Actor-environmentalist Robert Redford came to Washington yesterday and the town witnessed a surge of interest in the environment unrivaled since Earth Day. A lunch at the National Press Club was filled to overflowing. A lecture at the Museum of Natural History's Baird Auditorium had a waiting list of 1,000 that was left waiting.

Redford's arrival was paved by advance work befitting a head of state. Secret entrances were secured. Flashbulbs were banned. Dignitaries were tapped as escorts. Logistics were 11 months in the making.

"The problem is how do you get him from one place to another without being mobbed," said Smithsonian official Michael Caplin, who invited Redford to participate in the institution's Resident Associates Program's 25th-anniversary celebration. "We owe it to him to deliver a civilized visit."

And civilized it was. Redford, not an expert, but a schooled activist, addressed issues as diverse as the red squirrel on Mount Graham in Arizona, the Middle East oil crisis, energy policy, the threat of extinction to mankind.

At the Smithsonian, the post-lecture questioners -- both men and women -- shared Redford's concerns about the future. And the actor, who came to alert the audience, ended up consoling them. "Throughout the country, there are a lot of encouraging things going on," he said. "Give the groups in your local communities the power and money to do things."

"I'm impressed with your ability to express your views," said a bearded man in a blue shirt. "There is a precedent for actors getting involved in politics. Have you ever thought of ..."

"I don't know what got hurt worse," Redford interjected, "the acting profession or politics." And no, he is not planning to run for public office. "I'm happy doing what I'm doing," he said.

At the press club, polite pandemonium reigned as the audience, mostly women and mostly over 40 -- make that over 55 -- crowded into the ballroom (discreet little snapshot cameras in hand) for standard chicken, rice and string bean fare. No one was heard complaining about the food. The attraction was the speaker.

"Isn't he pretty," gasped one woman.

"Is that him? I don't have my glasses," said another. "What's he talking about, the environment?" "What do you think, 5-9?" asked a woman in silk and pearls.

"I'd say 5-10, definitely 5-10," said her companion.

Stabbing at their salads, craning their necks to get better views, the luncheon audience tried to be cool. It wasn't easy.

Vera Glaser, chairman of the press club's speakers committee, introduced Redford to modulated applause, which swelled when she noted that developers have called him an "ecomaniac."

At both events Redford delivered a thoughtful speech, adroitly mixing information ("scientists tell us the battle for the environment will be won or lost in the next decade") with reminiscences ("I watched green spaces turn into malls, the smell of orange blossoms turn into exhaust fumes"), rhetoric ("we have to ask ourselves, are we the beneficiaries of progress or the victims?") and politics ("there's no point in being asked to read my lips if the lips aren't saying anything. That's called lip service").

Questions and answers:

What can individuals do?

Affect votes, he said.

How best dispose of nuclear waste?

By not creating it, he said.

Is it possible to achieve environmental harmony without restricting population growth?

No, he said.

Are you in favor of a Cabinet-level environmental position?

Yes, he said, and he'd raise it to the level of a national security post.

Who is your favorite leading lady?

Paul Newman, he said. (No dope he.)

At the end of the day, Redford was weary, and clearly a little uncomfortable with all the fuss. Why did he come? "Because I care about the environment," he said. "It may sound square, and I guess I'm old-fashioned. But I want to put something back into my own society -- and right now it needs all the help it can get."