Kenny Rogers says that if this week's presentation of "The Gambler" draws respectable ratings, he'll keep on going.

"'The Gamblers' are fun because I am those characters," he said last week. "If this does well, there'll be another one."

Rogers has gotten a lot of mileage out of what started out as a song, became an album, a football team (the old USFL's Houston Gamblers), and two television movies. The first, "Kenny Rogers as The Gambler," was the highest-rated television movie of 1979-80. The sequel, "The Gambler: The Adventure Continues," was divided into two two-hour episodes, which rated fifth- and fourth-highest of the 1983-84 season.

In both, Rogers played gambler Brady Hawkes -- "a reluctant hero," Rogers calls him -- and Bruce Boxleitner appeared as his partner, Billy Montana.

In the third installment, "The Gambler III: The Legend Continues" (Sunday and Tuesday on CBS), Rogers' long-time friend Linda Gray joins up as Mary Collins, a tough, twice-married frontier woman who teaches Sioux Indian children and champions Indian rights. Charles Durning plays a fictional senator, Henry Colton, who wants to appropriate 90 million acres of Indian territory through land-reform bills (he calls it "rezoning") to benefit Eastern interests.

George Kennedy turns up as Gen. Nelson Miles, commander of the Army troops; Dean Stockwell portrays an Indian agent whose real-life counterpart was pivotal in the assassination of Sitting Bull; and George American Horse plays the formidable Chief Sitting Bull himself.

"The Gambler III," a four-hour, two-night edition shot in and around Santa Fe, N.M., is loosely based on historical events of the Dakota Territory in the late 1880s, a time of broken treaties and bloodshed.

Rogers said the episode is not a documentary, but "a movie spinning a tale that might have happened during those final days of the Indian Wars ... When we are dealing with the Indians themselves, we let them tell their own story."

Gray, now in her 10th season as Sue Ellen Ewing, wife of oil baron J.R. Ewing, on "Dallas," said the role of Collins appealed to her because the schoolteacher was an independent woman. Gray also turns up this week as a host of CBS' All-American Thanksgiving Parade broadcast on Thursday.

Years ago, Gray did commercials with Rogers' wife, Marianne Gordon. So it's not surprising that she is among the celebrities Rogers photographed for his second book of portraits, Your Friends and Mine, a coffee-table volume out for Christmas giving. The book also includes photos of Michael Jackson with his chimpanzee, Bubbles; Linda Evans, who appeared in the early "Gambler" episode; Tony Curtis with his paintings, fellow Texan Jaclyn Smith and long-time duet partner Dolly Parton.

"I finished it about six months ago," said Rogers, "and 60,000 are sold already. It's the type of book that really is gift-oriented. It's doing very, very well. The first one {Kenny Rogers' America} sold 40,000.

"I played with photography for the last 10 years," he said, "but I never could get past that amateur stage. Then Marianne gave me two weeks in the darkroom with John Sexton, Ansel Adams' assistant. He raised my level by several plateaus. It made a tremendous difference."

Several of Rogers' photographs of Americans at work were used in his 1987 CBS special, "Kenny Rogers: Working America," celebrating the nation's laborers. The publicity pictures that accompany this article are by his friend Kelly Junkerman, whom Rogers described as "a tennis pro who traveled with me."

Tennis, golf and jogging help Rogers, 49, keep himself in good condition after years of being, well, pudgy. With his prematurely graying hair, he looked older than his years. In 1979, when he was just over 30, a reviewer called him "a graying Charlie Rich-type." A writer in 1979 referred to him as "one of the huskiest men in country music," and a critic in 1980 observed that "he looked rather tired and overweight."

A year later, when he wore a size 46 jacket and 38 pants, he lent his name to a line of western clothes and accessories for men. At the time, Rogers commented: "I'd rather live life and enjoy it than lose weight to gain it back. I've had a great life eating everything in sight." But by spring 1983, Rogers had lost 40 pounds.

Rogers' hair and beard began to turn prematurely white about 10 years ago. Last week, a trim Rogers said he "didn't dislike" his white hair and beard, and said he tried to view the situation as better than his father's: baldness.

Growing up in Houston, one of eight children of a carpenter, Rogers never did own any horses, but he learned to ride well enough to come across passably as a gun-toting, turn-of-the century Westerner on the "Gambler" series and in a movie, "Wild Horses," shot in Sheridan, Wy.

Still, Grammy-winner Rogers is better-known as a vocalist than an actor, with a warm, somewhat gravelly voice that poses no threat to Iglesias or Pavarotti. One reviewer said that "Rogers is not blessed with the greatest voice, but he's compensated with smooth, tight arrangements and a wholesomely charismatic delivery. He is neither brilliant nor bland, but a comfortable, familiar presence providing good, easy listening."

"Good, easy listening" has taken him far, linking him with Dolly Parton for duets, television performances and world-wide tours; with Crystal Gayle, Kim Carnes, Sheena Easton, Bob Seger, Lionel Richie, even flutist James Galway and guitarist Stanley Jordan for recordings. He has won just about every award in the music business, raking in dozens of American Music Awards and Country Music Association Awards and setting a record for recording artists whose releases have been certified platinum (million-sellers). With his blend of country and pop, he attracts both country and soft-rock fans, prompting Stuart Adelson, who ran the Universal City Amphitheater in Los Angeles, to call Rogers "the biggest draw since Elvis." Last year, in a national poll by "PM Magazine" and USA Today, he was named "favorite singer of all time."

Kenneth Ray Rogers' career began when he was a senior at Houston's Jefferson Davis High School and formed his first band, The Scholars. Two years later he had a gold single for "That Crazy Feelin'" and appeared on Dick Clark's "American Bandstand." A year later he joined a jazz group, the Bobby Doyle Trio, playing stand-up bass. But it would be almost a decade before he got another taste of success.

In 1966, Rogers joined the New Christy Minstrels, a folk group, to tour the nation, and the next year, formed The First Edition, appearing on "The Ed Sullivan Show" and "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour." The group recorded the first of many hits, "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)," on Reprise Records, in 1968, then made a world tour and got a syndicated television variety show, "Rollin'." Before they broke up in 1974, Kenny Rogers and The First Edition turned out seven million-sellers, including four gold LPs; appeared on 17 network variety shows and earned thousands of dollars a night on the concert circuit. They also got the largest single advance guarantee in recording history to date, $1 million.

Along the way, Rogers decided to switch from rock to country/pop, a move that has made him millions and ensured his fame in the country, pop and soul markets. Leaving protest songs behind in favor of "countrypolitan," he recorded his first solo album, "Love Lifted Me," for United Artists Records in 1975. Two years later his "Lucille" won a Grammy for Best Country Vocal Performance.

In 1978, the Academy of Country Music gave him four awards, including Top Male Vocalist and Album of the Year, and he recorded a collection of duets with Dottie West ("Everytime Two Fools Collide") and "The Gambler," whose title single became his signature song as well as a crossover hit breaking first-day sales records for any record album in the preceding decade. That year, Rogers also had his own star implanted on Hollywood Boulevard, and set an all-time road show record, singing to 80,000 at the Ohio State Fair.

Rogers was on a roll. A year later, he starred in two TV specials for CBS, "A Special Kenny Rogers" and "Kenny Rogers and the American Cowboy"; "The Gambler" won a Grammy as Best Country Song, and Rogers won four Country Music Association Awards, including Album of the Year and Song of the Year (for "The Gambler"). The Academy of Country Music named him Entertainer of the Year. In 1980, "The Gambler" was still raking in awards, winning Favorite Album at the American Music Awards, and "Kenny Rogers as The Gambler" earned the highest rating of a TV movie for that year.

That fall, his recording of Lionel Richie's "Lady" topped the pop charts for six weeks and propelled the album to sales over 12 million worldwide. His third TV special, "Kenny Rogers' America," aired on CBS, and his income, from 250 concerts in one year, was estimated to be $18 million. His vehicle fleet included a 10-passenger Lockheed Jetstar and a seven-seat Hawker-Siddeley.

In 1981, Rogers, father of Kenny Jr. and Carole by an earlier marriage, became a dad again when his fourth wife, Marianne, a former "Hee Haw" star whom he married in 1977, presented him with a son. He paid $14.5 million, a record price for the sale of a private estate, for the 10-acre, 35-room Beverly Hills mansion of movie producer Dino DeLaurentiis. The house has nine bedrooms, eight baths and a 13-car garage. He also bought a 75-foot yacht he named "The Gambler's Lady" (and sued the Florida developer who sold it to him, claiming it was not seaworthy).

Rogers won four American Music Awards that year, played a preacher in the TV movie "Coward of the County," and released his next album, "Share Your Love," produced by Lionel Richie and featuring Richie, Michael Jackson and Gladys Knight & the Pips.

In 1982, Rogers made his first feature film, "Six Pack"; won three American Music Awards, including favorite pop-rock male singer, and his "Greatest Hits" album won in both country and pop-rock categories. He was one of five artists that year who sold more than 5 million records. Press reports said he had one of the most lucrative recording contracts ever signed, reportedly between $20 million and $30 million. At the time, Rogers observed: "Marianne and I are spendaholics. But the trick is to spend money so you enjoy it and it works for you."

The following year Rogers won two American Music Awards (favorite country single for "Love Will Turn You Around" from the "Six Pack" soundtrack album, and favorite country vocalist) and the AMA's Special Award of Merit, given to musicians such as Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald and Irving Berlin. That year, the second in the "Gambler" series aired on CBS. He also recorded a duet with Sheena Easton, "We've Got Tonight," written by Bob Seger, and a duet with Dolly Parton, "Islands in the Stream," that sold more than two million 45s and in 1984 was named Best Country Single by American Music Awards as well as Single of the Year and Top Vocal Duet at the Academy of Country Music Awards show.

In 1984, Rogers hosted the AMA telecast and appeared with Parton in "Kenny and Dolly: A Christmas to Remember," top-rated that week. Their "Once Upon a Christmas" album, released in November, sold a million copies in a month. The following year, Parton and Rogers paired up for a concert carried on HBO. Last year he was named Favorite Country Music Performer at the 12th annual People's Choice Awards.

Kenny Rogers continues to collect awards and rake in money from his records and concerts, but says he has a new interest now: "I have focused all my attention to world hunger," he said last week. A friend, singer Harry Chapin, who was killed in a car accident, was responsible, Rogers explained. "Harry used to try to get me to do these free concerts. It was his suggestion to put togther this media awards."

The World Hunger Media Awards, established by the Rogerses in 1982, provides $100,000 each year to members of the media who have made significant impact with their coverage of hunger issues. The first of the annual ceremonies was held at the United Nations. Walter Cronkite and Jane Pauley have hosted.

"We're not going to do the awards show like we did," he said. "We decided to do it differently. The media seemed embarrassed to cover themselves." This sixth year, he said, the Rogerses will announce the recipients on Dec. 7, but they plan to send out the awards.

"What we really need is public awareness," Rogers continued. "You end up doing a lot of little things and not accomplishing anything." Having appeared on the earlier Farm Aid concert, he helped organize the Hands Across America event last year, calling it "a once-in-a-lifetime situation ... a moment in history."

Last week Rogers talked about "The Gambler," a show he described as "a golf game for me," about his photography and about his efforts to combat world hunger. He is a very rich man and a busy man, with a volume of photographs in the bookstores, a miniseries this week on the tube and an album ("I Prefer the Moonlight") in the music racks.

"I work two weeks, I'm home two weeks. I just go where they tell me," he chuckled.