Maryland's cast of 1970s political characters -- the ones who bowed out and the ones who were ushered out, the ones who are hanging on and the ones who are moving up -- convened as if for a curtain call in the State House today as the official portrait for former acting governor Blair Lee III was unveiled.

Near one corner of the ceremonial Calvert Room stood former governor Marvin Mandel, accepting with a tight smile the greetings of legislators past and present. Here, carefully keeping his distance from his convicted predecessor, was Gov. Harry Hughes, elected after promising to abolish Mandel-style politics in Maryland.

Moving easily between the two men, a jocular, tanned and relaxed Lee made his way through the crowd of 200 or more people toward the curtained portrait, passing out quips and pleasantries as he went.

The man who became the state's first lieutenant governor in 1971, who moved into the governor's office in 1977 when Mandel was convicted of political corruption charges, and who was defeated by Hughes in the Democratic primary race a year later, surveyed the group and said, "Nothing beats a public hanging for bringing out good friends."

Being governor, Lee told the crowd, is "something you enjoy very much when you're doing it -- and you enjoy not doing it afterwards."

"This whole thing is like a class reunion, eight years too early," said Lee press secretary Thom Burden, looking around the room as it began filling up. As he looked, State Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein walked by, his mouth fixed in its perpetual grin. Outside in the cavernous hallway, former House speaker John Hanson Briscoe was giving a welcoming kiss to Mandel's wife, Jeanne.

Dipping in and out of the crowd was former Lee campaign aide Bruce Bereano, gleefully fixing leftover yellow campaign stickers on the lapels of anyone who would let him. "We have some 8,000 of these still on rolls somewhere," said Bereano, now a lobbyist for state liquor interests.

Several state senators who came from Lee's home county of Montgomery and who have been none too kind in their recent appraisals of Hughes accepted the large Lee stickers and wore them ostentatiously.

But old and new disagreements were generally muffled under the pervading tone of geniality as Goldstein, State Treasurer William S. James and Hughes took turns extolling Lee with a mixture of in-jokes and compliments.

Throughout the 15-minute formal ceremony, Mandel, who is waging a court battle with Hughes and Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs over the possession of two-dozen items of furniture and knicknacks, stayed in the background, almost invisible in the crowd, except for his pipe.

The unveiling of Lee's portrait came several weeks after Hughes ordered that the portrait of former vice president Spiro T. Agnew be removed from the wall of his outer office. In 1973, Agnew pleaded no contest to one count of tax evasion after being investigated for taking kickbacks when he was governor of Maryland.

Asked about this absent portrait, Lee grimaced and replied quietly, "You can't run away from your history."

Artist Cedric Egeli said after the unveiling that he could remember little about the demeanor of Lee as the acting governor sat for his oil-on-canvas portrait during the closing days of his administration. "He was just very thoughtful and considerate," Egeli said seriously.

Hughes, however, refused to remain serious. Referring to his friendship with Lee, which dates back to the 1960s when both served in the Maryland Senate, the present governor said Lee "does have a place in state government if he ever wants it.

"I know he doesn't want to work."