So protracted and mysterioso had the buildup been that Lt. Col. Oliver North's testimony on Capitol Hill yesterday had the status of a spectral visitation. What physical form, one might have wondered, would the spirit take? And, would it wear its uniform? It did.

"Colonel North, please rise," intoned Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), a born intoner, and as North rose, with his right arm poised for the oath, the sound of, seemingly, a thousand camera shutters could be heard in a rush of frenzied clicking. From that moment on, North's first day before the joint committee investigating the Iran-contra scandal was gripping, first-rate, dynamite political theater.

As carried by all three major networks, public TV and CNN, the day-long show proved again that Washington can still outdo Hollywood in the production of high-yield dramatic blockbusters.

North may have imagined he would set the record straight, defend the part he and others played in the sale of arms to Iran and payments to the contras, and protect "the old man," President Reagan, from congressional scalp hunters. But in addition to all that, North seemed determined to be entertaining. Through all the morning, and some of the afternoon, he was.

"I came here to tell you the truth -- the good, the bad and the ugly. I'm here to tell it all," North said flamboyantly, early in his testimony, thereby thoughtfully supplying an irresistible sound bite for virtually every newscast to come later. The statement was so snappy that Inouye, who'd forbidden North from delivering a prepared opening statement until tomorrow, demanded to know if the remark had been written out ahead of time. North said no. If he wasn't lying about that, he surely was pulling a leg or two, or 20 million.

At irregular but frequent intervals throughout the day, North would look up from the dogged questioning to become passionate or peevish or whimsical, wax righteous or indignant or sardonic, one minute acting the frisky puppy and the next the hounded hangdog. Somebody really ought to boil the tape down and submit it to PBS for "Great Performances."

"I put great value in the truth. I came here to tell it," he said nobly.

"If you want to blame me for committing others {to the cause}, that's fine," he said petulantly.

"I don't like the insinuation that I'm up here having a convenient memory lapse," he said indignantly.

House counsel John W. Nields Jr., the guy with the Ichabod Crane haircut, and the one who did all the interrogating for the committee yesterday, was no match for North, who acted like someone who'd studied a dozen old movies to prepare for the appearance. Burt Lancaster in "Seven Days in May" and Jimmy Stewart in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" might have been two of them.

When it comes time to make "Oliver's Story," the TV mini-series, however, North would seem the only one for the role. He would have to play himself, like he did yesterday. He's got the role down pat. The eyebrow work is masterful.

North so early and so clearly put the committee on the defensive, made the committee look churlish and small, that his tour de force brought to mind some of the great screen bamboozlers of all time -- say, Groucho Marx as Rufus T. Firefly in "Duck Soup," making a mockery of an inquisition into the whereabouts of the Freedonia war plans that had been hidden in Mrs. Teasdale's safe.

This was subtler, of course, and less farcical. Considering the number of times a certain missile was mentioned, it might be considered "Hawk Soup." It was a day for talk of dispatching Hawks, counting TOW's, signed findings and "mental findings" (the former which Reagan allegedly did not have, the latter which he allegedly did), and nations identified with code numbers like "Country 3" and "Country 10," even though Dan Rather of CBS News said the identities were in the public record anyway.

One striking thing about the day's events was the sharp dividing line between the morning and afternoon testimony. The day began, after some procedural prologue and wrangling, with nearly immediate fireworks. It was as if inquisitors and inquisitee had agreed in advance to start the show on a socko note that would hook all the curious viewers who might have tuned in, perhaps even compel them to call up cousin Suzie and urge her to give a look.

"There was real emotion here, right from the get-go this morning," said Rather during the lunch break.

Nields had been contentious and patronizing, occasionally scolding North with "But that's not the way we do things in America, is it?" and "You put some value, don't you, in the truth?" North's attorney, Brendan Sullivan, kept objecting and interjecting and Inouye kept issuing stony rulings: "Objection is overruled," "please continue," "proceed."

It was all very dicey there, despite North's attempts to lighten it up with flippant asides, as when Nields announced the question he would ask after a 10-minute recess and North said, "That's a cliffhanger of an ending."

But then, during the noon break, a strange cooling process set in. "It's like they all took 'nice' pills at lunch," marveled Bob Schieffer of CBS News. Fellow correspondent Phil Jones suggested maybe the members of the committee realized this wasn't going over so well on television. Nields had appeared unyielding, vindictive and relentless; North had seemed earnest, impassioned, and a good sport besides.

Afternoon came, and even North's lawyer shut up.

Somehow, the fireworks got rained on, and things proceeded along in a fairly orderly, and eventually numbingly detailed, fashion. As if to keep himself interested, North at one point whirled himself into high dudgeon over the way Congress is picking on good-hearted souls who raised money for the contras from friendly foreign nations. You know, good-hearted souls like him.

"Thank God" those countries came forth with the bucks for "the Nicaraguan resistance," said North, as opposed to "this body here," the Congress, which failed to provide the funds and instead has hauled witnesses before the committee, "hammering them, haranguing them, and reducing it to pettiness."

Nields, to his credit, took absolutely no notice of the outburst. Nor did he ever appear amused by North's many attempts at comic relief, dry little remarks intended to bolster North's darn-nice-guy-who-ought-to-be-left-alone (or given a medal?) image. Since he really appears to believe in the image himself, he can't be accused of much conscious manipulation. It comes naturally to him. True believers often have that advantage.

"And these operations were carried out in secret?" asked Nields. "We hoped so," said North with a twinkle.

North lied to the Iranians in making the arms deal with them? Yes, he would have offered them "a trip to Disneyland" to get them hooked, he said.

"You just took a long leap from Mr. {Eugene} Hasenfus' airplane," North chided Nields when the subject was abruptly changed to what the president knew.

"You can check if you wish, or you can take my word for it," said Nields of a document. "Will you take my word?" asked North coquettishly, all but winking.

North responded to the massed severity of the committee members arrayed before him, and to the stolid countenance of Nields, with these little stabs at guy-next-door affability. "This committee has had about enough of Oliver North, it seems to me," said Schieffer during the first recess. "They may think they've had enough of Oliver North," said Jones, "but they're going to get a whole lot more of him before they're finished."

Whether it continues to be a merry chase, with the fox outsmarting and outcharming the hounds, remains to be seen. Arthur Liman, the Senate counsel, is usually even more hard-nosed and aggressive than Nields. Can it be that the more Congress puts the screws to North, the more victimized and saintly he will look in the eyes of the viewing nation? It's a devilishly, provocatively tricky situation.

All the networks, and PBS, relied on pool cameras inside the hearing room for their coverage. Occasionally one network or another would cut away to a declassified document that had been provided in advance by the committee. And there were helpful slides -- "Data Bank," ABC News calls theirs -- that appear on the screen to identify various players in the scandal when they are referred to in questioning.

Of course the slides look like baseball cards, or some other sports stat sheets. And with the network anchors and reporters offering up the news event equivalent of hushed play-by-play commentary, and given the starkly adversarial nature of the ritual, the hearings can't help seeming like a kind of constitutional Olympics -- a clash of forces who each brandish macho postures and do their best to outmaneuver the opponent.

The variable in the game is television, which both exposes and constricts the teams and their strategies. At the moment, like they say in pro wrestling, Ollie North is the "television champion." He won the first round yesterday. But he has a long way to go to the finish. The banality of sports metaphors really does this spectacle justice.

NBC News managed to scoop its rivals early in the day, though not on the North story. Through enterprise and perhaps luck, the network was first to obtain the tape of former ABC News correspondent Charles Glass provided by his kidnapers in Lebanon. The tape was fuzzy and the sound distorted, but NBC provided a translation.

ABC aired the tape later, apparently causing anchor Peter Jennings, a friend of Glass', to lose his composure on the air, and CBS showed it last. Although NBC technicians are now on strike, the network's coverage did not appear to suffer technical problems, except that at 4:59, as the testimony wound down, WRC-TV, the NBC-owned station here, inexplicably cut away from the hearings for a "Snow White" commercial, then sheepishly returned for the conclusion of the testimony.

"Some day my prince will come"? Oh, but he's already here. Or at least, he thinks he is.

The networks seemed competent in their approach but not terribly comprehensive. The broadcasts lacked context. Recesses were not used to much enlightening advantage.

Rather wondered at one point whether Ollie North was "Huck Finn" or an "ideological zealot." But of course that was the crux of the problem. He was Huck Finn, the ideological zealot, a most perplexing combination, a charismatic enigma who yesterday seemed to confound the committee's attempts to discredit or dislodge him.

All the other testimony began to seem like mere preface to North's appearance, and not just because it was the first time all the networks had covered the hearings all day. "This is a dangerous world," North lectured the committee. "This nation is at risk in a dangerous world." What kept getting out of focus was whether North was one of the guardians or one of the dangers. But it was clear as crystal which he imagines himself to be.

His appearance isn't just a chance for everyone watching to play political analyst. It's a chance for everyone watching to play psychiatrist. Oliver North returns to the national couch today.