"When he was good, he was very very good. When he was bad, he was a disaster."

Lauren Bacall, "By Myself"

THE VOICE IS unmistakeable. Like a cement mixer stuck in reverse. The familiar, husky voice that occasionally cracks into hoarse laughter and trails off into an inaudible mumble when another cigarette is stuck between the lips.

"I'm doing okay," says Jason Robards.

After three divorces, 12 years of analysis and a 10-round bout with the bottle, Robards is very, very good. He says he eats well, plays ball with his kids, shovels snow at his Connecticut home and loves his wife so much he's stopped looking at other women. Last night he opened at the Kennedy Center in a production of "You Can't Take It With You," a comedy about life's priorities.

At the age of 60, Jason Robards has finally figured out his.

"I had a choice whether to live or die and I chose to live," he says. The hair is silver-white and thinning slightly on top. The face is lined with the dark See ROBARDS, K6, Col. 1 Jason Robards; by Joel Richardson--The Washington Post --- Robards -----ROBARDS, From K1 secrets of a man who stayed too close to the edge for too long. The small red scar over his lip is a souvenir from a near-fatal car crash, the denouement of his drunken years. Still, the overall effect is one of a well-preserved, if somewhat mercurial, matinee idol; an enormously attractive, shy, sexy man whose gray-blue eyes glint with unresolved mischief.

"I don't want to go back," he says, dragging on the cigarette. "I mean you have regrets, but . . ."

Jason Robards, one of the most enduring stage and screen actors in America, would be the first to tell you he used to be a disaster.

"It was the drinking," he says, buttoning his navy blue blazer over a slight paunch and crossing his polished wing tips. "It got in the way. Irresponsibility. Not taking things seriously. The last thing to go is your work. Everything else, marriage, family . . ." His voice trails off. "After that, work is last. When that goes, you have nothing. Everything disappears."

He is relaxing in a small apartment where he will stay for the next month. He takes a drag on the cigarette. "We grow each day or don't grow. Go the other way. We're a different person all the time. The human being is something happening differently every day. That's the challenge of doing a play, using your instrument to learn and to pull out these things. I still have nightmares about things I didn't do right. I'll say, 'Aaaagh, that's what that means.' I finally figured it out. Twenty years later. I wish I could play it over again. I'd know what to do with that area. That's not to do with ego, that's to do with understanding literature. You've got to trust the playwright."

For most of his adult life, Robards didn't trust anything but booze. Self-destruction, he says now. Fear of success. "I don't want to get too psychiatric about it. That goes back into other areas of my life."

His third wife, actress Lauren Bacall, wrote in her 1978 autobiography, "I chalked it up to a life of struggle--his first marriage breaking up; his first wife having had a drinking problem herself; his children sometimes neglected; his youngest son David being born partially blind; his helping his father, whom he adored but who had given up in his forties; his feelings of rejection by his mother. A black childhood and young manhood. Plenty of reason to drink."

Born in Chicago on July 26, 1922, Robards was the son of a well-known star of the '20s and early '30s, Jason Robards Sr. The family moved to Hollywood, where the parents divorced and the father took custody of the three children. But his success was not to last. Jason Robards Sr. saw his star diminish, and the family hit on hard times. That's when Jason Robards Jr. swore he'd never be an actor. After graduating from Hollywood High School, he enlisted in the Navy at the age of 17. He saw seven years of service, including combat in the Pacific, and says he suffered from nightmares about World War II.

Perhaps to compensate for his father's failure, Jason Robards Jr. finally enrolled in New York's American Academy of Dramatic Arts.

"I always wanted to act," he says now. "To be with my friends. To share something with the audience about the human condition."

He made his Broadway debut in 1951 in "Stalag 17." But it wasn't until 1957, when Robards--at the age of 35--appeared in Eugene O'Neill's "The Iceman Cometh" that his reputation as a stage actor was secure. More O'Neill plays followed and Robards became the most celebrated interpreter of the playwright. So intertwined were their psyches that Robards is writing a book, titled "A Curious Friendship," on the bizarre and artistically successful lifeline between himself and O'Neill.

Still, he says he never thought of success. "All you gotta do is survive unemployment," he laughs. "It's 90 percent rejection, being an actor." And to survive? "You start to drink."

It is, he says, an occupational hazard. "The life of an actor, is, well, you do your work and then you want to forget all that. It's part of renewing yourself. Conviviality. Having a good time. The next day, go back to work. It's a cycle. Our day doesn't start until 6 or 7 at night. We eat after the show, have a few drinks. It's 3 in the morning. You go home and get up the next day and do it over again. I did it for 15, 20 years. You're not saying, 'I'm going to go out and get really pissed now.' But all of a sudden . . ."

Does he miss it? "God, not at all. I've been in many tough situations and never felt that. It's too good to be on the other side."

He takes a sip of coffee. "I think you can be emotionally drunk," he says. "That's what I really was. And I used the drink to get me to that state. Now I don't need it to get me there. Because I always was that way. I loved to be around and have fun and play music. Now I can do that without drinking. That's good, because you can remember everything."

After two failed marriages, he met Lauren Bacall. They married in 1961. He had three children. She had two by the late Humphrey Bogart. Together, they had a son, Sam. Many outsiders compared Robards to Bogart. The press had a field day, analyzing whether the handsome, macho young stage actor could fill Bogie's boots.

If there was any competition between the myth and the man, Robards says now, "it was subconscious." Besides, he says, "I was a very established stage actor. I didn't even feel we were in the same league. I didn't think he was in mine. I mean, after all, he was a movie actor."

He says that with mock disdain. Ironically, Robards himself has become a movie star, if somewhat late in his career. Among his best films are "Tender Is the Night," "Long Day's Journey Into Night," "A Thousand Clowns," "The St. Valentine's Day Massacre," "Isadora," "The Night They Raided Minsky's," "The Ballad of Cable Hogue" and "The Hour of the Gun." He won back-to-back best supporting actor Oscars for "All the President's Men" (1976) and "Julia" (1977). His rendering of Howard Hughes in "Melvin and Howard" was the most potent performance in the movie, despite its brevity.

"Obviously I act in films," he says. "But maybe it's a delusion of some kind. I've always been in the theater. That's where I want to stay. That's where I have my roots."

In fact, there's a sense that Robards thinks it's a jungle out there in filmmaking. Literally. He just got over a bout with amoebic dysentery, picked up in remote parts of Peru while filming Werner Herzog's "Fitzcarraldo." Robards left after five weeks on the set, and now Herzog is suing him. "I've been on some strange locations," he says. "But this place. It took them two years to clear out 100 yards for the camp. And it was growing in on us while we were there. We lost a lot of people. Illness. Accidents. He wanted that sort of location. I said to him once, 'I don't want to die making this film.' "

He says he was offered the James Mason part in "The Verdict," but turned it down for Neil Simon's "Max Dugan." He is also set to appear in a television film on the aftereffects of nuclear war called "The Day After."

"I don't think anybody can look at the film ," he says. "I almost throw up. There's no hope." He was deeply affected by the message of the movie. "I got to a point where I would see people laughing at dinner in a restaurant, and I'd say, 'What the hell are you laughing about? You know you're five seconds away . . .' " The voice trails off. There's something else on his mind.

"I gotta eat something."

Lunch is ready. His white-jacketed butler, who travels with him on the road, brings a plate of bacon and eggs to the small dinette table.

"All it says is nuclear war is not good for you."

Neither is bacon.

"This is," he says. "It's Harrington's. Got it all the way from Vermont. Brought it down in my bag."

He slathers a piece of toast with jelly, and crunches the bacon into his mouth.

Favorite actor? "Fredric March."

Favorite actress? "Colleen Dewhurst and Vanessa Redgrave . She's a special actress. Katie Hepburn I love."

The one role he'd most like to play?

"Lear, I think. I gotta do it soon or I'll be too old."

He says he used to be more afraid of death than he is now. "I don't know. I think it might be an adventure. I don't know what there is on the other side. Being very near it, I didn't see anything over there." He laughs, then shoves another piece of toast in his mouth. "A fine long sleep. Death is a fine, long sleep. Somebody said that."

More coffee. "I'd like to hang around a while with the kids."

Robards has two children from his marriage to his fourth wife, Lois, a film director he met in 1967.

"That's the greatest gift that I could have had," he says, eyes misting with tears. "Wanting to be married always. Wanting to have a family and things not working. I accept much of the fault. 'Hey, this guy's a loser. No chance.' And to then have a relationship of almost 16 years. I couldn't believe it. Every day, I thank God for it."

He says he wasn't ready when he was younger. He didn't know how to accept love. There was too much guilt, too much booze, too much trying to escape the demons of his past.

Of all the characters Robards has portrayed, Hickey in "The Iceman Cometh" is considered closest to the actor himself. Researchers have discovered that O'Neill based the character on a collector for a laundry chain whom O'Neill had met in a bar. The man called himself "Happy."

The interview is over. Robards buttons his jacket and stands up, ready to walk to the theater. There's only one more question. If he were asked to describe himself in one word, what would that be? He mumbles for a minute about not being able to describe anything in one word. Then a small grin crosses his face. He has found the word.

"Happy," he says.