NEW YORK -- Behind him a flashy mural of Josephine Baker sets the tone. Around the bar, the posttheater crowd is carrying on merrily. Glasses are clinking and music is blaring. At this rapidly advancing hour, Chez Josephine is not exactly conducive to reflection. But actor Frank Langella, oblivious to clatter and crash, is absorbed in a sheaf of papers.

Make that actor/producer Frank Langella.

The man who first leapt to national prominence as the sadistic lover in the 1970 film "Diary of a Mad Housewife," won a Tony award for playing a lizard in Edward Albee's "Seascape" and, as Dracula, had women panting on Broadway in the late 1970s, is wearing two hats these days.

One of them is a deerstalker.

Langella, 47 and graying at the temples, is deep in rehearsals for "Sherlock's Last Case," in which he portrays the celebrated Baker Street sleuth. He is also producing the show in conjunction with the Kennedy Center, where Charles Marowitz's play begins previews Tuesday. Along with the myriad details of creating a character, Langella grapples daily with the umpteen-and-one decisions that go into the making or breaking of a Broadway-bound production, currently budgeted at $1.2 million and rising.

"I was just going over my contract," he says, looking up forlornly from the paperwork he's brought with him from rehearsal. "I was trying to figure out how to get me down. I'm too expensive for me."

His days begin at 7 a.m., when the phone in his Upper East Side apartment starts ringing. They end at 10 p.m. with more phone calls. In between are nonstop rehearsals and meetings. "This is a huge production with special effects, live animals, rats, turntables, smoke, fog and wind machines. And a cast of five. No, six. I wasn't counting myself. Every element needs to be given a 'yes,' a 'no' or a 'let's talk about it.' I have a whole new mind-set on what a producer does."

If he's rattled, it doesn't show. A romantic actor, given to epic passions, he is this particular evening as mild-mannered as an accountant -- the smoldering Italian temperament that propelled him into the theater subsumed by an entrepreneurial sang-froid that even postprandial whoops from the neighboring tables can't disturb.

Langella admits to his heady days of arrogance in his late twenties, but time and fatherhood (he has two young children) seem to have mellowed him. "Yes, I was arrogant in the 'Seascape' days and certainly in the 'Diary' days. I was all the things a young actor is. Or this one was. Egocentric, vain, strong-willed. The ego is still strong, but I think the arrogance is gone. I can probably legitimately call it something else now -- a sense of responsibility.

"For one thing, a producer is not allowed any indulgence whatsoever," he says. "An actor is. A writer is. I know there's this illusion that if you're the boss, whatever you want you can have. You get to do it your way. But that's not true. A producer must listen constantly to his employes. For example, the set designer walks in and says, 'I'm very upset because the budget doesn't allow me to have figurines on the set and I want figurines.' I have to explain to him why he can't. At the end of the conversation, it's not for me to say, 'You know, I'm having troubles, too. It's been a heavy day. I really have a headache.' I'm his dad for a while, and Dad doesn't have any troubles or complaints. That's the single biggest thing I've learned so far."

He optioned "Sherlock" as soon as he read it, which was nearly two years ago, shortly after it arrived unsolicited in the mail. What began as an enthusiastic phone call to author Marowitz has since mushroomed into a 120-person enterprise, Langella figures, if you count the coproducers, advertising agents, publicity men, cast members, understudies, stagehands and designers who are now part of the team.

"I just think about the list of things that have to be done today and take it as it comes," he says. "Sometime in the last three or four years, I stopped needing to control everything. It was the beginning of liberation for me. As a younger person, I was very obsessive about what was right -- what had to be in my work and my personal relationships -- probably because I was frightened and needed to control my environment in order to quell the fear. Lately, I've begun to realize the less you try to manipulate others, the more life comes to you. You're not squeezing tight. You're letting it happen.

"I don't allow myself to think about what's down the line. If you do, you go crazy. Most of the occasions in my life when I made a calculated career move, it was a disaster. But whenever I did something I loved and believed in -- whatever anyone else said -- it usually turned out well. I mean, most people weren't exactly wildly anticipating 'Dracula.' "

Whether "Sherlock" follows in the same revisionist footsteps of "Dracula," which gave a whole new look (artist Edward Gorey's) and tone (somewhere between grand opera and high camp) to the horror classic, Langella is reluctant to say. "It's not just a caper play," he concedes, "although all the thrilling events -- the twists and the turns and the gunshots -- that you'd hope to see in a Sherlock Holmes play are there. But there's a psychological element I can't recall anyone ever having attempted in a Holmes story. Something happens to Holmes in this play that has never happened to him before and as a result we see all the familiar characters in an entirely new light."

Which is all he'll divulge, although it is clear from the mischief in his eyes that he rather relishes keeping the cat in the bag.

With "Sherlock," it could be argued, Langella is simply revitalizing an honorable tradition in the theater -- that of the actor-manager, who in the 19th century, especially, was the star of his own touring company. "An actor spends a great deal of his time waiting, hoping, looking to someone else to give him a job," he says. "It's never been a position I've much liked. If a play comes along that you like, you have to get in there and do it yourself, take your destiny in your own hands."

Last season, under the banner of Alfie Productions, he produced and starred off-Broadway in a revised version of Arthur Miller's "After the Fall." Alfie is his dog -- a West Highland terrier. "I suppose it's dangerous to name a production company after a dog," he muses. "But it's not as bad as naming it after a turkey."

Langella thinks a lot about being a stage actor today. It's all he ever wanted, growing up in a volatile New Jersey family where "everything was on the edge of disaster, no matter how mundane" and he felt continually eclipsed by his two siblings, who seemed to possess all the looks and all the talent. Whenever the neighborhood kids chose teams, Langella was the last to be picked.

"If you tend to be a loner, there is a place you can go and be tremendously involved, and that's in the bright lights of the theater," he says. "You feel very much loved and embraced and part of the world. But it's a world that's controllable. You know within a certain framework the beginning, the middle and the end. In a way, the stage is one of the safest places you can be. I think that's what drew me to it as a kid. I was the weakest link in an overpowering family. In the theater, I could be someone else. Or myself in disguise."

At the same time, he acknowledges that the theater has significantly changed, and not necessarily for the good, since he first hit New York in the mid-1960s -- a lanky, brooding presence looking for a forum.

"I'm sure every generation says it was better in the old days," he explains. "But my memory of New York back then was that all these young actors, many who have gone on to great heights, were flinging scripts at each other, left and right. There were so many shows to audition for. The stakes were not high and the camaraderie was wonderful.

"Although we all had our illusions and wanted to become famous, nobody thought that you could go directly from a hole-in-the-wall theater to the cover of a magazine overnight. Since you didn't have that expectation, you weren't so constantly disappointed as actors are today. You did what you were supposed to do -- off-Broadway for a while, then maybe a play at Lincoln Center or at a good regional theater. Then you got a Broadway show and after that a movie.

"I didn't make my first movie {"Diary"} until I was 29. There was a sort of logic to it. You climbed a few rungs, maybe fell back a couple. For a while you were hot, then you were not. But you get back on course and you understood it wasn't just your life, it was everybody else's, too. The emotional stepladder was a lot easier then."

He shrugs philosophically, as a waiter produces a plate of seafood pasta with a flourish worthy of Cyrano. Beyond the restaurant doors, Broadway is supposed to be having a good season and yet half its theaters are dark. Off-Broadway costs have escalated and the heady foment has diminished proportionally. The age of the instant celebrity is upon us and life, as art, is increasingly viewed as a series of quick takes.

"Nowadays, you've got to be considered big in 24 hours or you're yesterday's news," Langella says. "You're fired out of a gun or you're nothing. Not just actors, but writers, anchormen, restaurants! All these young actors -- we've got a number of them working on 'Sherlock' -- are saying to themselves, 'I'm 22 and I haven't been on the cover of People yet.' They have no notion whatsoever of the long range. They're sweet and dedicated and talented, but they've been infected, as indeed everyone has been infected, by the idea that it's got to be big and fast and hot and quick and noisy and there right away.

"I said once to a young actor that if anything can give you a perspective on what it is to try to have a career in this country as an artist, just go to the library and look at all the covers of last year's TV Guide. Make a list of the people on them and see where they are today. You'd be surprised at the percentage who have disappeared. And yet for that week, or that moment, it seemed as if they owned the world."

During the run of "Dracula," Langella experienced the full heat of the spotlight and had his turn at owning a chunk of the world. Each night when he bared his chest and prepared to sink his fangs into the neck of the pale heroine, a collective fever swept over the audience. "It's the only time in my career," he says, "that crowds outside the stage door were uncontrollable and certainly the closest I have ever come to knowing what it would be like to be a rock star."

The hullabaloo faded, but Langella kept up the pace. He was the first American to take over the role of Salieri in "Amadeus," starred in Peter Nichols' "Passion" ("one of the great plays that slipped through the cracks"), tried his hand at Noel Coward ("Design for Living") and, at his own request, took over the William Hurt role midway through the run of "Hurlyburly" ("a killer part").

The movies have made far more checkered use of his talents. He started on a high ("Diary" and Mel Brooks' "The Twelve Chairs"). But "The Wrath of God" -- a disastrous western costarring Rita Hayworth and Robert Mitchum -- put him out of the celluloid business for six years. This summer, however, he returns to the screen in "Masters of the Universe," an epic inspired by a series of Mattel Toys. He plays the arch-villain Skeletor under 40 pounds of prosthetic makeup that suggests what Frank Langella might look like if his face were composed entirely of bones. It was, he thought before accepting the role, a terrific opportunity either to make a complete fool of himself or to create a titanic character on the scale of German opera.

"I think I went pretty far with it," he says.

Recently, he concluded filming on a remake of "And God Created Woman," Roger Vadim's fleshy 1957 flick about a temptress and the two men in her life -- one older, the other younger. The action is now set in New Mexico and Rebecca De Mornay has the role that made an international star of Brigitte Bardot. Langella, who not so long ago would have been the young seducer, appears as the aging rival, a politician running for governor.

"What am I gonna do about it? It's inevitable," he says, shrugging. "I'm not going to get my face lifted and become an 8-by-10 of myself. The worst thing you can do as an actor is stay the thing for which you are initially loved. You see it happening all the time: actors who, as they get older, try harder and harder to do what they used to do. And we end up loving them less and less. Only two people I know defied the trap -- Cary Grant and Marlene Dietrich. Otherwise, time catches us all. So I might as well be the best me I can be today."

Not that time has treated Langella ruthlessly. He once described himself as "a deer with a lion's heart" and he continues to project a Byronic air with his unruly hair and upturned collar. His languid eyes always carried the promise of fury, like the calm before the tornado, but perhaps because the gaze is trained inward now, the sense of danger is less apparent.

"The longer you stay in this profession, the more you're likely to develop a thick skin, a tough exterior shell," he reflects. "You hear so many actors saying, 'I'm a survivor' and they say it with such pride. But, you know, their eyes are dead. The heart is dead. The soul is dead. Sure, they've survived, but at what cost? It's very interesting to me that at this particular time in my life, I'm far more vulnerable to other people than I used to be, far more easily hurt. And that pleases me.

"I guess I'm just trying to stay alert to what could be a hardening of all the arteries. When you get to be my age you should be cracking with a hammer all the barriers that you have built up either consciously or unconsciously during the first half of your life. When I was younger, I had to be an actor. I had no choice. I didn't know any other way to express myself.

"It's amazing -- the theater. One step separates you from the dark world of backstage and those incredibly bright lights and all these people watching. One little step. Yet it allowed me a connection with the world I wasn't able to make in any other way. I still love making that step. But hopefully now I'm able to have a lot of other connections -- in the dark as well as in the light."

Somewhere at Chez Josephine, a great explosion of raucousness is detonated by a table of diners. But Langella, like the pensive character he is soon to play in "Sherlock's Last Case," is shrouded in thought.