henever Julie Harris is asked about great actors -- and even when she is not -- she brings up the name of Stanley Anderson. There she was in Philadelphia, not too long ago, talking hesitantly about herself and her career. With no more than a nervous cough to serve as transition, she suddenly brightened visibly and said, "There's a great actor in Washington. Really one of the greatest -- Stanley Anderson. And no one round the world knows him. I once saw him in 'The Caretaker' and he took my breath away. But you ask people in Detroit or Los Angeles and they've never heard of him. So wherever I go, I always say, 'Have you seen Stanley Anderson?' " She does, too. Anderson -- a pillar of the Arena Stage company since 1972 and in the view of many its most versatile member -- has the newspaper clips to prove it. He has met Harris backstage only twice -- and fleetingly at that. They do not correspond. But to his amazement, she continues religiously to spread his name. "My agent keeps asking me, 'What's going on here?' " Anderson says. Other than to shake his head and mumble with a flush of schoolboy embarrassment, "It's pretty wonderful of her," he has no explanation. Harris is right, of course. Anderson, 49, is prodigiously talented and no one knows him in Detroit. In the late 1960s, with military service and college behind him, he opted for a life in the resident-theater movement then spreading across the land. The decision has meant forgoing the material advantages, not to mention the celebrityhood, that the cinema, Broadway and television bestow on the privileged few. But it has paid off in a depth of experience. On Wednesday, he opens in the Kreeger Theater in "A Walk in the Woods," Lee Blessing's two-character drama about Soviet-American disarmament talks. It will be his 69th production at Arena. Zelda Fichandler, Arena's founder, calls him "my darling Stanley" and praises his "infinite elasticity" as an actor. When the season is put together, he is one of the key figures taken into consideration. Not to give Anderson (or fellow actor Richard Bauer) the lead is sometimes waggishly referred to at Arena as "nontraditional casting." Anderson has played major roles in Shakespeare, Moliere, Pirandello, O'Neill, Chekhov, Shaw, Brecht, Pinter, Miller, and Kaufman and Hart. He has played rabble-rousers ("One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," "Duck Hunting"), fops ("Restoration," "Leonce and Lena," "The Piggy Bank"), rakes ("Don Juan," "Passion Play"), madmen ("Enrico IV," "Beyond Therapy"), fathers ("Buried Child," "A Lie of the Mind") and sons ("Long Day's Journey Into Night," "Death of a Salesman"). He has played young, old, brazen, bashful, callous, tender, swaggering, impotent. If every emotion (fear, for instance) contains its antithesis (bravery), Anderson's vividness as an actor stems in no small measure from his ability to suggest the duality. "Stanley accumulates more traits in any given moment of playing than anyone I've ever worked with," says Fichandler. "Part of him is shy, gentle, supportive, careful of other people's rights. And part of him is passionate, assertive, stubborn when need be. Through the accumulated experience of revealing himself onstage, the opposites have become more pronounced, more visible. Each time, the oscillation gets wider and there's more emotion on the Geiger counter." "I've never believed there was a role I couldn't do," Anderson says. "Don't misunderstand. I'm not saying I could do it well. But I'm a character actor. I think in terms of character. It's all I've ever done. For me, the fun is finding the idiosyncrasies, the body shape, the internal workings of a role. I'm fascinated by the differences between the public person and the private individual. If anything runs through all my work, I've a feeling that's the thread." Meticulous in his preparation, he begins by shutting himself up in the office he's carved out of the basement of his home in Springfield. A large desk and plush sofa take up most of the space. The walls are covered with books. A clay sculpture, which he made not long ago during the rehearsals for "Enrico IV," sits in one corner. (It depicts three figures grasping at a hollow-eyed potentate, who is wearing a crown made of tiny skyscrapers. Anderson sees it as "the pulling down of some sort of social order.") Before he makes any acting decisions, he wants to know the history of the period in which a play is set. He researches the social mores and immerses himself in the music. For "K-2," he read extensively on mountain climbing and hypothermia and then went out to Great Falls to scramble over the rocks. When his books proved little help for "Women and Water" -- he was cast as a wild boar -- he repaired to a Richmond slaughterhouse to study hogs in a frenzy firsthand. Saturated in information, Anderson arrives at rehearsals, where, according to director Douglas Wager, he promptly "puts his intellect on hold and gives himself over to this deep and turbulent emotional life. In the early stages, his acting is thick with feeling and response -- almost overly lush, like a bottle of fine burgundy that has just come off the vine and is still filled with tannins. He lets himself go fearlessly and gives you more than you need to work with. For him, the rehearsal process becomes a progressive pulling in, a tightening, a polishing of the edges." For years, Anderson put on weight or took it off at will in his relentless pursuit of a character. Then about six years ago, he says, he found it was no longer coming off that easily. Giving up smoking a few months ago has only aggravated the problem. He jokes that when he looks into the mirror now, he sees his father staring back. True, he has lost a lot of the rugged good looks that made him something of a heartthrob in his early seasons at Arena. "I could never be comfortable as myself, just behaving on stage," he says. "In a way, maybe I've denied myself the possibility of being seen just for me. But I don't think I did it consciously." If there is more of him these days, there is, arguably, also more of him to mold. In such works as "All the King's Men" and "Six Characters in Search of an Author," Anderson has achieved a kind of epic grandeur. Observes one Arena actress, "Offstage, Stan can be closed, a little pedantic, a bit of a disciplinarian. But onstage, he's incredibly available. He really understands the collaborative nature of theater and sees you as his greatest resource. If he were a head mechanic, I wouldn't want to work in his garage. But I can't think of anyone I'd rather act with." Actress Shirley Knight, who appeared with Anderson in "The Cherry Orchard," has said that acting with him was like living with him. "My life revolves around my job," he says. "It really does. I'm not very complicated. I think of myself as a pack horse. There's work to be done and I don't want to detract from it. I want to enhance it. As long as I feel I'm learning, as long as I'm not a burden to the production or to the theater or to a director, as long as I feel I'm making more than a contribution, I'm okay. Otherwise, I think I'd walk." Anderson grew up in a series of ranch communities in Montana -- Billings, Red Lodge, Customs. His parents had an on-again, off-again marriage, and when it was off, he was sent to live with grandparents or various aunts and uncles. Although he seems to have bounced around a good deal, he doesn't consider his childhood topsy-turvy so much as interesting. "I was in a lot of different milieux as a child and I had to try to find ways of fitting into what were usually large families wherever I went," he says. "I was a stutterer and extremely shy. I don't remember having a lot of close friends. I trace the acting impulse back to that -- being very private and living a lot in the imagination." Because of his stuttering, he was required to take public speaking in high school and he still remembers having to get up on the first day of class and read from a mimeographed sheet the teacher had distributed. "I was terrified. I never done anything like speak in public. I could hardly speak to anyone. All I remember is that, since my name was Anderson, I was one of the first. Maybe the first, for all I know," he says. "But I did it. I got up and read this passage. Afterwards, the teacher came up to me and said, 'Have you read a lot of Shakespeare?' 'No.' 'Do you act?' 'No.' 'Well, you made sense out of this speech. Do you know what it is?' 'No.' "It was a speech from 'Julius Caesar' that begins, 'You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things.' I guess the necessity of finding the meaning of those words drew me to the page and I blocked out any awareness of the audience or myself. Because then he said to me, 'You didn't stutter once.' Later that year, he asked me to come audition for some plays. I found that when I was performing in plays, I never felt I was in jeopardy. I had great faith in characterization and my understanding of the logic of what was going on." Nonetheless, it took two years of military duty in Korea to firm up his theatrical ambition. Discharged, he headed for California and San Jose State, where got his undergraduate degree, appeared in 16 productions and met his wife, a fellow acting student named Judith Long. His teachers, mostly trained in the method and ideals of the Actors Studio, inculcated in him a stern belief in the primacy of the acting company. The young husband-wife acting team spent three years at the Seattle Repertory Theatre, then headed east to the Actors Theatre of Louisville for two years. At the end of each season, whatever their plans, they would dutifully send re'sume's to the four theaters they considered exemplary -- ACT in San Francisco, Lincoln Center (then under the Blau/Irving stewardship), the Guthrie in Minneapolis, and Arena. Fichandler auditioned Anderson in 1972. "It was right down the hall here," she remembers, "and I knew immediately he was extraordinary. He had just lost a lot of weight, so he was discovering a new person in this leaner body. I found an enormous complexity in him already." Anderson and his wife were both hired for the upcoming season and made their joint Arena debut in small roles in "The Hostage." His first big splash came later that season, when he played Randall P. McMurphy, the rambunctious anti-establishment hero of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." People still stop him on the street today to tell him how much they enjoyed the performance. His wife's roles proved less flashy. At the end of 1973, Anderson and Long, then eight months pregnant, appeared together in "Tom," an Australian drama about the grasping social life on the fringes of a ruthless oil conglomerate. Soon after, she left the company to give birth to a son, Derek, now 15. She never came back. "She had no difficulty dropping out, which just stunned me," says Anderson. "I mean, theater was all we'd done together since college and it never occurred to me she'd want to quit. But she said she hated being judged only for those aspects of her that were seen on the stage. She said there was more to her than that. And God knows there is." Under her married name, Judith Anderson would go on to find a more rewarding career, working for a private firm that deals with environmental concerns. Meanwhile, her husband was thriving at Arena. "From the start," he says, "everything about it felt right." Among the revolutions promised by the regional theater movement was the creation of a new class of actors, able to live and work in a given community the way ordinary citizens do. No longer dependent on the whims of casting agents and the vagaries of the commercial marketplace, the regional theater actor could devote himself to his art, raise children and plant a garden in the back yard, if he so wished. To a degree, it has worked out that way. Anderson, for example, has a handsome split-level home in a California-style development seven stoplights west of Interstate 95 in Springfield. Landscape architects recently put in a low-maintenance garden -- lots of pines and shrubs -- and Anderson plans to expand the decking off the kitchen. A doggy door in the basement lets Jolie and Lila, two gentle beagles, enter and exit at whim. There are two cars in the driveway. As a senior member of Arena's company, Anderson earns a salary equivalent to a mid-level university academic. Commercials and film narration -- for such diverse clients as Ohio Sen. Howard Metzenbaum, IBM and the National Geographic's "On Assignment" series -- allow him to supplement his income significantly. Still, he admits his wife's salary is crucial. "Working in the resident theater does ask you to make economic sacrifices," he says. "They're sacrifices I would have been willing to make for myself. But I'm less willing to make them for my family. I suppose we could have gotten by on my salary. But if that had been the case, I think I'd feel a lot more guilt than I already do." He recognizes that for all the achievements of regional theater, New York and Los Angeles are where the big money and reputations are made. While he's known lots of actors who've fallen flat there, he's also seen longtime Arena actor Robert Prosky go on to fame and considerable fortune in films and the TV series "Hill Street Blues." Ironically, the role Anderson is playing in "A Walk in the Woods," the garrulous Russian diplomat, was created on Broadway by Prosky, who got a Tony nomination for it. "I had a couple of nightmares that involved Bob telling me where the laughs were and how to play the part so I'd be sure to get them," Anderson says. "I told Bob and he said, 'Ah, c'mon, you're gonna do it better.' " That is entirely possible, but in this case, geography is destiny. A stunning performance in Washington is a stunning performance. In New York it can transform a career. In his Arena contract, he has a four-week out clause, should an irresistible proposition happen along. But his loyalty to the company is such that it's unlikely he'd ever exercise it. "I'm of an age and, uh, of a certain tenure so that they count on me for things," he concedes. "I'll get outside offers and I'll explore them. But rightly or wrongly, I feel like I have a moral and ethical obligation to this theater. I'm not going to jeopardize what I have here." What he has, above all, is an unparalleled chance to grow and stretch in some of the best works written for the stage. "I once said Stan was the Pete Rose of acting," says company member Mark Hammer. "I saw Rose when he first came up and he was very exciting. But he had a tendency sometimes to make the easy plays look hard." Now, Hammer suggests, pursuing the analogy, Anderson makes the hard plays look easy and brings Joe DiMaggio to mind. He does so by dint of a work ethic that borders on the fanatical. He's not one for psychoanalysis. But being a respected member of a "family" of actors seems to fill a psychological need that goes back to his peripatetic childhood. The commercial theatrical venture is a "gig," "a one-shot proposition," governed by a "take-the-money-and-run mentality." Arena gives him a reassuring sense of continuity, he once wrote, lest he find himself "chaotically enmeshed in episodic novelty." Someone once said of him that he didn't know how to be harmless. "It had to do with my not relaxing on the stage," Anderson explains. "But it cut me to the core. It's true. I worry things too much. I don't know how to have fun, to just release myself. I never go to social engagements or parties." Paradoxically, the man who reveals to audiences the depths of his soul nightly is reticence itself offstage. Without fear of contradicting herself, Fichandler can say, "I find him very open and very private. When we work together, he holds nothing back. But I can't tell you what he's thinking personally of me or the work." On the shelves of his basement study, a collection of masks and half-masks gazes down at him. "You'll notice that they're all neutral," he points out. Indeed, every one is painted white and is devoid of distinguishing features. The effect is slightly ghostly, but also strangely symbolic -- so many blank faces, just waiting to be brought to life. Anderson, the consummate actor, looks up at them and says, "I enjoy their company."