Adolph Caesar, 52, the deep-voiced Harlem-born character actor who gave a charismatic, commanding performance in the complex role of the black Army sergeant in the film "A Soldier's Story," died yesterday in Los Angeles after an apparent heart attack.

A veteran of more than 20 years of stage work who lent his voice to thousands of television and radio commercials, Mr. Caesar won an Academy Award nomination for his performance as Sgt. Waters and was also praised for his role in this winter's widely discussed film "The Color Purple."

The compactly built 5-foot-7 inch actor was in Los Angeles to make a new film, "The Tough Guys." He showed up for yesterday's second day of shooting but said he was feeling ill and did not work, his manager said.

When Mr. Caesar's condition deteriorated, he was taken to the Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center and died about one half hour later, according to the manager.

In "A Soldier's Story," Mr. Caesar radiated from the screen the frustrated, festering energy of a man whose soul and nature had been twisted by a pervasive racism that turned him against himself and the black soldiers he commanded.

At the same time, it was part of the glory of his portrayal that even in the unsparing harshness with which he seemed to confront his men, he did not forfeit the audience's sympathy or understanding.

The film was based on Charles Fuller's Pulitzer Prize-winning stage drama, "A Soldier's Play," in which Mr. Caesar also starred as the sergeant, who is murdered by one of his men. The play brought Mr. Caesar a Drama Desk Award for featured actor and an Obie Award for outstanding off-Broadway achievement.

In "The Color Purple," Mr. Caesar depicted the odious father-in-law of the principal character, an abused black woman.

It was Mr. Caesar's voice that proved one of his principal assets throughout a busy career that encompassed several movies, at least eight productions by the Negro Ensemble Company and a one-man show on black poetry titled "The Square Root of Soul" that he performed here in 1976.

Deep, penetrating, powerful and mellifluous, ranging easily between baritone and bass, Mr. Caesar's voice was also particularly well known for the reminder given on radio and television in behalf of the United Negro College Fund: "A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste."

At the age of 12, he once said, while growing up in Harlem, he contracted laryngitis. When the youngster, who from an early age was set on an acting career, recovered his voice, he said, "it had practically hit the basement."

As a teenager, he recalled, "girls didn't want to see me . . . they just wanted to call up and hear my voice."

After five years in the Navy, he studied drama at New York University, graduating in 1962. Following further speech training, he spent a season at the Oregon Shakespeare festival. Subsequently, he returned to New York, and also acted elsewhere in regional theater.

Survivors include his wife, three children and a brother.