"He is, after all, an immortal -- an ideal of sophistication forever," concluded Pauline Kael, speaking of Cary Grant in an extended critical appreciation that appeared in The New Yorker six years ago. The subject himself, a robust 77, admits to feeling "terribly flattered but quite speechless" when confronted with such praise, the natural outcome of a remarkably entertaining and durable Hollywood career.

He voiced similar sentiments about being chosen for this year's round of Kennedy Center Honors. Contacted by phone at his home in Los Angeles, Grant exclaimed, "I feel delighted and flattered, and I don't think I deserve it.

"As a rule, I have tended to avoid these events. I rarely go because I'm terrible at making speeches. The thought of that duty leaves me feeling helpless. Jimmy Stewart, on the other hand, seems to like them. Perhaps Jimmy should represent us all the time. I was told by someone that Helen Hayes said it would be high time to get off the tribute circuit and back to work after the evening at the Kennedy Center. I liked that: the tribute circuit. The difference is that the Kennedy Center event is the only one of its kind. I'm glad to be a part of it."

Grant became unique among the romantic leading men of his generation by perfecting a deft, appealing comedy style. A handsome gent with a genius for both uninhibited farce and diffident sexual magnetism, he evolved into a peerless romantic comedian. As Tom Wolfe observed in 1963, at the time "Charade" was released, "Hollywood has left Cary Grant, by default, in sole possession of what has turned out to be a curiously potent device. Which is to say, to women he is Hollywood's lone example of the Sexy Gentleman. And to men and women, he is Hollywood's lone example of a figure America, like most of the West, has needed all along: a Romantic Bourgeois Hero . . . Even at age 59, the man still has the flawless squared-off face of a comic-strip hero, a large muscular neck and an athletic physique . . . Every good American girl wants to marry a doctor. But a Dr. Dreamboat? Is it too much to hope for? Well, that is what Cary Grant is there for."

Born Archibald Alexander Leach in Bristol, England, in 1904, the future Cary Grant came to the United States in 1920 as part of the Bob Pender company of acrobats, tumblers and clowns. Young Leach elected to remain in America and was signed by Paramount in 1932. It was then he took the name Cary Grant. He appeared in seven features during his first year in Hollywood and six the following year, getting a key break when Mae West selected him as her leading man in her best movie vehicles, "She Done Him Wrong" and "I'm No Angel."

It's generally believed that Grant began to emerge as a distinctive star presence in George Cukor's whimsical, haunting 1935 romance about a troupe of strolling players, "Sylvia Scarlett," in which Katharine Hepburn starred as a young woman who disguised herself as a boy. Two years later Grant appeared to hit his stride triumphantly in "The Awful Truth," playing the estranged, lovesick spouse of Irene Dunne. It began a fabulous winning streak: "Topper," "Bringing Up Baby," "Holiday," "Gunga Din," "Only Angels Have Wings," "In Name Only," "His Girl Friday," "My Favorite Wife," "The Philadelphia Story," "Penny Serenade," "Suspicion," "The Talk of the Town."

In the postwar period Grant's most satisfying vehicles tended to be romantic thrillers directed by Alfred Hitchcock -- "Notorious," "To Catch a Thief" and "North by Northwest" -- or obviously inspired by Hitchcock, in the case of the delightful "Charade." However, it was a pair of popular romantic farces made under extremely advantageous contracts at Universal -- "Operation Petticoat" in 1959 and "That Touch of Mink" three years later -- that evidently transformed Grant into a millionaire.

The last of Grant's 72 features was "Walk, Don't Run," an engaging 1966 remake of one of the last good screwball comedies, "The More the Merrier," which was set in congested Washington in 1942. Although he played a kind of valedictory role as an elderly Cupid, Grant claims there was nothing premeditated about his retirement. "That film coincided with the birth of my daughter," he said, "and I wanted to stay as close to her as possible."

Grant has resisted a number of requests to come out of retirement, including an offer by Warren Beatty to play the Mr. Jordan role in "Heaven Can Wait." He speculates about a comeback in terms so safely vague and impractical that they appear to preclude all potential offers. "If I were to go back," Grant said, "I'd like to do something entertaining and amusing, yet unfictional. Something informative that would appeal to both children and grown-ups. And there's no such thing. It can't be found."