornay came to town in 1983, Forest "knew everything they had done, little facts about them. They were very impressed. He does do his homework. He seems to have seen every film I can ever imagine."

A woman answering the telephone at Joe Forest's home one morning identifies herself as Forest's mother. "I had to leave him so young," she says, "because I had to work. So I left him with my mother. So he had to have something to entertain him. So he went with those autographs . . . He was very young when he started, you know. He's kept it up. Everybody's gotta have some outlet, you know . . .

"He's a good kid. Finished high school. Hasn't given me no trouble. So I'm glad he has his autographs."

At 49, Forest insists he doesn't get out much on the celebrity trail these days. He is more concerned, he says, with saving up stocks and bonds for his upcoming retirement from his security guard job. Yet, when told of a CBS location shoot at Union Station -- a docudrama about homeless activist Mitch Snyder, starring Martin Sheen and Cicely Tyson -- he does not hesitate to show up. "Did you hear about a movie somewhere in town?" he asks on several occasions.

Another reason for cutting back the autograph-hounding, he says, is the low-grade glitter to stardom of late. "You're lucky to have five movie stars today," he laments. "In those days it was 20 stars at a time -- Loretta Young, Rita Hayworth, Susan Hayward, Clark Gable, Elizabeth Taylor or a Bing Crosby. Who've you got today -- De Niro, Redford, Meryl Streep, Dustin Hoffman, who else you got? You understand what I'm saying? They're just actors trying to make a living like me, I guess.

"Would you tend to agree with me?"

Actually, Forest says, it was baseball and not the movies that got him started. He hung around Griffith stadium when he was a kid, collecting signatures from the old Washington Senators. He is an avid radio buff ("I still love Jack Benny and the old Bob Hope") and jazz fan, and says he loves "thee-ay-ter."

He met his wife Joyce at a church group, and they were married in 1967. There are no children, but more than enough autographs around the house: Joyce herself has started what is now a 500-name collection. But she doesn't collect signed pictures "because I thought it'd be too much competition" with her husband. "I thought I'd stay with just the autograph books. I've given him instructions to tell me if there is any rivalry , because then I will stop because I don't think it's good . . . "

She estimates her husband's collection of signatures to number "in the thousands, maybe even 10,000."

She accompanies him frequently on autograph hunts, when she is not working as a receptionist at Weight Watchers. "Sometimes if I'm not feeling well, I don't get out of the car. Depending on the star and whether I want the star . . . Sometimes we go to a play or something and don't even collect autographs."

"We're going to meet 'M*A*S*H's' Bill Christopher," she says with the authority of, say, Bryant Gumbel introducing "Today." "Yeah, we're going to meet him," she insists. "We have season tickets to the Hayloft Dinner Theater."

Again, Forest launches off on a lament for Hollywood's golden age.

"You don't find Liz Taylors anymore. In the old days there were many, many Liz Taylors. Barbara Stanwyck's another one, where do you find them? . . .

"Most of the new producers and directors I don't like either. They aren't interested in the star system, just making a fast buck and then getting out. In the old days they had what is known as the studio system. Stars went to school and they learned how to become stars through the studio system. Went through school, acting school -- yes sir. They would learn techniques, the ability to communicate, how to conduct themselves in interviews. It made stars of Rock Hudson, of Tony Curtis.

"Karen Allen was going to be one of the biggest stars, but you don't hear of her anymore. And most movies are aimed at kids between 15 and 23. And you don't have the public relations people -- one of the best things Hollywood had, to keep these people in the lime-light."

There are two stars Forest still hungers for: Robert De Niro and Ava Gardner. "De Niro's a hell of an actor, and I've always liked Ava Gardner. I liked her in 'The Killers.' She's not a good actress or anything. But there's certain people that you like; she appeals to me. I liked her in 'One Touch of Venus,' too."

But despite his protestations -- and even if he bags Bobby and Ava -- it's too early to proclaim the end of his collecting era.

"You know the kid from 'The Cosby Show?' " says Forest excitedly on the telephone one afternoon. "Yeah, I hear he's going to be at the National Thee-ay-ter."

And is Joe Forest going to be there?