ABC's new "The Thorns" is Mike Nichols' first television series since "Family," which he co-produced in 1976. But star Tony Roberts said that unlike that prime-time soap, "The Thorns" is satire that is "going to raise a few eyebrows because it has some bite in it."

"The Thorns" premieres Friday at 9 on ABC, the network that carried "Family" from March 1976 to June 1980.

"It's a timely program," said Roberts last week. "It addresses itself to the values of today." Roberts described his character, public relations executive Sloan Thorn, and Sloan's wife Ginger as social climbers who are "pretending to be socially conscious while in fact they are unconscious in general of their own particular hypocrisies and contradictions."

"I think the point of view is more important than the real plotting," said Roberts. "It's meant to be funny and it's also meant to be revealing. It's a satire, but you can only go so far in a sitcom format from week to week with satire."

Roberts is a bit concerned that satire may not work on broadcast television today. "Because of cable television, because the viewers have 35 channels instead of 3, there have to be laughs in the first five minutes. If you don't, and if you have a dull spot or slow spot, the viewers are gone. It's very, very challenging to try to do something that's both funny and true and offbeat and satiric and worth someone's attention. Twenty-two minutes is very little time to set up anything properly and then deliver it.

"I think that this thing has marvelous ingredients -- I don't know yet what it tastes like. I'm cautiously optimistic. The pilot is as spectacular-looking a half-hour of television as you can find. It's beautifully produced. It's meant to introduce all these regular characters to you ... I hope it falls into new ground -- it just might.

"But I must tell you that this is the first thing I've done on television I have no reservations about being proud of. It's a class act. We shot the opening sequences last week -- Mike Nichols himself directed those -- and it's the most gorgeous thing. It's so marvelous and so funny and so different. And don't miss the credits."

In "The Thorns," he co-stars with Kelly Bishop (Ginger Thorn), who won a Tony for her work in "A Chorus Line," and Marilyn Cooper as Sloan's obtrusive mother. The household also includes three Thorn children and the mother's helper who looks after them, plus a feisty French maid. The maid's language problems provided the basis for one episode, said Roberts, when she announced that "Madame Thorn had gone to a funeral for Mr. Thorn rather than with Mr. Thorn."

The versatile Roberts has plenty of credits of his own, including two Tony Award nominations and a London Critics Award in 1970 as best actor in a musical, for "Promises, Promises." His career spans one soap opera, appearances in drama, Shakespeare, Broadway musicals, operettas, both theatrical and television movies, TV series and guest appearances. He will open in March in the New York City Opera's production of "Brigadoon."

Roberts began working with Woody Allen when he appeared in Allen's Broadway play "Don't Drink the Water" in 1966, then "Play It Again, Sam" both on Broadway (for which he received a Tony nomination) and in film, and Allen's movies "Stardust Memories," "Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy," "Annie Hall," "Hannah and Her Sisters" and "Radio Days," in which his father, Kenneth Roberts, also had a part.

"'Radio Days,' that was an exciting experience. It was the first time I'd worked with my father. He was an announcer with CBS for almost 20 years. He was the host of some of the big radio hits like 'Quick as a Flash,' 'The Shadow,' 'Grand Central Station' ... He was an actor before he was an announcer. It was fun just to be standing with him."

Tony Roberts' television appearances will not be confined to "The Thorns" this spring. He's also in three new productions, "Taming of the Shrew," "Lady Windermere's Fan," and "A Month in the Country," on the Arts & Entertainment cable service. He did the American Playhouse production of Saul Bellow's "Seize the Day," with Robin Williams, and he'll appear in CBS' "A Different Affair," with Ann Archer.

Roberts made his acting debut at 11 in an amateur musical, attended New York's High School of Music and Art, then went to Northwestern University to study drama under Alvina Krause with Richard Benjamin, Paula Prentiss, Karen Black, Lawrence Pressman, Marcia Rodd, Penny Fuller and Marshall Mason, founder of the Circle Repertory Theatre. "Krause was a particularly wonderful teacher. Her reputation inspired people who were interested enough to find her, and that's what drew people there." Roberts earned a B.S. in speech and theater in 1961.

His Broadway career started that same year with Dore Schary's "Something About a Soldier" and continued with "Take Her, She's Mine," Saul Bellow's "The Last Analysis," "Never Too Late," "Barefoot in the Park," "Promises, Promises," and "They're Playing Our Song," the last three for Neil Simon. He played an Englishman in Alan Ayckbourne's "Absurd Person Singular," in Gower Champion's "Sugar" and in George Abbot's "How Now, Dow Jones," which also won him a Tony nomination. His most recent Broadway appearance was in "Doubles" in 1985.

At the same time, Roberts' television career was underway. From 1963 to 1965, he played on "Edge of Night," then went on to several short-lived series. One was NBC's "Rosetti and Ryan," which ran for two months in 1977 and starred Roberts and Squire Friedell as single lawyers. He also showed up in "The Four Seasons" and on "The Lucie Arnaz Show."

In 1971, Roberts made his cinematic debut in Disney's "The Million Dollar Duck." Besides the Woody Allen films, he appeared in "Star Spangled Girl," "Serpico," "The Taking of Pelham 1, 2, 3," "Lovers Like Us," Sidney Lumet's "Just Tell Me What You Want," "Question of Honor," "Packin' It In," "Amityville IIID," "Key Exchange," and "Le Sauvage" (playing a French-speaking exile).

During more than a quarter-century as an actor, he has appeared too in musicals and comedies and drama at regional and summer theaters and Shakespeare festivals. And although he hasn't as yet won the brass rings of recognition -- a Tony, an Emmy or an Oscar -- he has managed to achieve what every actor covets: almost continuous employment.

"There are hills and valleys," he said of his career. "I've gone through my unemployment insurance sometimes. As my friend Woody Allen says, my great ambition is to have a steady job."

But he isn't discouraging his daughter Nicole, a high school junior, from sending off for college catalogues to select one with a good drama school.