LOS ANGELES -- Something about Jim Robinson says "car dealer." He isn't very tall. His face is pink, broad and squarish. He looks mischievous, ready to wheel and deal: His left eyebrow rises and the right side of his mouth curls a little. He wears, yes, a gold chain. You can't see it when he goes out to do business, though, because he always puts on a tie and jacket for those occasions. But he's Jim Robinson, so we're not talking Armani.

"A Naugahyde guy," says one studio chairman.

"A good old boy from Baltimore," says another nattily dressed movie mogul.

Oh, how Hollywood loves to underestimate Robinson.

"I have problems with people who all of a sudden are in the movie business," says a veteran producer. In fact, Robinson has been around for years, having first made his fortune in cars -- selling 'em, souping 'em up, transporting 'em, you name it -- from his home base in Maryland.

But let them talk. Last summer, Robinson's company, Morgan Creek Productions, clobbered two big studios at their own game by grabbing Kevin Costner and making "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" before they could get their versions off the ground. Before that, Robinson's company made "Young Guns" and "Major League" for money; and "Dead Ringers" and "Enemies: A Love Story" for love.

That's a mix of profit and prestige that would delight any studio executive. But it hasn't been enough to get Robinson anointed a "player." And with his turbocharged ego, it bugs him a little -- as much as you can get bugged when you're counting a pile of money. At least $350 million in grosses on "Robin Hood" worldwide -- "so much damn money, I swear to Christ I didn't think anybody could make that much money off a movie," Robinson boasts.

That and an Oscar nomination for Best Song.

He's done what he set out to do. When he came to Hollywood, he says, he was "absolutely determined not to be a schlemiel," not to blow good money on bad deals. He didn't want to get sucked in and used up, like so many well-tanned burnouts who do lunch at Jimmy's and talk about projects that won't happen. He knew that show business is like crack cocaine: dangerous, debilitating, intoxicating -- even if you just get secondary exposure.

"This isn't Towson, Maryland," he says, sitting at his unpretentious desk in his Century City office. "People are more intense here, but this is it. It doesn't get any better. It might be a fast track, it might be a tough track, but this is where it happens."

If staying sharp means being snubbed a little, he'll make that deal. "I'm here for one reason," he says. "To win."

He isn't going to get hung up on the uniform or a sports car or a fancy office or whether anyone in town considers him a player. Forget Malibu, Palm Springs, Aspen. On weekends he flies back to Baltimore, where his wife and five kids live.

If anything is going to hurt Jim Robinson, it's Jim Robinson -- with his absolute, positive certainty that he's figured it out, completed his studies, knows what he's doing. Know's what you're doing. And can do it better. He'll write the article, take the pictures and lay out the page, if you don't watch out.

Kevin Reynolds can tell you how it is. The director of "Robin Hood," as it happens, never saw the completed film. He and Robinson tangled during production and finally Robinson shoved him aside and changed the locks on the editing-room door. "It's something I've just tried to put behind me," Reynolds says now. "It was so nightmarish. ... They just came and took the film away."

Robinson says it wasn't so bad -- bracing, maybe, but fun. "It was like going down the tracks and building the locomotive as you go along," he says. But he really can't explain it to you. "It's like trying to explain an orgasm to a virgin," he says.

Maybe he was a pushy SOB, but that's him. "I don't know how to be in something and not give it everything I have," he says. "I'm not a voyeur."

The entertainment business is full of people who know what they're doing -- but only for a few minutes or months -- or years, if they're very lucky. Their taste coincides with the unpredictable gyrations of the public appetite until, one day, it doesn't. The banquettes at Jimmy's are filled with them. Some of them still get good tables, too. 'He's an Odd Guy' When you show up at Jim Robinson's office, he gets started right away.

You bring a cup of coffee that you bought someplace else.

Have some coffee, he says.

No thanks, you reply. I already have some.

But your coffee is cold, he says.

No, no, you answer. This coffee is fine.

You really should have some hot, fresh coffee, he insists.

Look, you say. I like this coffee. I put in the cream and sugar myself. It's just the way I like it.

This he respects. He calls out to his assistant: Bring some coffee! And bring the cream and sugar too. He presents this to you. You're going to have to have some of his coffee or he'll never quit. But he understands that you want it your way too.

"He's an odd guy," Reynolds says, the "Robin Hood" battles a year behind him. "You want to like him but he does things that just put you off. ... In a business where creative people will sometimes tell domineering people to shove it, he's learned that the only guaranteed way to make other people defer to him is to own the playing field."

Robinson can be open-handed: when Reynolds wanted to spend $65,000 for a huge staircase in "Robin Hood," he didn't flinch. But at the same time, he's proud to point out that his office furniture is, in a word, "schlock." Why waste money on frills?

He grew up in Baltimore. His father was an auto mechanic and his mother stayed home. He started taking photographs when he was 8 and won a contest. He built himself a darkroom when he was still in elementary school.

"I was never satisfied, ever," he says. "I have yet to be satisfied with one picture that I did."

He skipped the 12th grade and went to the University of Maryland, majoring in business. Naturally, he lectured his professors. Having worked summers and holidays as a welder, he was already a union member. "There I'm sitting in college and I've got this professor who probably never got one bit of grease on him, and he's going to tell me about unions? I want you to know, he failed me." He repeated the class with a different teacher and got an A. "Never studied," he says.

Then, in the 1950s, he joined the Army, went overseas, and surprisingly, took orders. "I found that the best way to cope with the system was to excel," he says. "Whatever it was, I was going to be number one. That took a lot of time, a lot of emotional energy." It was an invaluable experience and he got the hell out of there as fast as he could.

"When I hit the States, I went to the men's room and took off my uniform," he says. "It took me two days to get out of New York."

A job at General Motors in industrial relations didn't last. "After a while, I said, 'There is no way I'm spending my life in this corporate environment.' It didn't matter how good you were. It didn't matter how hard you worked. As a matter of fact, if you were too good, they gunned you."

Meanwhile, he'd made money taking pictures -- even while he was in the Army, all the soldier boys were customers. So he bought the assets of a small automobile undercoating company in Towson and started building his empire. He set up an operation to handle imported cars at Dundalk Marine Terminal. Expanded to San Francisco, Los Angeles, Norfolk. He bought a bankrupt Subaru dealership in the Midwest, making it profitable in 14 months, he says. It became one of the largest in the country.

He sold the Subaru business a few years ago but still runs his automotive services company (roof racks, air conditioners, custom painting) and some other businesses. But as far back as 1979, he started financing movies, easing himself into the game.

"When I did things here, I did things for the right reasons," he says. "A lot of people come out here and act like big shots. And they leave in a barrel."

He sought tutors. "I've been very, very lucky and, I might add, wise, because I've always looked to people who have been there, the older people, for advice," he says. "I may not always do it as they say it, but it registers."

He met Joe Roth, a young film producer, and helped him finance a movie. It died. His next film, "Moving Violation," he dismisses as a sexy "schlocker." But it made "a nice -- a very nice -- profit, thank you."

He went along like that, a movie here and there, and in 1986, Joe Roth called on him for help. Roth had mortgaged his house to make "Streets of Gold," a drama about a boxing champ turned coach, and was running out of money before the cameras had rolled.

"Joe was sitting in New York and couldn't go forward," Robinson says. "He gives me a call, tells me the story, and basically I stepped in. Because of Joe."

The movie bombed.

"I was ready to kill myself," Roth says now. "And he said, 'Ah, don't feel sorry for yourself. It happens.' ... When things go bad, he's the same as when things go good. He's the first person I ever met who's that way." A leading expert on Robinson, Roth describes him as generous, a "mensch," "a completely stand-up guy."

The only problem: "He thinks he knows everything about everything."

In the Driver's Seat In 1987, Roth and Robinson teamed up. Robinson founded Morgan Creek, named for a loopy Preston Sturges comedy ("The Miracle of Morgan's Creek"), and Roth got credit for every creative decision the company made. Roth was the charismatic one, the filmmaker, the talent masseur. Robinson wrote the checks.

In 1989, Roth became chairman of 20th Century Fox. "No, I did not want him to leave," Robinson says. "But how many lawyers would say, 'I don't want to be a Supreme Court justice'? Man, that's it. It's like Mecca. It's the ultimate home run." Now, Robinson jokes, Roth has to be the business guy and he's become the creative guy. "Somebody switched chairs on us here," he says.

But Robinson was eager to take a stronger hand on the creative side, where he thinks he's gotten short shrift. "For some reason, this town has a perception of me as being a business individual," he says. "And I came out of the creative side. You try doing what I did from age 8. Two things you develop: self-discipline and a good eye."

Once Roth left Morgan Creek, everyone watched to see how Robinson would manage. He started out by scorching Roth -- starting his "Robin Hood" project while Fox labored to get its version underway. That caused some friction which both men say has been resolved. Fox wasn't the only studio left gasping -- Columbia had a Robin Hood project going too. Robinson is gleeful: "It was the ultimate chutzpah. We bucked the system. We basically bucked two studios, and won."

The next bout, however, he lost. "Freejack," the futuristic fantasy that brought Mick Jagger back to the big screen, flopped. Hollywood licked its chops over the rumored $30 million-plus failure.

"It didn't play as well as I would have liked," Robinson says. "In fact, didn't play well at all." The movie was relatively expensive -- in part because 40 percent of what's on the screen is re-shoots; efforts to fix the film cost upward of $3.5 million. Robinson admits that. But as for the rumor that he blew all the "Robin Hood" profits on "Freejack," that makes him nuts.

"I'm going to spend some time educating you," he fumes. "How can they say that? Does anyone know how much money I made on 'Robin Hood'? It's playing like hell all over the world. What am I going to make off 'Robin Hood'? An awful lot of money."

Bottom line: "I could do four 'Freejacks' and still have money left over from 'Robin Hood.' "

Meanwhile, Robinson adds, he takes care of his company instead of looting it -- which is more than some of those other hotshots can say. He didn't pay himself a salary from Morgan Creek until this past January, he says. "Every nickel that this company earns has stayed in. I don't take bonuses, I don't have jets ... When I look at a $10 million yacht, you know what I think about?" he asks. "Maintenance."

Other Hollywood executives keep the common touch by going to suburban movie houses or eating at the Hamburger Hamlet on Sunset Boulevard. Robinson goes back to Baltimore. He keeps this part of his life very private. Says he doesn't want his lawn wrecked by people with bad scripts. In all the years they worked together, Roth says, he was never invited to Robinson's home in Baltimore -- never even got the phone number.

"People in Baltimore, they let you be," Robinson says. "They don't bother you. ... I like going to the place where it still takes 25 cents to make a pay-phone call."