As it did to so many Americans, news came to the Coppola death watch via television.

ABC's Tim O'Brien, with carefully coifed hair and a blue, pin-striped suit, fielded a call from his office, raised his arm for silence, and announced to the shirt-sleeved reporters cluttering the tables of the Virginia State Penitentiary accounting office: "He's gonna hang! I gotta revise my piece. Anybody got a cigarette?"

The media scrambled.

It was 10:35 p.m. In Washington, lawyer Stephen Bright, a passenger in a car racing to the Supreme Court, was drafting yet another appeal for the life of Frank J. Coppola, the one-time seminary student and convicted murderer of a Newport News housewife who remained determined to die. Across the street from the Supreme Court, a small band of protesters carried signs opposing the planned execution. "Less Government Power, No Death Penalty," one read.

In his office in Richmond, Gov. Charles S. Robb ordered Coppola's electrocution to proceed. Attorney Russell F. Canan, who had fought Coppola's execution, also was in Richmond, in the 12th-floor law office where he had prepared legal briefs to save Coppola. From his window he could see the Virginia State Penitentiary, where Coppola was being brought to the electric chair. "Someone from the ACLU called and told me he had just been killed," Canan said.

At the penitentiary itself, and in the city streets beyond, the maneuvers of courts and government lay shrouded beneath the troubling, timeless spectacle of death-as-theater.

Camera lenses peered beyond the penitentiary's whitewashed facade to the barred floor-to-ceiling cellblock windows, where convicts strutted and whistled for TV. Candle-bearing protesters outside the gate sang hymns and prayed, while others in the crowd of about 100 yelled, "Fry him! Fry him!" A group of 11-year-old boys mingled in the crowd, "to see the lights dim when he gets it," as one explained.

"Are they gonna eat him after they cook him?" another asked.

Two hours earlier, a group of white-shirted penitentiary guards, alerted to a possible fence-scaling attempt in progress, had raced to the west wall, trailed by reporters and photographers, to find a CBS camera car parked on the sidewalk for a better shot. Across from the penitentiary entrance, in the press parking lot, a 40-foot transmission tower sprouted from the top of one Econoline van. In another, bearing souvenir decals from the Lake Placid winter Olympics, technicians erected microwave tripods to broadcast Coppola's death live on ABC's "Nightline" at 11:30 p.m.

Virginia penal officials, who worked calmly and professionally to contain and minimize the circus atmosphere, nonetheless appeared unsettled at times both by the execution they were carrying out and the spectacle it had prompted.

"We've gotten calls from as far away as Australia," said Wayne Farrar, information officer for the Virginia Division of Corrections. "They say 'Why are you killing this man? Why single him out?' And we say 'Because the courts told us to.' "

The Richmond public appeared less ambivalent. Tuesday night on Viewpoint, a local talk show on WRVA radio, a woman identifying herself as Coppola's sister-in-law pleaded that he be allowed to die, and urged opponents of capital punishment to remember the suffering of his victim's family.

Other calls over a two-day period had been weighted heavily in favor of capital punishment, including one from 78-year-old Jack Marcus, who said he had left his crime-ridden native city of Bronx, N.Y., for a safer home in Virginia ll years ago only to have his 29-year-old daughter Lois murdered in Richmond. Yesterday, Marcus said that Coppola's execution had "been like a personal victory for me. I've been fighting every goddam clergyman and politician on this issue since Aug. 19, 1974," the day of his daughter's death.

Jerry Lund, host of the Viewpoint program, said that the most remarkable thing about the calls from the public over the two-day period was the relative lack of passion in those opposing Coppola's execution.

"It appeared to be kind of an intellectual thing with them," he said. "They had been told by their pastor to oppose killing, or something like that. But those who favor the death penalty are really steamed up."

The Richmond Afro-American, which traditionally opposes capital punishment as discriminatory to blacks, took no editorial position on the Coppola execution. "It just sort of snuck up on us," said editorial writer John Templeton. "We may have something next week."