CHICAGO -- It has been four years since Max Robinson coanchored the ABC evening news with Peter Jennings and the late Frank Reynolds. "I still get questions from black Americans who say, 'What happened to Max Robinson?' " says Jennings, now the sole anchor.

The answer to the question is both mystifying and obvious.

Somewhere along the way, Robinson's rise turned into a tumble, a change of direction that gained speed as it went. His work habits were erratic and he railed against ABC, the network that paid his six-figure salary. He drank too much. Eventually, he left ABC and returned, briefly, to local television. For nearly three years, he has not worked regularly in television and, most recently, not at all.

The past tense comes up a lot when people talk about Max Robinson. Those who know him theorize about inner demons -- as if whatever whittled away his life and career must have come from within. Once, as a Washington anchor paired with Gordon Peterson, he was a local hero. A jump to a network seemed inevitable and, with ABC in 1978, he became the nation's first black network anchor. He seemed destined to illustrate a new concept in the American mindscape: Blacks can read the news, too.

"The camera was in love with the guy," says Andrew Porte, an ABC producer who was Chicago bureau chief during Robinson's years at ABC.

Today, there are few interruptions in the 49-year-old Robinson's life. The phone at his small Marina Towers apartment rang once or twice during a recent afternoon. A nurse who answered the door left as quietly as she had worked. Robinson's assistant and secretary stopped by briefly with a pile of mail accumulated from his other apartment in Hyde Park.

He wore cotton slacks and a pullover top and white socks and propped his feet up on a chair as he talked. Next to him a timer beeped when it was time to take his medication. He walked with a cane, dark wood with a brass knob, which he explained as a necessity after two months bedridden in the hospital in December, a time when he nearly died.

By his own description, he is more spiritual and certainly more calm than in the days when he was confronting network executives. His days are spent working on his autobiography -- "when I'm up to it" -- and seeing people he knows. He plans to stay in Chicago, though most of his family is in the Washington area.

He is also selling his Afro-American art collection. A painter himself, Robinson amassed the art with guidance from Washington artist and gallery owner Adolphus Ealey, who estimates it to be worth half a million dollars.

"The collection became a burden," Robinson says, "and if there's anything I've learned recently it's that all too many of us have too many things." He also could use the money.

His hospitalization brought him an enormous amount of sympathy. He received hundreds of cards, was visited by the famous -- Jesse Jackson, Oprah Winfrey (who visited often) -- and sought after by the curious. But even out of the hospital, he continues to be a subject of attention in Chicago and in media circles along the East Coast.

It is widely rumored that Robinson has AIDS, and he's aware of that. "The curiosity has at times annoyed me," he says. But neither he nor anyone close to him will discuss his illness with outsiders. "I'm just not going to get into the subject of what I have," Robinson says.

He was released from the hospital in February, seemingly stunned himself by his recovery. He continues to get stronger, under the care of Chicago physician Robert Fliegelman, a specialist in infectious diseases. His doctors, he says, jokingly refer to him as Lazarus Robinson.

"I've had very difficult times," says Max Robinson. "I've been to hell and back."

Friends and colleagues describe Robinson as gregarious, articulate, impassioned, temperamental, moody -- by turns generous and mean-spirited. He could be charming and entertaining, a wonderful mimic of such colleagues as Dan Rather and Sam Donaldson.

But he was plagued by a prima-donna reputation and disparaged by some of his colleagues. His absences from the air and criticism of the network -- most notably, a stinging speech on racism in television delivered at Smith College in 1981 -- were chronicled by the press.

Robinson wore a constant and heavy mantle: He could not escape being a symbol of achievement for blacks. It stayed with him whether he was fretting over being treated with enough respect or agonizing over how much he was actually doing to advance the position of blacks in television.

Always there for contrast was his brother Randall, a Harvard-trained lawyer and antiapartheid activist -- the very embodiment, it seemed, of service to black causes.

"Max was as close to the top of the front line of power in the news industry as we have come," says Randall, 46. But, he adds, "he understood what more had to be done in the industry ... He could not be satisfied simply being Max Robinson, anchorman." Broadcast News

He walked into his first Washington television job virtually off the street. It was 1965.

"A great-looking guy, dressed beautifully, great voice," Jim Silman, then the program director of Channel 9 (formerly WTOP television, now WUSA), remembers thinking about Max Robinson when he showed up. "I think I hired him on the spot."

Silman started Robinson as a "floor director," a jack-of-all-trades, putting up sets, cuing talent, even sweeping the floors. But Silman, now an independent producer, saw Robinson's potential and one day decided to test him secretly.

Robinson was working on a set, and Silman and the late John S. Hayes, president of Post-Newsweek Stations, which then owned WTOP, were in the glassed-in control room. Over the loudspeaker, Silman said, "Max, we want to test the microphone. Sit in the newsman's position and give us a check."

Robinson did.

"We had him read from a newspaper," Silman recalled. "He looked great and sounded great. Mr. Hayes and I looked at each other, and the next week he was in our news department."

For someone growing up in segregated Richmond, there was little inspiration to go into television. His mother Doris was a schoolteacher before her marriage to Maxie Robinson, a former Virginia Union University football star who taught history at Armstrong High School and coached several sports.

The four children were raised in a cocoon of support. "I really had a whole environment that said I could achieve, that my brothers could achieve," says the oldest of the children, Jewell, now an actress in Washington. Max was next in age, followed by Randall and Jean Robinson Yancey, who is director of public relations at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts here.

In a house full of books, Robinson remembers himself as something of a Renaissance child, delving into philosophy, science, even medical texts. He attended Oberlin on scholarship for a year in 1957, then dropped out because of illness. He never returned to the school, where his academic record was neither dazzling nor disastrous, and says he always regretted not going back. He later entered the Air Force and he studied Russian at its language school at Indiana University.

His initial encounter with television came at a low-power station in Portsmouth, Va. Robinson recalls it as WTOV, a now-defunct independent UHF station, which later became part of the Christian Broadcasting Network-Continental and is known as WYAH.

Robinson did station breaks and read the news -- but always with a graphic filling the screen that said simply "News."

One day before going on, he told the cameraman to remove the slide. "I thought it would be good for all my folks and friends to see me rather than this dumb news sign up there. Vanity got the better of me."

The next day, Robinson recalls, the owner called him and apologetically fired him. "He'd gotten these calls from some irate whites who'd found out that one of those people was working there."

Robinson says he found the incident predictable rather than traumatizing. (One Norfolk area television station executive who remembers that era says it was common for small stations to do newscasts without any face on screen.) Robinson, however, was tantalized by the fact that television news was essentially off limits to blacks. "That was before any of us were on," he says, "because I was one of the earliest."

As soon as Robinson joined the WTOP news department in 1965, he proved himself covering fires, robberies, murders. He was, in the words of Edward F. Ryan, a former news director, "a guy who went after stories and got 'em."

He wasn't a reporter at WTOP very long before WRC "grabbed him," Silman recalls. He became WRC's first black reporter in 1966.

"His air presence, his voice, poise, his looks were such that we gave him a good bit of air work," recalled Bill Monroe, now editor of Washington Journalism Review and who in 1966 was Washington bureau chief for NBC, which owns the station.

There he won six awards, including a national Emmy, for a series on life in Anacostia; he made friends. "He always talked to everyone, he always was very friendly. Max was always up," recalled Betty Endicott, a WRC reporter at the time and now general manager of WTTG, Channel 5.

But there were problems. "He had a habit of not showing up occasionally," said Irwin Margolis, then the station's news director. "It gets real irritating when you're trying to put on a newscast."

And, increasingly, management was having doubts.

An industry source who asked not to be identified says WRC management was reluctant to push Robinson further until he "developed as a reporter first." Robinson saw it differently: In an interview years later, he told The Washington Post that he had asked for an anchor slot but had been told, as he put it, "The time isn't right."

Robinson felt racial bias was behind the turndown, and in 1969 he returned to WTOP -- first as a reporter, then as midday news anchor and finally as coanchor with Gordon Peterson of "Eyewitness News" at 6 and 11 p.m.

"The more I looked at him on the air and the more I got to know him, the more I felt he was a very strong person," recalled former WTOP news director James L. Snyder, describing Robinson's on-air persona. Snyder teamed Robinson and Peterson in the spring of 1971. "There were no black anchors in any major city. I felt he could do it."

It was a stellar pairing; within a few years the team had soared to the top of the rating charts in both nightly time spots and essentially stayed there during Robinson's tenure. Robinson even became part of the news. When the Hanafi Muslims took over the headquarters of B'nai B'rith, one of their leader's first phone calls was to Max Robinson. And when Robinson left Washington for Chicago, Channel 9 ran a documentary on him.

These WTOP anchor years may have been Robinson's happiest and most productive. "Gordon was the best partner I ever had," Robinson says. Their connection was genuine, warm and fused with the shorthand that develops between people who work closely together.

"I remember once on the air Gordon made a segue -- it was a most unfortunate segue," says Robinson, smiling as he tells the story. "He said, 'Speaking of trouble, 5,000 black people are descending on Gary, Indiana' -- and he caught himself. He had come from a story about trouble and he catches himself and says, 'No, I didn't mean that! Max, tell them.' He panics. On the air. Live," Robinson says, chuckling. He switches to a low, calming voice. "I said, 'I know you didn't. I understand what you're trying to do.' "

He had friends, charisma and dashing good looks. "Women swooned over him," recalled Jean Freas, a New York free lance who was a Washington television reporter at the time. "He was just astonishingly handsome and sweet."

He also had a reputation as a ladies' man and a history of unsuccessful marriages. He is neither pleased by the characterization -- "Some of my best friends have been women," he counters -- nor expansive on his matrimonial record.

His first marriage to a Richmond woman ended in 1968, after five years and three children. His second marriage was annulled after a month, and his third, in 1973 to social worker Beverly Hamilton, broke up 10 years later. Their 11-year-old son lives with his mother in Chicago; she still visits Robinson regularly. "I will always love Beverly Hamilton Robinson," he says.

At WTOP, Robinson became a godfather to aspiring black reporters and technicians -- intervening with management, doing personal favors. "One day out of the blue he asked me, 'What size suit do you wear?' " recalls Mike Murphy, a cameraman who was in a minority training program when Robinson was starting as anchor. "He bought me a suit!"

Robinson became so prominent that he was becoming a role model for many black Washingtonians. Snyder, now a vice president of Post-Newsweek Stations, remembered talking to a woman from Prince George's County: "When the news came on Channel 9 she would sit her children in front of the TV and say, 'You see how he's dressed? You see how he sounds? That's the way I want you to look and sound.' "

But his colleagues and friends were beginning to see a dark side. There were periods of being "crazy and depressed" and times of heavy drinking. "He was a very gifted guy," says Gordon Peterson, "but he felt sometimes that the gifts would go away. He lacked confidence in himself." He seemed nagged by doubts -- uneasy about rising so high so fast, unsure of his talents.

"I think one of my basic flaws has been a lack of esteem, not really feeling great about myself, always feeling like I had to do more," Robinson says now. "I never could do enough or be good enough. And that was the real problem."

He pauses. "In fact, it probably was the essential problem I had throughout my career, throughout my life."

The inner conflicts surfaced in public ways: "There were days when he'd call at quarter of 6 and say he wasn't going to be in," recalls former Channel 9 reporter Susan King, now with WJLA, Channel 7, who often substituted for him. "He did this enough times to give me an unusual opportunity ... It was blue moods; he just couldn't get himself together."

It got worse. In 1973, wracked with grief over the death of his father, he fired a .357 magnum pistol that had belonged to his father from the patio of his Northwest apartment.

"Max was in heavy brooding," said Channel 9 reporter Bob Strickland, who was there that night. "He was having more than a few drinks and the pistol appeared and he just went out and fired ... He must have fired 18 or 20 rounds, talking about his dad ... racial discrimination kind of talk, how tough life was."

He was arrested and fined $25, and the next night he apologized on the air, drawing a sympathetic response from viewers.

But none of this stopped his rise in Washington.

His brother Randall encouraged him to go to the network. "At first I wasn't gung-ho about it," Max recalls. He was comfortable with family, home and career. "I'm not the most ambitious person in the world."

But ABC was very interested. "What we were really taken with were the tapes of the {Hanafi} hostage crisis in Washington and how he handled it," says ABC News Executive Vice President David Burke. They made a spectacular offer: an anchor post in Chicago (with a salary variously reported to be from $200,000 to $300,000 a year) as part of the new three-anchor evening newscast.

"It seemed like a nice fit," Burke says. The ABC Battleground

"When Max came to Chicago, all of us looked up to him," says veteran Chicago television reporter Russ Ewing, who is also black. "We thought it was the best thing that had happened."

Robinson saw the job as a way to change things on-screen. "I tended to take on the burdens of others much too readily," Robinson says now. "So ABC became a challenge of not just Max and the network but a challenge that affected black people in this country."

And if he found something he didn't like inside the business, he planned to speak out on that too. He'd always done that.

"I can remember we were having a meeting at WTOP and I raised the point that a story we were doing on home buyers did not have one person of color," he says. "And I remember one of my colleagues saying, 'But, Max, it has nothing to do with black people.' As if you had to have a black story for black people. I was horrified."

ABC was a formidable battleground, and by his own admission, he was zealous about taking on the battle against racism in all the "nooks and crannies" of the network.

"It wasn't a personal thing with me," he says. "I felt it was very much institutional ... I remember someone once saying to me that I wasn't a team player, and I said, 'I'd be happy to play on the team if the rules were not structured against me and my people.' "

But this was a game where he needed to be a team player. ABC's new anchor format (in London, Washington and Chicago) was something of a three-ring circus, fraught with frustrations for all the anchors but especially for Robinson, who was relegated to the least important ring.

Furthermore, his leap to national anchor highlighted his weaknesses.

As Roone Arledge, group president of ABC News and Sports, who conceived the format, envisioned Robinson's job, it would require reportorial dexterity, not to mention stamina. Stationed in "the heartland," Robinson would be a roving anchor-correspondent: "someone who would show up everywhere," says Arledge. "That was probably not a task that Max was used to doing, and he required a good bit of help."

And there was the city itself -- racially and ethnically polarized, a place where outsiders who come to make their names are treated with suspicion.

"He was never treated by ABC as a participant in the broadcast," says Carl Bernstein, ABC Washington bureau chief in 1980 and 1981, who was present at many Washington and New York meetings involving the planning of news coverage. "He was always treated as a mouth or a face." Bernstein, a friend from the days when Robinson covered the District Building here, also says, "There was a conscious policy almost of excluding him from any decision-making that had to do with that broadcast."

"There's no question that the first two years were very, very difficult," Robinson says. "I really became paranoid at times feeling that some {weak} producers were assigned to me deliberately."

"There's guilt all around," Arledge says. "I think that Max didn't seize the moment and make it work as well as it might have. On the other hand I think there was a tendency on the part of people early on to categorize Max as 'This is what he does -- he's effective on camera, he's a good reader but he's not the kind of fireman reporter you can put on a plane and fly to Kansas City when the {Hyatt Regency} collapses.' " Finally, Arledge says, "I just mandated that Max do stories."

He went to the 1980 political conventions; he went to Pennsylvania to cover the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear reactor accident and to Fort Wayne, Ind., to cover the devastating floods of 1982.

Some of his stories were very good, some were not so good, according to Arledge. Sometimes Robinson's own fear got in the way of improvement.

"If he had realized his talent," says his former producer, Ray Nunn, "he might have relaxed, he might have taken risks -- what he considered risks and what others considered development."

Once, annoyed over not being allowed to take Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday off, he arrived at the ABC studios very late, jeans-clad and inebriated, according to a technical staffer on the set. Robinson took his place at the anchor desk only minutes before the newscast. "You could see him trying to light his cigarette," says the staffer, mimicking Robinson struggling to prop his elbow up on the desk only to have it slip off.

But when cameras zoomed in, "Max did it like he always does, just a pace slower," says the staffer, awe in his voice. "Max is a pro."

Robinson denies the incident ever occurred.

Any gaffe he made was magnified by virtue of his status. The most famous involved his arriving in a chauffeur-driven limousine at the Tylenol homicide investigation headquarters, seeking an interview with the Illinois attorney general. Gary Deeb, then a Chicago television columnist and one of Robinson's biggest critics, excoriated the anchor.

Producer Milt Weiss, who had sent Robinson on the assignment, takes responsibility. "Max was in transit from his house to the office and I called him from his car and said, 'Max, I need you to get there, this is a big break,' " Weiss says. "And so he went right there. He did not normally cover stories from a limousine."

Obscured were the assignments he did well. His profile of an industrial town in Pennsylvania throttled by a steel mill closing allowed him to employ what Weiss believes was Robinson's forte: "He could interview anyone and get them to open up to him, whether it was a skid row bum or the president of International Harvester."

Once, Weiss and Robinson came across a story of a black child in Chicago who needed a liver transplant. An earlier network story on a white child in a similar situation had resulted in a public outpouring of funds.

But, Weiss recalls, in the case of the black child his welfare mother "had no idea how to go about getting him what he needed. We did a story ... and money came in to ABC but not at the rate that it did for the white child. But before a trust fund could get rolling, the boy died. And we never talked about it, but you could just see in {Robinson's} face when he heard the boy died that it was very painful for him. I think it just reminded him of the desperation and problems some black people have." The Robinson Network

Robinson reveled in the trappings of being The Anchor. Friends say he loved the attention and the fan mail and the prestige. He often sat in his ABC office reading and playing symphonic music -- just a touch too loud so people would hear, thought his friend and cameraman Kenneth Bedford, who tweaked him.

He and his wife Beverly entertained friends at their art-filled North Side apartment and later at their home in South Shore. From his back door you could walk to the lake front, where friends would pull up in their boats. After their marriage ended, he held parties at his art studio loft and sometimes would preside dramatically swathed in African garb, clutching a cane for effect.

He was commanding in public appearances. Speeches before youth and community groups often ended with inspirational crescendos that left even his colleagues stunned. At the end of one Robinson gave in Los Angeles, producer Weiss says, "I remember thinking if this guy ever wanted to be a TV preacher or a politician or anything that ever involved captivating people, he could do it."

And, conflicts aside, he was something of a dean to other black television journalists. When Royal Kennedy, now a reporter and producer at Chicago's public television station, wanted to move from her ABC job in Chicago to Los Angeles, it was Robinson, she says, who urged network executives to give her a West Coast position.

When Bruce Rheins, then a 23-year-old writer at ABC in Chicago, substituted as principal national news writer for five months, the New York bureau mercilessly shuttled his copy back for changes. Robinson put an end to the tinkering by saying that the copy was good. "He stuck up for me," Rheins says.

Patricia Arnold Gamble, a producer, had just been hired when she met Robinson, whose ABC office was across the hall.

"You know, you hop from one plantation to another," she says, "and I was telling him my horror stories. There weren't many blacks {there} at the time. We were just kind of a support group for each other. And he was kind of a mentor and took this group under his wing."

They would share daily battles and long-range dreams. "We would sit there on the floor with him and his wife until 3 in the morning, listening to him on the soapbox. He loved that," Gamble says. "He helped me step back from it ... Sometimes you just have to do a job."

Gamble readily says it was advice that Robinson, himself, rarely heeded.

"He looked like he'd reached the top of the electronic media," says Donn F. Bailey, director of the Center for Inner City Studies of Northeastern Illinois University. "Most of us thought he'd be secure. The more you got to know him on a social level, the more you got to see how uncertain he was -- 'What am I going to do after this? What happens when this bubble bursts?' "

Bailey was one of a number of blacks, loosely connected through social and professional ties, who often chatted informally with Robinson about social issues and how the media handled them.

Weiss sensed a melancholy man who did not quite belong anywhere. "He was one of three anchors and the only one who didn't come up through the network ranks," Weiss says. "He was the only black one. He was in a city that wasn't his home town. He didn't know who his friends were."

When Robinson got depressed, he would simply go into seclusion. "He would call sometimes at 3 or 4 in the morning," says Gamble. "I'm sure anyone who's close to him has gotten early-morning or late-night calls. You could tell from his tone or from how evasive he was ... that he was depressed."

Weiss recalls one vulnerable moment -- the only time he ever saw Robinson drunk. They had been working late and went out for drinks. "I remember I began to feel very uncomfortable about things he was asking," Weiss says. "He said, 'How come you don't want to be my friend? You never invite me over to your house.' It would never occur to me to invite the anchorman over to my house. I mean, Peter Jennings has never been to my house. Eventually he started to doze and I got him home. The driver and I physically got him into the house."

"He'd call me and tell me, 'This is terrible,' and 'I don't like this,' " says ABC's Burke. "I'd go out on an occasion or two and we'd have dinner and talk about it ... I didn't think I knew what to do to relieve his unhappiness. I didn't think I could reach it." The Smith Speech

The "infamous Smith speech" -- as even Robinson refers to it -- was delivered on a snowy Sunday in February 1981. Robinson says now that his anger "was part of the motivation for the speech, even though I will stand behind in my calmest moments everything I said."

Robinson already had made a stinging speech in November 1980 in Los Angeles before a media forum in which he said that Ronald Reagan's arrival in Washington "was not a good day" for black people.

But in the Smith speech, he took his own bosses to task. He lambasted the television news industry's one-sided depiction of the "orgy of patriotism" resulting from Reagan's inauguration and the release of the Iranian hostages. And he criticized his own exclusion -- as well as that of two other black network correspondents -- from the coverage of those two events. ("I was furious" at being left out, Robinson says today. Arledge says there was no reason why Robinson should have been assigned, since the former was a Washington political event and the latter a foreign story.)

"Why, the networks even failed to recognize America's black ambassador to Algiers, who played a key role in the hostage negotiations," the Smith College newspaper, The Sophian, quoted Robinson saying. "The ambassador and his wife were standing right next to Warren Christopher kissing everything that moved through that receiving line in West Germany."

The speech, predictably, caused a furor. "People were not happy," Jennings recalls, "but people in large corporations are never happy to hear that racism exists." Jennings wouldn't comment on Robinson's remarks, but noted, "Nobody should have been surprised to hear a black person working for a company stand up and say that."

Robinson was called to New York, where Arledge met with him in his office in Sports "so it wouldn't look like he was being called on the carpet," Arledge recalls.

Their talk started with Arledge discussing Robinson's delicate position and asking him to make a statement clarifying his feelings. "You're a high-profile person," he says he told Robinson. "You can't drop a phrase like 'Your company is racist' and not expect people to notice."

But it ended up a discussion that lasted four hours. "He said it was an unconscious kind of racism," Arledge remembers. "I said, 'Explain that. I'm a white person. I don't understand.' "

According to Arledge, Robinson's speech and the subsequent meeting between the two men set in motion a number of informal discussions among ABC correspondents and other employees about the subtle nature of racism. And ABC set up an advisory panel of some of its black employees. "I don't want to make it A to B overnight," Arledge says, "but ... it started in motion a sense that there might be an unconscious kind of -- not racism, but activities that could be perceived the wrong way." An Embarrassing Absence

Robinson left his job on a memorable faux pas: In July 1983, he missed Frank Reynolds' funeral.

It was a televised event, which the Reagans were attending. Robinson was to be seated next to Nancy Reagan.

The day before, producer Milt Weiss was sitting in Robinson's office. "He got into a rather sad discussion about funerals, about how uncomfortable funerals made him feel ... He felt there was a lot of hypocrisy in terms of what people said." The funeral was in Washington and both Weiss and Robinson were flying out the next day. "He said since we had to leave very early in the morning he'd send his car and driver to pick me up first and then pick him up at his apartment."

In the morning, Weiss was driven to Robinson's apartment. But when Weiss buzzed, there was no answer, nor was there an answer when he and the building manager knocked on the door. Weiss left without Robinson.

"What happened to Max, which he later told me," Weiss says, "was he went home, had several drinks, couldn't get to sleep, took some prescription drugs that the doctor had given him -- and that in combination with the liquor -- and just passed out."

The media portrayed this as Robinson's ultimate, most embarrassing absence, although ABC executives, including Arledge, played down its importance. "It was more significant in retrospect than it was that particular day," Arledge says.

Shortly after Reynolds' death, Jennings was elevated to sole anchor -- a decision with which Robinson does not quibble. Robinson was transferred to Washington to do the weekday evening "News Briefs," sandwiched between prime-time shows. On Saturday nights, he anchored the network's late-night news show.

The news briefs, Robinson says, "became a sort of joke. People teasing you about being the highest paid per-minute television person in the history of the business. They were correct." He lets out a deep laugh.

"There was no way to sugarcoat it entirely," Arledge says but adds, "It wasn't a demotion." Arledge asserts that the network wanted to keep him but that there was simply no place for Robinson at an anchor desk except on weekends. "I said it's a cruel coincidence," Arledge says.

By early in 1984, he had an offer from Chicago's Channel 5 to be a coanchor of its evening show.

"I remember David Burke calling and asking me not to do it. They wanted me to stay," Robinson says.

"We didn't stand in his way," Burke says. "Given the alternatives we could see at the moment, we saw no reason why we should knock that {potential job} off the tracks if that's what he wanted." The Anchor Adrift

He was going to a station that was owned by NBC in the third largest market in the country. Beleaguered for years by third-place ratings, Channel 5 management saw Robinson as a shot in the arm for the station, where he would coanchor its 6 and 10 p.m. newscasts.

"We had a good news program but we didn't have a personality and we thought that would add some spin," says Monte Newman, the former general manager at Channel 5, now an advertising executive, who pushed for the Robinson hire. Robinson was paid $500,000 a year, according to one industry source.

But the 10 p.m. newscast with Robinson and Ron Magers just didn't work. Their relations on the air were cordial but hardly warm. "If there's competition between anchors," says one television source, "it's death for the newscast."

The ratings didn't budge from third place.

"Max was the most reserved, aloof, formal person I've ever worked with," says Magers, who is still a coanchor. "We finally made it to dinner one night, and I asked him if there was anything I could do to help our relationship on the air and he said no, he thought it was fine."

In the end, it wasn't. "I was very unhappy at Channel 5," Robinson says, "and it doesn't compare to ABC, really. It was worse ... I had gotten tired of fighting the same old battles."

He finally ended his relationship with Channel 5 by going to Cleveland to attend a local Emmys ceremony -- and never returning to the job.

In Cleveland, he was treated by a doctor, then entered a medical rehabilitation program in the West "to deal with the problems I was going through at that time." Later he was also treated at the Hazelden alcohol and drug rehabilitation program; he refuses to discuss details but denies he had a drug problem.

A television executive familiar with the situation says that when NBC and Channel 5 managers flew first to Cleveland to see Robinson's doctor and later to New York to confer with Robinson's agent, they were told only that Robinson was in a treatment program somewhere outside Chicago. Weeks passed, according to the source, without direct word from Robinson and without any indication of when he would return. Meanwhile, Robinson's hiatus was stretching through the summer.

"Then it gets really scary and the meter's running on all this time," says the source. "Then finally we had to stop the meter because he wasn't there."

Robinson denies that his bosses were kept in the dark about his rehabilitation program. "No one was more shocked than I ... when I got back from the West Coast and got this letter informing me that I had been terminated," he says.

In the last two years, the people who worked with Robinson in Washington and Chicago have seen him rarely. They recount snapshots of a man trying to cope with a life and career in disarray.

"I think he missed being on the air and missed the power he had to influence," says Dianne Hudson, a producer on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" who worked with Robinson more than two years ago on a pilot she was preparing for Detroit public television. "But I don't think he missed being involved in the system. He never really could accept the way the system was -- and is."

Producer Patricia Gamble occasionally heard from him. "He was in a different spiritual frame of mind," she says. "He was getting into meditation. He would call me and ask me to pray for him."

In April 1987, a despondent Robinson called Milt Weiss. "He had run out of money and wasn't working and didn't know what to do with his life," Weiss recalls.

Robinson, himself, describes the past three years as being filled with "a little writing, a little speaking, and the 'Essence' shows," the latter being the magazine-format programs spun off from the magazine of that name. The show is based in New York and Robinson cohosted several episodes and did reporting as well.

For part of 1987, he was living outside Richmond to be near one of his sons, who had been ill, and did not return to Chicago until last October.

Two months later, Robinson entered St. Francis Hospital in suburban Chicago after complaining about weight loss, according to a friend. While in intensive care, he lay in an isolated room, and when he was moved to another ward, a warning was posted outside his room to medical personnel to gown and glove before performing certain tasks in caring for him. He suffered from a serious bout with pneumonia.

When these points of information are noted and he is asked again about his illness, he says, "I take the position that my health is a private matter. I understand that you have a right to write." He pauses. "And I don't challenge that."

When he does describe his health, he says, "I feel pretty good." Ask if he is terminally ill and he replies, "We all are." And then he adds, "And, lady, you are going to die. I guarantee you."

The salt-and-pepper hair is thinner and closely cut, and he looks older than his 49 years. For contrast, you only have to look at the oval table-top portrait by the famous photographer James Van Der Zee that Robinson sat for in 1981. It depicts him in white tie and tails, against a lush backdrop of curtains and flowers, resting an elbow gently on a table, relaxed, confident, in control and pleased. Now, he reflects only briefly on how things might have been.

"There are some things in my life that I would change if I had to do it over again," he says. "I would never look at another bottle of alcohol if I could change things. But for the most part I've been extremely fortunate and I've had a very good life. I don't have a lot of regrets and I'm certainly not sitting around thinking about them." A Conversation

Recently Milt Weiss was at a party given by some of his Los Angeles neighbors when he struck up a conversation with someone from the film industry. "It was one of those guys with a development title," says Weiss, who mentioned Max Robinson. "I said, 'You know, if you're ever looking for a great idea, I think his life story would make a heck of a TV movie.' "

Intrigued, the movie executive asked questions and Weiss told him what he knew about the first black national anchor.

"What's he doing now?" the man asked.

"Nothing," Weiss explained.

"Well, that's a sad ending. It'll never sell," the man said, and walked away.

Staff writers Phil McCombs and Jacqueline Trescott made substantial contributions to this report.