"I don't know how these Amnesty people do it," said Hector Elizondo. "Any kind of fervent ideology is mad, but if this is the kind of work you've chosen to do, you damn well better have a sense of humor or you won't last long. You'll burn out. The people who last have resilience."

Monday, Elizondo plays an Amnesty International cooperative in the first dramatization of the organization's work, "Forgotten Prisoners: The Amnesty Files" (8 on TNT cable service).

He got the role not because he is an Amnesty member -- although he has been for years -- but largely because of his expressive eyes. Those eyes caught the imagination of filmmaker Robert Greenwald, who thought the man who was the hotel manager in last summer's "Pretty Woman" would be perfect to play Hasan Demir, a Turk.

And,too, because Elizondo, 54, is a man of many faces, most of them ethnic.

Born in New York City of Latino parents, he has worked in movies, among them "The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3" and "The Flamingo Kid," and in plays, including "Sly Fox" and "The Prisoner of Second Avenue," for which he won an Obie.

Elizondo's familiar face has been seen frequently -- if sometimes fleetingly -- on television. He's appeared in a number of series, many of them short-lived, beginning with CBS' "Popi" in 1976. He played a Puerto Rican widower struggling to support his children. Then he played the serious Sgt. Delgado in CBS' "Freebie and the Bean" (1980-81); Capt. Louis Renault in NBC's "Casablanca" (1983); a fast-talking agent for a Mexican-American comedian in ABC's "AKA Pablo" (1984); district attorney Jesse Steinberg in CBS' "Foley Square" (1985-86), and a middle-class salesman in Fox's 1987 sitcom "Down and Out in Beverly Hills."

"I love to do accents," he said, turning himself instantly into a fairly credible Russian.

In "Forgotten Prisoners," Elizondo gets to try out his Turkish. So do the British and Hungarian actors who appear in the two-hour story, set in Turkey but filmed in Hungary.

Placing the film in Turkey was Greenwald's choice, said John Healey, executive director of Amnesty International, USA. But the stories Amnesty provided Greenwald are what Healey called "a mosaic" of human rights violations from many countries.

"I think it's very courageous of Turner and Greenwald to make this film, said Healey. "Turkey tortured over 300,000 people in the past 10 years. But they haven't killed {executed} anyone since 1986, I think."

With "Forgotten Prisoners," TNT's Ted Turner continues his practice of airing programs with political implications. "Prisoners" is a fictionalized account of the torture of political prisoners in Turkey, which was also the setting of the violent but compelling theatrical film, "Midnight Express" (1978). That movie, based on a book by Billy Hayes, an American caught drug-smuggling in Turkey, was written by Oliver Stone, who altered the ending to one less fascinating than Hayes' actual escape from the country.

Last week, the Embassy of Turkey, recalling reaction over "Midnight Express" and concerned about "Forgotten Prisoners," said in a statement:

"Unfortunately we live in an age in which truth is often subordinated or compromised in the name of ratings, profits or sensationalism. Turkey's reputation has been frequently victimized by such practices in the recent past. An example of this would certainly be the film 'Midnight Express,' loosely based on the story of a convicted drug smuggler. The film incorporated deliberate falsehoods which were later publicly acknowledged by the director as having been employed for dramatic impact, disavowed by the author of the book on which it was based and exposed by the critics as a shameless example of bigotry.

"We have suffered from this movie's lingering legacy for numerous years. Sadly, the only association too many Americans can make with their staunch ally of 55 million people is 'Midnight Express.' 'Forgotten Prisoners: The Amnesty Files' might further augment the already unfortunate misconceptions Americans have about Turkey. One expects that a responsible organization of TNT's stature will remain vigilant against this irresponsible practice."

"Forgotten Prisoners," filmed in Hungary, where an Amnesty office has been recently established, was produced and directed by Greenwald. One of his producers, Steve McClothen, is an Amnesty member who has made two other pictures in Budapest. Writer Rex Weiner worked on an L.A. Weekly article about Los Angeles-area refugees who were tortured in other countries.

A Turk who had spent years in a Turkish prison, where he was tortured, served as an on-location adviser. Amnesty said he did not want to be identified.

There are a few establishing shots of magnificent mosques that could have been made only in Istanbul, footage that Elizondo said a film crew "pirated out" of the country.

The script, which features composite characters, "has been researched very carefully," said Elizondo. "Amnesty International technical advisors were on the set like hawks because they do not want to be sued. This is the first time their work has been dramatized.

"The cognoscente know about International Amnesty, but not the Joe on the street. Those are the guys I like to reach. So hopefully this is a show-and-tell as to how the front lines are operating, the front lines of the human rights struggle. It's a pastiche of characters, but the facts of it, the way they operate, the process is absolutely on the money."

In 1977, Amnesty International was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts to promote observance of the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Amnesty aims to document cases of persons whose human rights are being violated by governments. The organization urges fair and prompt trials for political prisoners; opposes the death penalty, torture or cruelty; and seeks the release of non-violent prisoners detained for their beliefs, color, sex, ethnic origin, language or religion (called "prisoners of conscience").

Amnesty says that such prisoners are held in more than 70 countries, representing nearly half the members of the United Nations, and that torture and ill-treatment of prisoners has been reported from more than half the countries of the world.

But aside from collecting information and monitoring trials, the organization can only try to pressure countries thought guilty of human-right violations.

"Forgotten Prisoners" focuses on the abduction from his home by Turkish police of a political cartoonist, his torture and the efforts of Amnesty worker Jordan Ford (Ron Silver) to intervene. Elizondo plays Hasan Demir, a Turk who works with Amnesty, and Roger Daltrey appears briefly as Howard Storm, head of research for Amnesty International, who tells lawyer Ford what to expect when he travels on his first mission.

Chris Hunter plays political cartoonist Aziz Asim and Leslee Udwin is Nuray, his wife, who grows increasingly frustrated when she learns that the hero from Amnesty was sent mainly to gather information for the organization to analyze.

"It's very powerful," Elizondo said. "There are a couple of scenes that will be difficult. But they're not gratuitous. We did not want to show a movie about torture. It's more Hitchcockian. You're going to see the tip of the iceberg about what goes on."

Elizondo, who acknowledged that "I have a tendency to get involved with radical organizations," said he is active in the Children's Defense Fund and human rights and environmental issues. Silver is president of The Creative Coalition, a political network he organized in the entertainment community.

Meanwhile, Elizondo is preparing to work with friend George C. Scott on "Mittleman's Hardware," which he thinks will become a Hallmark Hall of Fame television presentation.

The story, he said, is about "two men coming from disparate cultures who through circumstances meet and change their lives and infuse each other with new life. It's my first Latin role in 15 years. I haven't taken any either because they're written badly or they're ethnocentric.

"This happens to be a Chicano gentleman, the foreman of a migrant workers' camp. He's a Zorba, a man who is hiding a deep sorrow, and a drunk for reasons of heart. He and Max meet under the most unusual circumstances, and they rediscover life."

And Elizondo is likely to turn up in the sequel to "Pretty Woman," produced by his friend Garry Marshall, like him born in New York in the middle of the Depression. There was also talk, he said, about a television series based on his character.

In the original movie, Elizondo was Mr. Thompson, the hotel manager who taught Vivian Ward (Julia Roberts) social skills to help her rise above her status as a hooker.

"I thought it was a nice movie, a fluffy movie," he said. "I thought half my scenes would be on the cutting room floor. In 'Pretty Woman,' we made up this character. I said, 'This guy bores me to tears,' so I created a guy that I'd like to work for."

Elizondo calls himself Marshall's "rabbit's foot."

"I'm in every movie Garry makes, sometimes just as a walk-on. He calls me up and says, 'Can you come over just for the day?'"