When he was riding high, Mike Thevis liked to boast that he was an American success story.

The son of poor Greek immigrant parents, Thevis, through sweat and determination, parlayed a small downtown newsstand into a $100 million, coast-to-coast empire.

But Michael George Thevis was Horatio Alger with a difference: his empire was based on pornography, and his competitive methods included, according to law enforcement authorities, arson, extortion and murder.

Thevis owned X-rated theaters and adult bookstores stretching from Florida to Alaska. But his biggest money-maker was the automated peepshow, where, for 25 cents, the lonely or the curious could lock themselves into stuffy little rooms that smelled of disinfectant and order up two minutes of celluloid sex.

It was about 1969 that Thevis, who was already doing handsomely selling sexually explicit books and magazines, envisioned the enormous money-making potential of such machines, and adapted them from their original design - thrilling children with Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck - and began leasing them to adult bookstores all over America.

Authorities estimate that he once controlled 40 percent of the American pornography market.

"I was the GM of pornography," he once boasted to a Louisville jury.

Publicly, Thevis contends that his is a heart warming sucess story.

"Supposedly," Thevis once said, "this is the only country where somebody can work hard and make something for himself."

But the government has been trying to prove otherwise, that Thevis built his conglomerate not only on peepshows, hard-core sex films and publications like "Beat Me Baby," "Violent Vixens" and "Dirty Sex Dreams of Uptight Men," but through a pattern of racketeering, murder, extortion, arson and other crimes.

In fact, for the past six months he had been a man on the run. He had been serving 8 1/2 years for interstate transportation of obscene materials and conspiracy to commit arson, when he walked out of a tiny New Albany, Ind., county jail April 28, and disappeared.

It was not until Thursday, when he walked into a Connecticut bank to try to withdraw a bundle of cash from an account he had opened under an alias, that he surfaced again.There a skeptical banker called police, and Thevis was arrested.

Government prosecutors say he escaped because he feared an imminent 14-count federal racketeering indictment and a separate state murder charge that be cold-bloodedly shot a competitor and stuffed his body in the trunk of a Cadillac.

For years, Thevis enjoyed a mild reputation hereabouts as a free-thinking businessman who drew attention and harassment for simply butting up hard against the First Amendment. In fact, his first publishing venture, a book called "The Godless Christian," written by an Emory University professor, involved not sex but religion.

Born Feb. 25, 1932, in Raleigh, N.C., and raised by Greek imigrant grandparents, Thevis was fed heavy doses of Greek Orthodoxy, and, in, later years, toyed with the idea of becoming a priest. At 17 he dropped out of high school, and in 1951, wound his way, on the back of a pickup truck to Atlanta. Here, a finished high school, enrolled at Georgia Tech and dropped out to manage a downtown newsstand.

He bragged to passing policemen that he would be somebody one day.

The famous Thevis ego was blooming.

"There are other people in the country as big in pornography as he is," a high Thevis associate once said. "But nobody's heard of him because they don't go around telling everyone how big they are."

At 19, he married, the union lasting 25 years, and fathered five children. His business expanded to include a shoeshine shop and a string of newsstands.

Reflecting that 90 percent of his profits were coming from 10 percent of his stock - "girlie magazines" - he moved on from selling playboy, Dude and Gent to opening book stores all across America. He reportedly advised prospective managers that they would be arrested. But he also is said to have told them not to worry; it just meant free publicity, and "Mr. T," as he is fondly remembered by employes, could afford to pay for the lawyers.

He was a blue-collar Gatsby, never bashful about his nearly 100 arrests for distribution of pornography, and he was a benevolent employer, say a number of his former staff, even though he insisted they submit to lie-detector tests.

He frowned on intraoffice affairs, and banned Playboy from his $3 million mansion in exclusive northwest Atlanta because he didn't want the children to read it. The ex-wife lives there now with the children, amid the private screening room, swimming pool, Chinese antiques and French porvincial furniture. The empire still generates enough to cover a $12,000 a month divorce settlement.

Thevis was always a mere of contradictions. He loved the power and money pornography provided, but he hungered likewise for acceptance in the regular business community, using his millions in an attempt to buy respectability.

"I could be this city's best goodwill ambassador if they only knew it," he said in 1972, when he launched a public relations campaign to polish his image. He told reporters that he was getting out of pornography, and began pumping millions into trucking, real estate and building a recording studio, where he planned to produce rock music.

But his stars flopped. He tried his hand at other than x-rated films with the likes of Leslie Uggams and Shelley Winters. The movies were not a success.

He offered his mansion to the city as a school for gifted children. Atlanta turned him down. So Thevis went to Los Angeles, where Mayor Sam Yorty awarded him a plaque for his contributions to the arts.

He reportedly remained bitter that banks refused him loans, so he paid cash for everything, the quarters rolling in from an estimated 4,000 peep show machines he had salted around the country.

But signs were not auspicious and a 1973 motorcycle crash crippled him. In 1974, a federal appeals court, reviewing his conviction on obscenity and conspiracy to commit arson, dashed his dreams for respectability and ordered him to jail.

In prison, Thevis appealed to his congressman, Andrew Young, for help in seeking medical treatment, and Young's staff responded by helping arrange his transfer to the federal medical facility in Springfield, Mo.

In February 1977, after Young was sworn in as U.N. ambassador but while his congressional staff was still providing services to 5th District constitutes here, Young did appeal to prison authorities on U.N. stationery, supporting Thevis' plea for medical leave.

Two widely circulated letters from Young urged "humane and just" treatment for the convicted pornographer, but an FBI inquiry failed to unearth any wrongdoing.

At one time, Mike Thevis was the closest thing Atlanta had to Larry Flynt; but, as the indictments were handed down, he seemed more like a godfather.

After the recent ambush-murder here of key government witness Roger Dean Underhill, 50, a former Thevis aide who helped the pornographer make his peepshow machines theftproof and efficient, the search for the fugitive intensified. "This is made for television," said one assistant U.S. attorney here.

The manhunt had developed into something of a grudge match, for the government had worked hard at converting Underhill, a tough, balding ex-con. In fact, his testimony was days away from being preserved on video-tape, when a shotgun caught him square in the face on the riverfront property he hoped to use to deal himself a new life.

His companion, Isaac Galanti, an Atlanta grocer who dabbled in real estate and was along to inspect the property, was also killed. "It was a clean professional hit," according to police, and the Underhill killing has thrown a major kink in the government's case against Thevis.

It has also had a chilling effect on other potential witnesses, and the FBI has become increasingly concerned for their safety. One potential witness, in fact, phoned The Atlanta Constitution last week and pleaded, "Get a message to Mike. I want Mike to accept my apology. Tell Mike, 'Leave me alone. Forget it. I'll leave you alone. I don't want to be like Roger.'"

Just before his escape, a Louisville jury had ordered the ever optimistic Thevis to pay $667,000 in damages to a former peepshow competitor and several insurance companies, in connection with a fire at the competitor's warehouse.

It was a historic settlement, the first time an insurance company had been awarded punitive damages in such a case. And Roger Dean Underhill, a witness defense lawyers maintained no one would believe, the figured heavily in the verdict against his former boss.

Thevis didn't like jail one bit, and, in his usually brash style said, just before going to prison. "If I possibly could - if I had a million dollars and it would get me out of of prison - you can bet I would [use them]."

Before a judge ordered him silent, Edward T. Garland, 38, Patricia McClean, a young woman charged with aiding his escape, described his client as "a forlorn ex-girlfriend abandoned and left to her own devices."

Garland not only represents McClean, but the spaghetti tangle of corporations Thevis sold to a former bookkeeper, a $16 million transaction the government maintains is a sham.

The Internal Revenue Service has levied an $11 million jeopardy assessment on the companies, and Thevis is threatened with losing everything, should the government win its racketeering case.

Earlier this week police raided a downtown warehouse that once served as Thevis' headquarters. They were looking for evidence in the Underhill killing. Garland was seen walking from the warehouse to his white Mercedes 450-SL with his retainer - a bulging shopping bag full of $50 and $20 bills.

Now more than ever, the empire Mike Thevis spawned, and the creator himself, need the best lawyers money can buy.