MARINA DEL REY, CALIF. -- One of television's certified wild men has returned to the tube.

It is somehow fitting that after the telecast of one of America's annual television events, the Super Bowl, ABC will feature one of TV's icons, Jonathan Winters, in a new half-hour sitcom.

Winters is cast as the eccentric father -- what else? -- of Randy Quaid, who plays an elementary school principal and widowed father of three in "Davis Rules." The show is the latest offering from Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner, who produced two monstrous sitcom successes, "The Cosby Show" and "Roseanne," and then promptly got out of the hit business.

Winters, Quaid and the producers appeared at a press conference here to discuss the show, which was inspired, Carsey said, by the fact that she and her partner have school-aged children and are now fascinated by education issues.

"Davis Rules" is not likely to raise any kids' SAT scores, but the press conference was an opportunity for Winters to offer his rendition of his own school daze, a period of trauma and disaffection that left obvious wounds he now covers with laughs.

Winters' problems -- conflict with his father and poor performance in school -- led him to enlist in the Marine Corps at 17. And in "Davis Rules," he plays a Marine vet who still puts on the uniform occasionally. But, as he said, his problems with school started early.

"I was one of the few people who didn't like kindergarten," said Winters, "and I was told it was going to be a breeze. But it wasn't for me."

It wasn't, Winters said, that he wasn't smart. It was just that he was scared.

"I was not necessarily a slow student. I began to see my series of failures from the first, second, third, fourth, fifth grade. And so I immediately read somewhere that maybe I could be too smart for the school."

But his teachers felt he was behind the rest of the pack rather than ahead. "They failed me just the same ... I wasn't so much a slow student, I was frightened. I was frightened of failure. And I think that can carry you right on through till you take a dirt nap."

That's where his father came in, a man who reminded Winters early and often of why he thought the boy couldn't succeed.

"Failure is a terrible thing, and I think most people are afraid of failing. I had an old man," said Winters, using a poking gesture, "who had the longest finger of any Caucasian man I've ever known." His father would use the finger to emphasize his view of his son: "You're just dumb" was the point Winters recalled his father driving home.

"That really helps a kid. And at the same time in his left hand was Aqua-Velva and, of course, he was drinking that."

Winters' mother was steadfast, if not dynamic -- " 'Just hang in there,' she told me, 'Do what you can.' She had a wonderful attitude."

There was divorce. There was chaos. There was confusion. And Winters, with his repertoire of hand gestures, grimaces and facial tics, makes it all sound so funny. But the sadness is obvious. "I've always said a kid needs it {love and support} at home," he said. "But it's very hard to excel and make it, period. I mean, getting to and from the school, I had a tough time. I've studied since I got out of school, which sounds like a major cop-out."

Winters said he has studied quite a bit as an adult, but math still frightens him.

"I can remember my mother saying, 'If you have three apples and I give you two apples, how many apples do you have?' Too many. Who needs five?"

But when the laughs subsided, Winters stressed the need for parents to encourage and support their children in school.

Carsey and Werner are aware of that need too, and that, they say, is a large part of the impetus for the sitcom.

"I have one kid," said Carsey, "who breezes through any class she's in and another a lot like Jonathan, who says, 'I don't get it.'"

With that in mind, Carsey-Werner has retained consultants on education to help shape "Davis Rules," a practice that began with their collaboration on "Cosby."

"Cosby" and "Roseanne," two of TV's brightest hits, are products of the Carsey-Werner team. So were "Chicken Soup" and "Grand." "Davis Rules" gives them a chance to go over .500.

This offering has been accorded the promotional and possible ratings honor of being positioned after the viewer-magnetic Super Bowl. While the memories are still fresh, it will assume its regular 8:30 time slot on Tuesday.

Quaid, for those who remember him more for TV drama than comedy (he was memorable as Lyndon Baines Johnson in "LBJ: The Early Years"), may seem an odd choice for a sitcom. But he's done stand-up comedy before so he should have a way with a funny line.

When it comes to funny lines, of course, Jonathan Winters is more used to making them up than he is to reading them. He's done series work ("Mork and Mindy") but his forte on talk and variety shows has always been improvisation, the line that was totally unsuspected -- even by him.

So what's it going to be like for Carsey and Werner to try to tie Winters to a script?

No problem, said Winters. "This is a scripted show, and we've got some top writers. And I was told by our producers that there would be little spots and areas where I'd be able to play and perhaps leave the script momentarily."

"Like for a couple of days," quipped Quaid.

"Well," said Winters, "whatever happens, I'm 65 years old and just happy to be here.

"I'm here today because I'm an observer. I may have been a failure in school, but I was an observer. That's how I've made my living and that's how I've survived."