A.M. Rosenthal, the New York Times columnist and former executive editor, has been fired after 56 years with the paper.

"Sweetheart, you can use any word you want," Rosenthal said yesterday from Manhattan, where he was cleaning out his office after writing a final column for today's Times. He said Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., in giving him the news, told him only that "it was time. What that means, I don't know. . . . I didn't expect it at all."

Rosenthal, 77, said he hoped to continue his column for another publication and do other kinds of writing. "Did I expect to write forever?" he asked. "Why not? . . . Hardly a day goes by in New York without somebody coming up and kissing me" in thanks for his column.

While declining to criticize the decision to dump him--"I've always detested people who work for an institution a long time and when they leave, throw up all over it"--Rosenthal made clear he was unhappy. He said he had enjoyed a drink earlier in the day with some colleagues, including his son, Foreign Editor Andrew Rosenthal.

Rosenthal has been writing an op-ed column since 1987, when he gave up the top editor's job upon reaching the mandatory retirement age of 65. Speculation that his tenure might be nearing an end began when Sulzberger cut him back from twice to once a week more than a year ago.

A Times spokeswoman did not return a call seeking comment on Sulzberger's behalf.

Abe Rosenthal has been a towering figure in Times history, a Pulitzer Prize winner whom many credit with saving the paper in the 1970s, but also an intimidating figure who made his share of enemies.

"I don't think anyone had as much influence on the paper, certainly not in my day," said former managing editor Arthur Gelb. "He was the greatest editor I've ever worked with. . . . Sometimes, reporters and editors thought he was too tough."

Rosenthal, who began as a $12-a-week City College stringer while a student in 1943, went on to become a foreign correspondent in India, Poland and Japan. While at the U.N. bureau, Gelb recalled, Rosenthal would pace the halls smoking cigarettes, then sit down and bang out a story on a manual typewriter with no revisions.

Rosenthal said he initially turned down the job of city editor because he envisioned himself as foreign editor, "sitting around smoking my pipe with the boys at the Council on Foreign Relations." But he took the job and went on to become managing editor and executive editor.

It was under Rosenthal that the Times became a four-section newspaper, adding such "soft" sections as Home, Weekend, Living and SportsMonday and spending more money despite a decline in revenues. Rosenthal resisted pressure from business executives for a fashion section and instead created Science Times, despite complaints that it would draw no advertising. That changed with the computer revolution.

Rosenthal's reign was an unhappy time for many at the paper who viewed him as imperious. He refused to allow the word "gays" in the newspaper, saying activists were promoting the term for political reasons. One of Sulzberger's priorities when he succeeded his father as publisher, after Rosenthal had become a columnist, was to create a warmer climate toward gay staffers.

In a statement, Sulzberger praised Rosenthal as a "major force" at the Times and a columnist who "wrote thoughtfully about a broad range of topics." While Sulzberger did not explain the ouster, he is known to believe that no columnist should have a lifetime appointment. Sulzberger also may be seeking a younger look; Rosenthal and Russell Baker, who retired last year, were the last of the old bulls on a page that once featured the likes of James Reston and Tom Wicker.

As a columnist, Rosenthal often wrote about religious persecution, and he noted that a group of religious leaders last year submitted his work for a Pulitzer. But he is perhaps proudest of maintaining the integrity of its news coverage.

Asked to describe his legacy, Rosenthal supplied a lead notable for its economy: "He kept the paper straight."

CAPTION: A.M. Rosenthal has been let go by the New York Times.