James Earl Jones really is one of those actors who could read from the phone book and hold an audience. He almost does that in commercials he's made for a regional telephone company.

In "Gabriel's Fire," the new ABC drama series at 10 tonight on Channel 7, Jones has considerably better material than the Yellow Pages, however. ABC is taking the unusual step of repeating tonight's pilot episode tomorrow night at 9, henceforth the show's regular time slot.

Jones plays Gabriel Bird, a Chicago cop serving a life sentence for shooting a fellow cop back in 1969. Like Burt Lancaster's "Birdman of Alcatraz," this Bird man is doing his time pretty much in somber silence.

Then, along about Bird's 7,243rd day in the big house, bright but brittle young lawyer Victoria Heller (Laila Robins) happens toreopen the case. Before he knows it, Bird is, at least technically, a free man, and Heller is enlisting him to join her law firm's investigative team.

Thus is the premise established, but not without a lot of fractious acrimony back and forth between the lawyer and the ex-con. It goes on for about 40 minutes, and it might be grating if Jones weren't playing Bird with such weighty, mercurial authority.

Bird's reentry into the modern world is full of jolting culture shocks; some people are kind, some are cold, and the streets are rife with drugs and danger. Director and Executive Producer Robert Lieberman artfully interpolates black-and-white flashbacks to Bird's past, before his wife took their daughter and left him.

(Co-executive producer of the series is Stephen Zito, a former Washingtonian who worked at the American Film Institute.)

A slight sinking sensation sets in once the premise has been fully established and you can see the series settling into its formula. "We'll give it a try, one case at a time," says Bird, which also sounds like Jones as he faces the prospect of another TV series.

Several loose ends still dangle at the fade-out, however, and Bird looms as a complex anachronism, a moral man in a new, cruel, amoral world. You really believe he would have second thoughts about leaving the sanctuary of prison for the risks and perils that wait outside.

The series has a potential problem that goes back to the telephone book. Jones's ubiquity as a commercial spokesman could impair his credibility with viewers as a dramatic presence. Actors should remember that when they sign on those dotted lines.

Comedy is more dominant on the network prime-time schedules this year than ever; that makes a tough, gruff, truly gritty drama series like "Gabriel's Fire" particularly welcome. Will it hold up? Very possibly. It sure has a powerful pair of shoulders to rest on.