"If I had it to do all over again, I'd have been a nicer guy," says Steve Friedman, who has just stepped down as executive producer of the "Today" show after seven tumultuous years. Known for an explosive temper and a tendency to propel matter through rooms at high speed, Friedman also has proved himself a savvy and imaginative expert on what interests those folks out there in Television Land.

Will they miss Steve at the "Today" show? Did the residents of Tokyo miss Godzilla? "I think two days after I go, they're having a party," cracks Friedman. In fact he will be greatly missed. The energy level is bound to fall dramatically.

Today is Friedman's last day at NBC. He leaves the "Today" show having brought it back from deep doldrums to undisputed first place among the morning network programs, in somewhat the way former NBC chairman Grant Tinker turned around the whole company.

"Mr. Tinker left when he was on top, and I admire that," says Friedman from New York. "Only Ted Williams and Grant Tinker have done that. Now I join that august group, even though I can't hit."

One of the few and last on-camera appearances of Friedman on "Today" was a quick shot of him last week in his crazy-attic office, swinging a baseball bat.

Fox Broadcasting and Disney had been among those courting Friedman, but yesterday Tinker confirmed that he will be joining Tinker's new GTG Entertainment Co. It's headquartered in Hollywood, but Friedman will remain in New York, where, Tinker said, he will become president of a new, as-yet-unnamed division of the company to create reality and informational programs. His new salary is rumored to be roughly double his current $350,000.

Friedman, 40, departs NBC a year before his contract is up. "I have no ill feelings toward NBC. Both Wright and Brandon did a lot to keep me," Friedman says, referring to new NBC President Robert C. Wright and to NBC Entertainment boss Brandon Tartikoff.

But Friedman has no such praise for NBC News President Lawrence Grossman, whom he grew to dislike. "I was a little surprised when I talked to Larry on Thursday {June 4} and he put a 24-hour deadline on my decision," Friedman says. "I'm not bitter, though. That thing made it easier to leave."

Friedman admired Grossman, at first. "I was a big fan, especially when he first came in," he says. "To say that in the last year Larry's been preoccupied with other problems would be correct. He took the 'Today' show for granted."

For Friedman, the road to first place was long and bumpy. When he took over in late 1979, the show was getting trounced by ABC's "Good Morning America." He remembers the darkest days of the show as the summer of 1983. "It was the Bataan death march," he says. "There was six months there where we invited the audience to leave, and they did."

When Bryant Gumbel took over as host, some of those at NBC whom Friedman derisively calls "newsees" were nervous, and thought the kid from Sports couldn't handle it. They insisted correspondent Chris Wallace join the team. This was a disaster, and Gumbel later proved himself triumphantly adept. With Jane Pauley, Gene Shalit and the great Willard Scott also on the team, "Today" looks better than it has since the early glory days of Dave Garroway.

Friedman, not easily thrilled, remembers meeting Garroway at "Today's" 30th-anniversary party as having been a genuine thrill. "He told me, 'Go with your heart, don't listen to your head,' " Friedman recalls.

He also recalls his early years on the "Today" show, when the prognosis looked anything but rosy. "Every Friday I was on my way out 'cause the ratings were down," Friedman says. "That's how this business is. People see you in the hall and walk the other way."

While ABC remained competitive over the years, at least until David Hartman left "GMA," Friedman has watched with bemusement the colossal fumblings and bumblings of CBS, whose latest effort, "The Morning Program," may be the saddest ever (indeed, c'est tragique). "CBS has probably done more to make me a media star than anybody I know," says Friedman, who was never exactly shy about zinging CBS in the columns.

Sources, and soreheads, at the other networks often said they found Friedman's eagerness to comment to be tacky and ill-mannered. But Friedman was just as combative when he was down as when he was up in the ratings, and his candor was refreshing. It's a brutally competitive business and pugnaciousness is preferable to hypocrisy.

If Steve was often good copy, it became clear he was an even better producer. Noisy, rambunctious and virtually fearless, Friedman makes you believe there really can be such a thing as the Joy of Television.

"Too many people in television worry about keeping their job rather than doing it," he says. His operating philosophy as a producer was that you give grief to the people above you, respect to the people under you. He worked hard to earn his reputation as a troublemaker and intends to keep it.

"Once you've established this as a persona, you've got to continue it, or people will think you're getting soft," Friedman says. "I don't think I can change. I don't think I've really changed since I was 13. I like tweaking authority. I like to give the big shots a hard time."

One does make one's share of enemies this way. "I once told Jack Perkins, our West Coast correspondent, that I wished that just once when somebody died that everybody hated, people wouldn't say nice things, that they'd say what a bastard he was. And Perkins says to me, 'You won't live to see it, but it will happen.' "

Friedman laughs his oversized laugh. Then, reflecting, he admits: "I'll miss the action. I'll miss the action more than anything else. And the people." As they say on the "Today" show, he'll be right back.