Sitting next to Richard Chamberlain is a little like sitting next to Styrofoam. Tan Styrofoam. His face is bronzed and appears to be sculpted from some material not found in nature.

He is 51 and looks 41. He is pleasant, with the sort of personality usually associated with lifeguards and managers of tanning salons.

"I like being boring," he says. "It's kind of a protective shield."

Wednesday night, Chamberlain and Jaclyn Smith ("Wow-is-she-gorgeous") host the "Kraft All-Star Salute to Ford's Theatre" (8-9 p.m., Channel 9), featuring Paul Anka, soprano Kathleen Battle, Victor Borge, Joel Grey, Sandy Duncan and Tommy Tune. Fans of Chamberlain, a man who never met a mini-series he didn't like, will no doubt be tuning in the rest of the week in search of Parts 2 through 7. This may be the first show Chamberlain has done in years that begins and ends in one night.

In August, he will start filming the television movie "Casanova."

How close is that to his own life?

"Not very. Hardly anything I do is close to my own life," he says. "My own life is acting, so I don't have that much life, in terms of being myself."

He has stopped for lunch on his way to the Ford's Theatre rehearsal. Tiny droplets of perspiration fall from his neatly coifed hair to his jaunty navy blue blazer with gold basket-weave buttons. His tie has ducks on it. His eyes are the blue-gray of the surf off Malibu, and everything about him seems nautical. He says "terrific" and "dandy" and orders mineral water with lime. A Confirmed Bachelor, Chamberlain takes a sip and sighs.

"There is a slight similarity in the past of not wanting to or not feeling ready to get deeply involved in a relationship," he says. "Casanova fell in love with practically every woman he was with. He just didn't want to stay past the fun and excitement, and I think that had a lot to do with the early experiences with his mother . . . I think she offered everything and gave nothing."

Warming to the subject, he continues. "He was a very randy guy. Very lusty, extremely ambitious. When he fell in love, it was a boyish, almost adolescent falling in love. That's kind of irresistible. His affairs did last for a while, a number of weeks, or perhaps months. He usually saved the girl from some terrible trouble, and then they were wildly in love and then he would take off.

"He was amazing. If he went two days without an affair, he went mad."

Sort of like Richard Chamberlain and the mini-series.

In the last decade, he has become the John Barrymore of the boob tube, starring in "Shogun," "The Thorn Birds," "Wallenberg" and the recent "Dream West."

"It does worry me a little bit," he says, "that the gigantically successful things are not full of meaning." He says he has turned down a number of roles, although he can't remember which ones. "I have a funny kind of mind. The windshield wiper works every night for most people and gets rid of the clutter. Mine gets rid of almost everything."

But he remembers the darndest details that only a mini-series buff could appreciate.

"I loved this last one," he says, referring to "Dream West," which he considers his best work for TV. "I know the story was a bit disjointed, but it did great the last two nights. We were beat by some curious nostalgia thing the first night. Then Gadhafi preempted us the second night. The third night, which was Wednesday instead of Tuesday, and then Sunday instead of Wednesday, beat everything handily."

Whew.

He says he doesn't know why he's so in demand for historical dramas. "My face, until I get into something, is undistinguished. That's useful because I can then distinguish it with makeup and costumes. It's a kind of chameleon quality."

He was born in Los Angeles, the second of two boys. His father was in the "market fixture business," selling checkout stands and freezer equipment for supermarkets. He decided when he was 5 that he wanted to be an actor. "I hated school so much. The only things I liked to do were things of the imagination."

He didn't participate in school sports. "I wasn't exactly a wimp. I just hated school. I'm not dumb, and I wasn't dumb then. I resented the loss of freedom. I pulled into a passive resistance." And what did they write under his high school picture? "I got 'Most Sophisticated, Most Reserved and Best Physique,' " he says, breaking up.

He was "generally uncomfortable for a long time," he says.

"It's taken me decades to feel like a whole person. I have this knack for getting by . . . looks and charm. I got through school without learning anything.

"I always had a basic sense of unworthiness. I just don't know where it came from. All I know is that it's taken me close to 50 years to get it worked out."

After graduating from Pomona College, he was drafted into the Army and served as a sergeant in Korea. He returned two years later to Los Angeles to launch his acting career.

He doesn't regret not having children.

"I like other people's children for a while, but I think I've been too involved both in this crazy business and in my own personal development," he says. "I didn't really want to hand down certain patterns that I was involved in. Certain patterns of relationship I didn't want to pass on until I had broken out of them. And I've only recently broken out of them."

He shies away from publicity. "The less known the actor is, the more effective he can be in his roles. The better people know you, the harder it is for them to accept you as one thing or another. I'm definitely a public person, but there's part of me that's very private, and needs a certain space. I try to protect that."

The aging process has been good to Chamberlain. Physically, at least.

"When I turned 40 I nearly died," he says, eyes widening. "I was really depressed. Because I was very dependent on being young. But now it's totally the opposite. I love the idea of maturity. My life is getting better. I feel better. Everything is better. I'm really happy now."

He divides his time, as they say on "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous," among three residences: a house in Coldwater Canyon, one in Hawaii and an apartment in New York. "I'm not avidly for or against anything," he says; interests include health, Gestalt therapy and paddle tennis. In private, he says, "I think I'm moderately amusing . . . I have some terrific friends, but I've always been very wary in public."

His first dose of celebrityhood came at an age when most actors are still doing commercials. In 1961, after finishing his first film, "Secret of the Purple Reef" ("easily the worst movie ever made, or at least the most boring"), he won the title role in the television series "Dr. Kildare." For the next five years, Chamberlain made Blair General Hospital his home.

"It was murder," he says now. "A lot of it was terrific. I mean, it was one of the great breaks of all time."

He may have been the only intern who took five years to make resident.

"I don't know if I ever did. I kept saying, 'You gotta make me a resident. This guy is dumb.' " He laughs easily. "Their theory was, if you found a golden formula, don't change it."

At the height of his popularity, there were 12,000 letters a week. Three or four interviews a day. For the fan magazines, he says with a smile, "we used to make up stuff. We'd glamorize bits of truth."

"Kildare" was canceled in 1965 and Chamberlain hit the boards, playing in the stock repertory circuit and moving to London for four years. He received enthusiastic reviews for his "Richard II" and was the first American actor since John Barrymore to play "Hamlet" in England.

"Somehow my life deepened and got rich," he says, "when I got involved in the focus of a drama."

He also got rich financially. "Not that rich. I've earned a tremendous amount of money, but 20 percent goes to agents and 50 percent of what's left goes to the government."

Has he done anything just for the money?

"Oh sure."

Everything?

"Oh no."

Any vices?

He pauses. "God, I wish I had a vice."

The closest thing to it is cars. He did a publicity tour in Germany for his latest film, "King Solomon's Mines," which is one of those movies, he says, you do for the money. In return, he was offered his choice of any German car he wanted. He ordered a black Mercedes 560 SEC, "the hottest car I ever drove."

He says he is far more spontaneous these days. Open and loving and interested in other people now. His problem was "a self-involvement that comes from discomfort. And that's the area I've grown out of. Thank God." Still, "I'm not terribly good at party chat . . . I have no idea what to say to Mrs. Reagan if I'm around her tonight. Or Mr. Reagan."

The check arrives. Then the waiter, to say his limo is waiting.

"I don't want to be interesting," Chamberlain says, straightening his jacket and smiling stiffly. "I want to live on the beach."