In the half-dark of early morning Edward Bennett Williams felt himself hurtling back through time. He was in the back seat of his limo reading the lead story in one of the morning papers of how three men in trench coats with semiautomatics provided "Big Paul" Castellano, the 70-year-old head of one of the five organized crime families in New York, with an early retirement.

"God, it's de'ja vu," he thought. "Just like the old days." There in the story was Jimmy LaRossa, an acquaintance and Castellano's lawyer, saying he had "no idea" why this had happened. Williams got a charge out of that.

He had to smile as his Lincoln sped along the highway. For a moment the morning was no longer bright and present but sepia and distant, and Williams was once more the prodigy of the criminal courts.

There is nostalgia in his voice as he recalls an era when defending sticky-fingered pols, redbaiters, gangsters and spies on the principle of the right to counsel was sneered at in the legal establishment, making Williams "feel like Billy Graham on a crusade. The more opprobrium that was attached to the client, the more I relished the case."

Few were as infamous as Frank Costello, the model for Mario Puzo's "Godfather." Williams didn't care for all of his clients -- he found Jimmy Hoffa "impossible" to handle -- but he "kind of liked old Frank. I enjoyed listening to all the stories of the old days he'd tell me. And he had a code. The good part of the code was that there was no way that he could be induced to break his word." The bad part of it was Costello would never help the law by informing on his esteemed colleagues. "No way he'd peach on anybody," says Williams. "No way."

Costello, a highly experienced defendant and connoisseur of legal horseflesh, admired his attorney this way: "I've had 40 lawyers, but Ed's the champ."

Williams enjoys a romance of the rogue, an affection for men who were something less than kind. When he was building a more corporate clientele at his law firm in the '70s, he tried to put a little distance between himself and his old, decidedly noncorporate, clients. But he speaks freely and with amusement about them now. "I miss all that," he says, "but it's nice missing it." He can still mimic Costello with unique authority -- "Sure, Mistuh Williams. I'll always tell ya da troot."

A famous Williams-Costello story: One long-ago afternoon Williams visited Costello in jail in New York. Toward the end of their meeting Williams mentioned that he was in a familial fix. He'd promised his wife he'd take her to "My Fair Lady" -- the hottest show on Broadway -- but it was sold out.

Costello told him to be at the Biltmore bar two hours before curtain. "Don't worry," he said. "I'll take care of it."

Williams left the jailhouse, rode downtown and waited. At 6 sharp he felt a tap on his shoulder. "You Ed Williams?" a fearsome-looking man mumbled from under the brim of his hat.

"Yes," Williams answered.

"Mr. Costello said these is for you." The man handed him an envelope with a pair of front-row tickets for that night's performance of "My Fair Lady."

"You look familiar," Williams said. "Don't we know each other?"

"I don't know, Mr. Williams," the messenger said. "My name is Albert Anastasia." The reputed head of Murder Incorporated, Anastasia took a strange liking to Williams, even giving gifts to his family. Sometime later, he was gunned down in a Manhattan barbershop.

The old days meant a Runyonesque New York, the sporting life at Toots Shor's saloon, a seat next to Joe DiMaggio at the best table in the place. It meant a night when Sugar Ray Robinson leaned over the ropes while flaying a slug-nutty pug and yelled in jest to his lawyer Ed Williams, "How much longer?"

Now Toots Shor's -- like so much of Williams' clientele -- is a memory. And yet he does not linger in the past. The years have provided him not only with an unimaginably busy and profitable business schedule, but also with an unimaginable challenge.

Normally his driver Leroy Washington would take him to a 7:15 breakfast meeting at the hotel he owns, the Jefferson on 16th Street. Over a few cups of black coffee Williams might discuss the ball team he owns, the Baltimore Orioles, or the law firm he started, now called Williams & Connolly, or some of his real estate interests. But this morning he makes a detour to the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda for a blood test.

Williams, 65, has had six cancer operations, and frequent testing is his early warning system. "I feel good. I'm working as hard as I've ever worked in my life, doing as many things as I've ever done in my life, too many things, really. But I have to watch all the time. Vigilance is the price for battling this and staying on top of it."

After the blood test at NIH, Williams arrives at his office suite in the Hill Building on Farragut Square for a morning of meetings. The days when he was primarily a courtroom gunslinger are long gone. The last trial he conducted that attracted national attention was his successful defense a decade ago of former Treasury secretary John Connally against charges he had accepted bribes from milk producers. His schedule now is a mixture of trial and civil work, administration, the Orioles and other business matters. The firm, which is named for him and the late Paul Connolly, used to have a reputation as "the department of defense," the place you went for tough trial lawyers. Now that is just part of the story. Williams & Connolly is big business.

Williams has agreed to talk about his career over, of all things, a tuna sandwich and a diet soda -- a modest repast for a man whose taste for a scotch and a steak at lunch will one day make Duke Zeibert's retirement more comfortable.

A huge custom-made desk that looks like the prow of an aircraft carrier dominates the main office. "When I work, I like to spread out," he says, but he also knows furniture is a tool of control, of power. Visitors sit before him in puny armchairs like nervous petitioners before the throne of Louis XIV. Beyond the office is a small room with a television and photos of old friends -- DiMaggio, Vince Lombardi, Lyndon Johnson; through the next door is a gargantuan conference room decorated in shades of gloom.

Williams grew up poor in Hartford, Conn. The family lived on one floor of a small two-story house. His father made $42 a week in the 1930s as a department store floorwalker. But Williams' sense of grandeur and ambition developed early. As a schoolboy he'd stand on a chair in his room and imitate the radio speeches of FDR.

Attendance at daily mass honed his sense of discipline. He was not an intellectual, never has been, but he worked hard, relying on his quickness, his drive. School was the first of many scoreboards. "He wanted to make something of himself," his mother told Gay Talese. Williams also showed his character, his toughness, right away. His high school yearbook described him as "known by everyone, principally for his leadership and scholarship. He always ruled with an iron hand and a dominating will . . . and for this reason accomplished much."

In 1944, after graduating from Holy Cross and Georgetown Law School, he joined the prestigious Washington firm of Hogan & Hartson. At the time criminal law was generally considered low-rent work. You were tarnished by association; to defend a thug left you with the taint of thuggery. He was a star at a major firm, but the ultimate Washington insider began his career on the periphery of the legal establishment. "It was a pretty shabby bunch then in criminal law," Williams says. "I felt pretty much alone."

Even though he had married Dorothy Adair, the daughter of a senior partner at the firm, and gained quick recognition for his defense of the city's transit company in insurance cases, Williams made the "incomprehensible" career decision in 1949 to leave Hogan & Hartson for a one-room office in the Hill Building. He had no intention of building a firm. He wanted to build a reputation. And the client that launched him on the national scene was the junior senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy.

Williams represented McCarthy in two libel suits and at the Senate censure proceedings following the Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954. He fared far better than his client. The Senate censured McCarthy. But Williams' ability to control a man who seemed out of control made him, in his early thirties, an attorney of national consequence.

Williams always held fast to the view of a lawyer as a kind of moral agnostic, to the principle that by being, say, McCarthy's attorney, he was no more endorsing McCarthy's ethics or politics than McCarthy's doctor was. "All my clients," he once said, "have imperfections.

"The ideal would be if you could be an automaton and prescind from all human feelings toward your client," but he "could never do that completely, quite. I always ended up sort of disliking or liking these people."

Though he liked many of less than sterling reputation, "I never had any kind of friendly relationship with Jimmy Hoffa. It was a very humbling experience to go through that trial. I was being second-guessed every step of the way." Williams refused to do any further work for Hoffa after defending him, but he does keep up. Even if the client's whereabouts are unknown.

"They bumped him off," he says. "I don't know how they got rid of him, but legend has it that the mob had a soap-rendering plant in Detroit and they just put him in that. A lot of people were showering with Jimmy Hoffa in the ensuing weeks."

Williams has little of F. Lee Bailey's flamboyance or Percy Foreman's bombast. Periods of monkish study and preparation, a capacious memory and an ability to present his case before a jury as a tightly scripted story are his signature. Like a boxer training in the isolation of the mountains, he becomes an ascetic with a diamond-hard focus. He cuts out drinking, parties and all other diversions. During a trial, says his longtime partner Brendan Sullivan, "you abstain from the pleasures of life."

When it is time to go to court, Williams arrives early to get the feel of the room. In pitch, rhetoric, temperament and body language, he plays himself the way a virtuoso violinist plays his Stradivarius. Williams is on intimate terms with, and in control of, his timing and resonances. He can shift from the tones of an insurance examiner to those of a preacher. In the courtroom, says former colleague Pierce O'Donnell, "Ed has a special voice, not loud, but a commanding, spellbinding voice. He has an uncanny ability to size up people, to persuade them to an emotion or a point of view. He has a Svengali influence over juries."

Williams says he "never uses tricks, no tricks," but he is given to moments of extreme cleverness. During the Connally case, he introduced a series of character witnesses, a parade that climaxed with the presentation of the Rev. Billy Graham. Williams asked Graham to state his occupation.

"I preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ across the world," Graham said. To which a juror said, "A-men."

Such moments do not occur by accident. A trial, Williams says, "is like a movie and I'm the director." Alfred Hitchcock drew story boards for every shot in a film. The actors merely provided human embodiment of his vision. Williams, too, has a complete vision of the trial's "theme" and tries to convey it to the jury in a series of incidents, details and facts. Cross-examination is merely a kind of checklist.

After a trial Williams is physically and psychically spent: "I've known a few heavyweight champions and they don't quit because they hate to fight. It's because they hate to train. It's so demanding and taxing and boring that they finally stop. It's the same with trial lawyers."

Criminal lawyers usually lose: It's as simple as that. So the record Williams has compiled in court is extraordinary. Acquittals for Costello, Hoffa and others gained him a reputation as a lawyer who wins unwinnable cases. His most famous loss came in 1967 in the fraud and tax evasion trial of LBJ's aide, Bobby Baker. According to Baker, Williams went home with him immediately after the guilty verdict was announced. There, Baker wrote in a memoir, Williams burst into tears:

"He did not cry a silent gentlemanly stream of tears. His thick body shook and jerked almost convulsively as he sobbed. Mucous ran from his nose. I wiped it off, mixed him a stiff drink, and tried to comfort him . . . but he was inconsolable." Williams denies the particulars of that account but he does say that losing "used to throw me into a total, absolute depression."

Williams' use of the past tense may be a case of self-deception. He still cannot stand to lose. Paul Woolf, who has been at Williams & Connolly since 1967, says, "Even in firm softball games, if you're inattentive or sloppy, well, he didn't particularly like that. You don't mess around. You play to win." Williams once lost 6-0, 6-0 in tennis to O'Donnell. "Ed never asked me to play again," O'Donnell says. "He said he was going to work on his game. Then he came back and killed me in squash."

Although he says he has "defended a long list of what you'd call good guys," Williams did not acquire fame and considerable fortune by representing the meek and the downtrodden. He is not the Mother Teresa of the legal profession. "Somewhere along the line," former attorney general Ramsey Clark once said, "money rather than justice seemed to become Ed Williams' passion." He was not, for example, inclined in the '60s and '70s to represent the likes of Dr. Benjamin Spock, because "all a guy like that wants is a chance to make speeches."

Extraordinary competence, not unusual compassion or ideological mission, will be his professional legacy. Cases, not causes. Though Williams writes of his career as a kind of mission in justice, a life's work dedicated to "the law in its relationship to human rights as distinguished from property rights," there have been those, including William F. Buckley Jr., who have found his rhetoric a bit disingenuous:

"If Edward Bennett Williams had defended Adolf Eichmann," Buckley has written, "he would no doubt have introduced him by saying: 'Adolf Eichmann's steadfast devotion to his own ideas on controversial ethnic issues earned him a horde of admirers and a horde of detractors.' Whereupon he would proceed, as he has done with Powell, et al., to move in on the deficiencies in the legal case against Eichmann." Buckley knows quality when he lambastes it. His Washington attorney is Steven Umin of Williams & Connolly.

For decades Williams' most vocal enemy has been Joseph Rauh Jr., a well-known civil rights attorney in Washington. The subject that sends Rauh into a fury is the case of the United Mine Workers in the late '60s. Williams & Connolly represented both the UMW and its president, "Tough" Tony Boyle. Rauh was lawyer for a group of UMW reformers led by Joseph (Jock) Yablonski, who lost in an attempt to unseat Boyle in 1969. After the election results were declared fraudulent, Yablonski said he would win in a second election; three weeks later Yablonski, his wife and daughter were murdered. Boyle was later convicted of conspiracy in the murder case. Rauh, representing Yablonski's family, became incensed at Williams, whose firm was outside counsel to the UMW and Boyle himself. Boyle's counsel at Williams & Connolly said paying the salaries of two union employes in jail awaiting trial for the murders was legal even though the UMW's own attorneys disagreed.

Rauh on Williams: "He's got the ethics of a pigsty."

Williams on Rauh: "Look, I never even handled the UMW case personally, but I'll take responsibility because it's my firm. But there was nothing wrong with what we did. Rauh's been saying this stuff for years and I have no interest in getting into a lifelong vendetta with him."

Williams has never been in really serious trouble for his get-tough tactics. Williams, says his biographer Robert Pack, "sees the rules as something to be used. He'll kick up chalk but he doesn't sway into foul territory."

For example, Williams says without reservation that if he had been counsel to Richard Nixon he would have advised him to burn the tapes: "I'm roundly criticized for that by some lawyers and people who thought that it's an immoral piece of advice. I would not have told him to destroy the tapes if they had been subject to subpoena. If I had been in his government, I like to think that what did happen wouldn't have happened."

Even in his imagination, Williams plays to win.

Williams' illness is as trying as ever. Blood tests and the experimental interleukin treatment demand more trips to NIH. His expectations have changed. Lately Williams has told friends that instead of "beating" his illness, as if it were the New York Yankees or some nerve-shot district attorney, he'll "be happy to just learn to live with it."

There are still tremendous highs. On New Year's Eve, Williams threw a party -- complete with four kinds of caviar, crepes suzette and ice sculptures of swans -- at the Jefferson for his friends. At around midnight the hotel staff, many of them in white tie, wheeled out a cake and sang a song from "La Cage aux Folles" to Williams: " . . . the best of times is now . . ." He danced and feasted with his friends until early morning.

Opening day in Baltimore was a momentary disaster, but Williams will be back in the box again, absorbed in a boy's game. And while he is watching his team, turning all his emotions to a field of vernal insignificance, he puts his real battle with cancer aside, simplifies it, makes a contest of it.

"I don't like to lose," Williams says. "Either it's going to beat me, or I'm going to beat it."