Ten years ago, a doctor told A.L. Philpott he would die of cancer unless he underwent painful therapy. Philpott refused. "A.L. just blessed him out," recalls Del. Claude Anderson, a longtime friend of the crusty Southside Virginia lawyer. "He said, 'You don't realize who you're talking to. I'm A.L. Philpott.' "

Today, Philpott, who is speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates, is mostly the same tough-minded scrapper, boasting he beat the disease through sheer strength of will. But where potentially terminal illness failed, say Philpott admirers and critics alike, the force of politics has brought recent signs of compromise.

Jolted by criticisms from some fellow Democrats and an abortive attempt last year to oust him from the speakership, the proud, white-haired Philpott has yielded on some minor reforms. The key House Rules Committee, once composed of a handful of Philpott's close associates, has been expanded to include a broader cross-section of delegates.

Philpott also is seen less frequently sitting in on committee meetings, preferring instead to wield power behind closed doors as his predecessors in the post have done for decades.

Complaints about inaccessibility, lack of leadership and high-handedness (the nickname "A.L. Atollah" has stuck) have nicked Philpott at the same time growing Republican strength in the state's suburbs has forced the speaker and his "Southside Mafia" of supporters to search for new regional alliances.

Nevertheless, say several House members, the 30-year political veteran's grip on the legislative controls has barely been loosened and Philpott, who resembles some of the Confederate generals he so greatly admires, remains perhaps the force to reckon with in the 140-member General Assembly.

Delegates live in fear that he will crease his face into a ferocious scowl while they present their bills. Such scowls, they say, have defeated hundreds of bills, including a couple in the anticrime package proposed by Democratic Gov. Charles S. Robb.

When Del. Bernard Cohen (D-Alexandria) recently saw a Philpott scowl kill one of his bills, a measure that would have allowed localities to prohibit teachers from spanking students, Cohen rose and bowed deeply. "I was saluting the power of the speaker," he says.

But the scowl is only one of the tools of Philpott's legislative trade, a constant reminder of the speaker's combative personality and impressive command of the state's complex legal code, much of which he has rewritten. Most of the bills Philpott strongly opposes are dead long before they reach the House floor, killed by a few well-placed words to committee chairmen in the marble corridors of the Capitol, or by what Philpott delicately calls his "administrative" powers.

Asked exactly how powerful he is, Philpott will only shrug and smile, his eyes twinkling through a cloud of blue smoke from an ever-present pipe. "As speaker, you observe debates and you're not able to keep up with the details of bills as you would in committee," he says. "I miss being involved."

Yet Philpott's ability to control members' committee assignments, interpret the rules and assign bills to committees allows him to conduct what some here call "an imperial speakership." When he announced committee assignments this year, the appointment lists assured the death of the Equal Rights Amendment and left black and Republican delegates clustered for the most part in lower-ranking committees.

"I don't think it's any accident that the Privileges and Elections Committee which defeated ERA this year is the way it is," says Del. Alson Smith (D-Winchester), one of Philpott's inner circle. "I don't think anybody thinks that."

Philpott's inaction on some matters has triggered widespread repercussions through the Assembly. By allowing the proliferation of House subcommittees this session, he has served to reinforce his own power and that of a few key lieutenants. And by his refusal to step into the reapportionment battle last year, critics say, Philpott left the House rudderless as it struggled for almost a year to adopt an acceptable plan. "Frankly, we all came out looking like fools," says one delegate.

Evenings, over a glass of bourbon and apple juice at Richmond's all-male, all-white Commonwealth Club, Philpott and his friends often discuss the political strategies that will be carried out on the House floor while he stands, seemingly oblivious, at the rostrum.

"The way the speaker operates is not a way that someone who doesn't know him pretty well can detect," says Sen. Adelard L. Brault (D-Fairfax). "He operates through his cronies."

Known as A.L. to his friends and Mr. Philpott to everyone else, the speaker is the proud product of the Philpott family of Philpott, Va.: a little Southside town near Philpott Lake that was named for the generations of Philpotts who have lived there over the last 200 years.

A.L.'s father, a Democratic party loyalist, ran the local country store and a lumber business along with his farm, and his son learned the work ethic early. "If you stayed on the Philpott place, you were working in the cornfields, wheatfields and hayfields from morning till night," Philpott says. "I started keeping books and making payrolls when I was about 12."

The Southside Virginia of those days was segregated and Philpott says the inhabitants -- both white and black -- preferred it that way. "Those social values had been maintained in our area for 200 years," he says. "We had segregated eating places, segregated schools; that was what we were used to."

When the Supreme Court declared segregated schools unconstitutional in 1954, his Henry County upbringing led Philpott to join the forces of Massive Resistance, a stance he says he since has moderated.

By the time Philpott was 33 he was elected commonwealth's attorney. He made a name for himself as a law-and-order prosecutor who locked up bootleggers and closed down the "nip joints" where moonshine liquor was sold.

Elected to the House in 1958, Philpott toiled in relative obscurity until he volunteered to help out on a thankless task: rewriting the state's criminal code. It proved a savvy move for Philpott, who soon found that his detailed knowledge of the state's laws gave him new clout.

"You become influential because of the superior knowledge you have over everyone else," he says. "People just naturally come to seek your advice."

That knowledge and his combative debating style helped Philpott dominate three of the House's most powerful committees: Corporations, Insurance and Banking; Privileges and Elections, and Courts of Justice.

"If he didn't like a bill, that baby went down," remembers Del. Robert E. Harris (R-Fairfax), who served on the corporations panel with Philpott. "He would beat the opposition down with an educated and learned discussion of the history of the issue, the Constitution and every other damn thing he could think of. He just turned the firehose on you."

At first Philpott focused on the smaller bills, such as minor changes in the criminal code. But soon he showed a talent for late-night bargaining sessions that still awes many in the General Assembly. Three times he helped beat back a groundswell of support for legalized horseracing in Virginia -- even though one of the state's major stock car racing tracks is located in his district.

"No amount of pressure ever makes him change his mind," says lawmaker Smith, who sponsored the horserace measure. "He's not pretty stubborn, he's very stubborn."

Friends say the key to Philpott's personality is his inability to accept defeat. When, not long ago, a golfing partner missed three successive putts and lost them the match, the speaker was so angry that he flung his club clear across the green. "Anything he does, he takes seriously," says Anderson. "If he doesn't think he can win, he doesn't want to play."

Philpott's knowledge of House rules and the state criminal code was so complete by 1977 that House Democrats, who had seen their majority leader defeated at the polls, practically handed him the position that has traditionally served as a stepping stone to the speaker's job. Then, in 1979, former Speaker John Warren Cooke announced his retirement and the rest was history.

Philpott's tenure as speaker was rocky from the start, partially because of the stark contrast between his personal style and that of the cultivated, soft-spoken Cooke. "Maybe it's a lack of class, a lack of finesse," says one senior Democratic delegate. "He's got a great mind, but he's a country lawyer. He doesn't know how to get along with people."

Delegates complained that Philpott had no business killing bills, sitting in on subcommittee meetings, and generally behaving more like a warrior than a presiding officer in the daily legislative struggle.

They said he was interested only in legislation involving lawyers, and offered no leadership on budgetary or other matters. They griped that he listened only to a small, inner circle of rural-oriented friends.

"A.L. had a tendency to look on a difference of opinion not as a simple difference but as a conflict between good and evil," said another Democratic House member.

Finally last fall, supporters of House Majority Leader Thomas Moss of Norfolk launched a secret, and ultimately abortive, attempt to install Moss in the speaker's chair. Moss won't discuss the matter now, but challengers claim to have come within a few votes of overthrowing Philpott.

Since then, the two of them seem to be working more closely with one another--a function, observers say, of Philpott's new realization that the jocular Moss is a force to be reckoned with. Where once the two men rarely spoke, Moss and Philpott now discuss legislative strategies together regularly. Often, while the House is in session, Moss can be seen leaning over the speaker's podium, listening to advice or offering some of his own.

Not surprisingly, Philpott makes light of the coup attempt, and says it didn't prompt him to make any changes. It's all just talk, he says--nothing to worry about. "You must realize that there are 100 people with varying personalities and varying egos here," he says, a broad smile sweeping his face. "Everyone wants to be the top dog, and there's nothing wrong with that."