When actor Robert Prosky sits down to dinner today, he will be repeating a ritual he has shared with family and friends since 1958. In all that time -- despite his normally itinerant profession -- he has missed only two Thanksgivings on Capitol Hill, and he's never missed a Christmas.

Last night, when he stepped out on the almost empty stage at Arena to begin the action in Thornton Wilder's "Our Town," he repeated another treasured experience, embodying a role he has played at four different times in his life, performing in a theater he was part of for 23 years.

"It feels as though I never left," he says.

Prosky, 59, who broke away from the security of the prestigious repertory company for the riskier venues of film and television a decade or so ago, has returned to Arena to a part he loves (the play's Stage Manager) for the company's 40th-anniversary season. "Galileo," one of the last plays he performed in at Arena, was part of its 30th season.

The urgency of noticing such details -- time and place, the moments of our lives day by day -- is a subject much on the actor's mind. The ability to cherish them is at the center of "Our Town," and for that matter at the heart of the craft of acting. "Exist in the now -- that's what you always hear as an actor," says Prosky.

But it's a message he doesn't seem to need to hear.

Because unlike most actors, Bob Prosky has managed to have it all: a fulfilling career onstage as well as a regular paycheck, the wider recognition that has come from television and films, a wife he dotes on who dotes on him, and a supportive family. He hasn't even had to move away to do it.

"No matter where I live, it's the wrong place for work," he says. "And I'm not that fond of Los Angeles or New York. I like Washington."

Today he is a particularly happy man -- he doesn't have to work tonight. A 1985 Actors Equity ruling made Thanksgiving a day off at Arena. But in the years before then, Bob and Ida Prosky and their three sons had a good time anyway.

Dinner, often followed by walking races or impromptu soccer games, was always planned for early afternoon. (Sharing the cooking with another family, Ida Prosky would time the meal carefully so that he could get to Arena in time for his half-hour before the performance call.) And then -- until the boys were old enough to be in school plays at Gonzaga College High School -- the whole family would troop off to see Dad perform.

He actually appreciated the discipline his schedule enforced. "It kept me from the excesses of the holidays," he says.

Family and his active role as paterfamilias has always been important to Prosky. The couple's stable family life is a luxury most actors can't count on. How did they do it? "Tenacity," he says. "We both worked hard at it -- probably Ida more."

Ida Prosky views their life together not only as a participant, but as an anthropologist completing a book for the Temple University Press about performance from the viewpoint of working performers. "The actors who do have families tend to work very hard to do things for them," she says. "Bob has always been a strong father to his sons."

There was never a lot of money, of course -- the family grew used to what Prosky refers to as his "annual spring poverty lecture" before a contract for the next season was signed. "It was never a sinecure," he says. "After a while I expected it to happen. But there were no guarantees." But his work outside Arena added to the family coffers. There were voice-overs for commercials, occasional summer stock, public-service announcements, even a political spot for a then little-known "liberal candidate" from Maryland named Spiro Agnew.

And unlike most actors' children, the boys could always see their father, not only around the house but at work. Two have followed him into the profession: John, 28, is appearing with him now in "Our Town." Andy, 25, is touring with the Acting Company. (Their third son, Stefan, 29, is a microbiologist working on the creation of skin tissue for use in burn surgery.)

Concern about the family budget wasn't new to Prosky. The only child of a Polish butcher, he grew up in Philadelphia surrounded by uncles and aunts and cousins in a solidly working-class environment. Success, by their standards, meant avoiding work in a factory. "I was the only one in my family who left to go into the arts," he recalls. "In fact, I was the only one in my family who left."

He might not have left had fate not intervened in the form of an audition he won for a televised dramatic talent search. He'd gotten interested in plays at 15 when he'd played the role of the Stage Manager in "Our Town." "The experience fascinated me," he recalls. "I wanted recognition."

But his family wanted him to get an education, so he studied economics at Temple University. When he graduated at the beginning of the Korean War, he joined the Air Force, only to have his military career cut short by his father's death. His father, whom he remembers as "a very masculine, very traditional, responsible husband and father," had been a model of tenacity and hard work, and Prosky returned to run his father's grocery store to support his mother and grandmother. He says now he wasn't very good at it but wasn't motivated to do anything else either.

While running the store, his interest in the theater resurfaced in the form of amateur productions. Prosky graduated from them (and the grocery store) when he won the amateur talent competition, and one of the prizes was a part in a play at the Bucks County Playhouse. The play's director, Ezra Stone, and its featured actor, Walter Matthau, urged Prosky to get more training. With their encouragement and his mother's blessing, he headed for New York, and a New York Drama League scholarship. From the beginning, the portly young actor (then in his twenties, his hair already turned white) played character roles. "I always looked older than I was," he says now. "Finally I'm at the age I've been playing all my life."

In 1958 he auditioned for plays at two regional theaters. The job at Arena paid less -- $85 a week in Washington versus $125 a week at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey -- but it was a better part. And he was intrigued by the young theater and its dynamic leader, Zelda Fichandler. He was soon equally intrigued by his play-to-play contract, the regular work that accompanied it and the weekly paycheck that was part of the package. "It's what my father would have done," he says of the decision.

(Later in his career, he acknowledges, he was probably attracted to the security of a three-year contract playing Sgt. Stanislaus Jablonski on "Hill Street Blues" for similar reasons. But he drew the line at a part on "Cheers." The program, which was just starting up, called for a seven-year contract. "The contract was too long and the show was too good," he says. "I reconsidered that decision every third day, but I didn't want to play the same role for seven years.") Ida Prosky hypothesizes that her husband's 23-year career at Arena, and the stream of television, film and stage work that has followed it, -- among them "The Murder of Mary Phagan," "Outrageous Fortune," "A Walk in the Woods" -- have a deeper meaning. "Acting is not considered an acceptable serious profession for a man," she says. "To a lot of the outside world, what actors do is not work. A man is supposed to father children, support his family, not play around with makeup and costumes... . But Bob has always defined himself by working. It's hard to get him to stop."

Indeed, even what Prosky does in his spare time is work: He has fixed up every house the family has ever lived in, including "an old tweed coat of a Victorian house" in Cape May Point, N.J., that he touches up each summer. In the process, he has taught himself carpentry, plumbing, brick and tile work, gardening. "I didn't know which end of a hammer to hold when I started," he says. "But I did it out of sheer necessity. A need would arise, and I'd get out the books."

By the time the Proskys purchased their most recent house on the Hill, a new one furnished with a welcoming mix of Victorian and country pieces, they could finally afford to hire someone to do what little work needed to be done. He couldn't help himself. He decided to do the work anyway, refining yet another skill, wallpaper hanging. "The house was in fine condition," he says, "but Ida didn't like the bathroom."

Physical work wasn't all that Prosky applied himself to. When he left Arena, the first thing he did was to learn double-entry bookkeeping. Then he taught himself how to handle computers. In fact, the question often put to him while he was at Arena that really dumbfounded him was "What do you do during the day?"

What he's doing during the day now is what he always did then: rehearsing from noon until 5, having dinner with his family, returning to perform in the evenings, going over his lines afterward until 1 or 2 in the morning and again when he wakes up. In between he squeezes in what he calls "the husband and father things."

"I'm amazed I ever managed to do anything else during the season," he ventures.

For now, "Our Town" continues to fascinate, even challenge him. With its bare stage and absent curtain, it was considered a shocker when it opened in 1938, an avant-garde play influenced by Pirandello and Gertrude Stein. And Prosky has found something new in it each time he has performed the role of the Stage Manager. This time director Doug Wager has rethought the play, emphasizing Wilder's interest in "the continuum of life's experience."

"We're working on a number of different levels," says Prosky, trying to articulate the deeper meaning in what at first appears to be a straightforward text. "There's the continuum of Arena's existence, the continuum of the human condition, the specific event in the eons of human existence. I exist as the Stage Manager, as Bob Prosky doing a scene, as Bob Prosky watching his son perform... ."

As to what comes next, who knows? Technically, Prosky no longer has to work. Television and films have made that possible. "I earned more in one episode of 'Hill Street' than I would have in an entire Arena season," he muses.

A man with few regrets, he nevertheless sometimes wishes that wider recognition had come sooner. "But then I would have missed roles I treasure," he says, "Galileo, Sir Toby Belch, Willy Loman. And it might have been very destructive to my family."

Besides, he is finally able to make career decisions on the merits of the work. As Thornton Wilder implicitly urged in "Our Town," he is able to live in the moment, not worrying about the future. He has agents and a manager to do that for him.

Not that it can ever reassure the working-class Philadelphia boy in him. Because Prosky would certainly prefer to know what he'll be doing when "Our Town" closes on Jan. 16. There's the chance that "Lifestories," a series he is narrating, will be extended. And then again, maybe it won't.

"If January comes and goes and February too, then I'll have to worry," he says. "But it's always worked out before. Experience tells me this time it will too."