Like an accomplished character actor, Philip C. Habib, the self-effacing retired diplomat who painstakingly negotiated the agreement for evacuating Israeli-surrounded Palestinian guerrillas from West Beirut, has never achieved the diplomatic star status of a Henry A. Kissinger.

But his name and face have become familiar through his roles over the years in many of this country's most difficult and complex crisis negotiations.

He was first seen on the international stage in the late 1960s, when he was one of the grim-faced diplomats hurrying through Paris to meetings with the North Vietnamese.

While the frustrating attempt to persuade the North Vietnamese and Vietcong to enter into "serious discussions" defied the efforts of Habib, who headed the American delegation to the Paris talks from November, 1969, to July, 1970, friends say the career envoy never lost either his sense of humor or his faith in the negotiating process.

Since President Reagan called him out of retirement 15 months ago to mediate in the Middle East, it has sometimes seemed as though the son of a Lebanese Maronite immigrant has brought a special intensity to the task of trying to bring peace to the land of his ancestors.

The house where his father and mother once lived still stands in the coastal city of Sidon, and in a conversation with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin during the early days of his peace mission, Habib inquired only half in jest: "Can I ask you not to bomb my parents' home?"

Though the 62-year-old career diplomat for the most part has masked his own feelings about the damage done to the country, in unguarded moments he has let his personal anguish show over what he has called "the shredding of Lebanon."

Inevitably, because of their roles in negotiations during the past decade between the warring factions in the Middle East, comparisons are drawn between the approach of Habib and Kissinger.

The most important point of similarity lies in their basic negotiating modus operandi: a sort of gregarious, free-form approach to the issues that sees both men skirt obvious sticking points while attempting to build a consensus that enhances the ultimate likelihood of success.

Both men also are short, rumpled Semites, quick with hugs and kisses that are part of diplomacy in the Middle East. Each has a good sense of humor, which aided them in building personal rapport with Arab and Israeli leaders.

Habib also has been accused in recent weeks of employing the Kissingerian tactic of leaving different impressions with different parties to his negotiations.

A month ago, when Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat signed a document outlining his agreement in principle to leave Lebanon, Habib added two conditions and passed them on to the Israelis without noting that Arafat had not suggested the entire package.

When the Israelis vetoed the two added points -- dealing with a residual military force and continued political presence for the PLO in Lebanon -- the Palestinians cried foul, complaining that the points were not in the original Arafat document. Only later did they realize that Habib was trying to extract from the Israelis two additional concessions.

But Habib and Kissinger have different public styles. Habib, after years of operating behind the scenes, avoids publicity, rarely says anything substantive for the record and has been described as "a leakless extrovert."

Kissinger savored his role as a public figure, and raised to a minor art his tactic of leaking to the press information designed to further his diplomatic efforts.

Kissinger shuttled from country to country with a retinue of reporters, State Department officials and Secret Service agents aboard a White House jetliner. Habib shares a small U.S. military aircraft with a couple of aides.

For the most part during the negotiations over Lebanon Habib has preferred to stay put in the U.S. Embassy residence in Yarzeh, letting Assistant Secretary of State Morris Draper make most of the trips to Jerusalem, Damascus and other Arab capitals.

At Yarzeh, from which he has had an eagle's view of the bombing and shelling of Beirut, Habib received a steady stream of visitors, including high-ranking Israelis. Because of his preference for letting them come to him, Palestinians have taken to calling Habib "the high commissioner."

The notion of their son as "high commissioner" of Lebanon would surely have amused grocer Alexander Habib and Mary Spiridon Habib, an immigrant couple who raised Philip in the predominantly Jewish Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn.

After being graduated from high school, Habib worked in a sheet-metal factory before enrolling at the University of Idaho. He rose to the rank of captain in the U.S. Army during World War II and later completed the course work for a doctorate in economics at the University of California at Berkeley before joining the State Dapartment in 1949.

While his colleagues say they feel Habib's Lebanese background has served him well in dealing with the high emotional temperature that runs through the Middle East, Habib purposely stayed away from the region for most of his 30-year State Department career.

Habib's first foreign posting was Ottawa. Then, after submitting his doctoral dissertation on the economics of the lumber industry and earning his Ph.D in 1952, Habib served as second secretary at the U.S. Embassy in New Zealand from 1952 to 1954. He then returned to the State Department as a research specialist, where he remained until he was named U.S. consul general in Trinidad in 1958.

In 1962, Habib was sent to South Korea as counselor for political affairs. He remained there for three years before being shifted to Saigon in 1965 to strengthen the U.S. diplomatic presence there. In 1966 he became Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge's chief political adviser, and was promoted to the rank of minister. Soon recognized as the most knowledgeable Southeast Asian expert in the State Department, Habib was recalled to Washington and promoted to deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs.

When President Johnson decided, in part on the basis of position papers prepared by Habib, to enter into negotiations with the North Vietnamese in 1968, Habib was a natural choice for the team dispatched to Paris.

Working first under W. Averell Harriman and Cyrus R. Vance, and later under Henry Cabot Lodge and Lawrence E. Walsh, the indefatigable Habib was at the center of the Paris negotiations. After Lodge and Walsh resigned in November, 1969, President Nixon named Habib the acting head of the delegation. After Paris, Habib was nominated in 1971 as ambassador to South Korea, a post he held until 1974 when he was named assistant secretary of state for East Asia and Pacific affairs.

In May, 1976, President Ford made him undersecretary of state for political affairs, the department's top career position. When President Carter took office Habib turned his full efforts for the first time to the Middle East.

During 1977 Habib played a major role in arranging the Camp David summit that saw Carter bring Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Begin together to talk peace.

But, in early 1978, the workaholic Habib suffered a massive heart attack, one of several he has had, and retired.

He was recalled to service by Vance, however, for several missions, and then, in the spring of 1981, Reagan asked him to undertake what became an almost constant series of mediation efforts in the Middle East.

Trying to find common ground among the quarreling parties to that conflict has been enough at times to bring even Habib to the brink of despair. During one moment of frustration a year ago, he dourly remarked, "I am probably the most hated American around."

There may have been moments in the past 15 months when that was true. But if the agreement he has crafted holds and peace ultimately is restored to the land of his ancestors, Philip Habib is likely to be remembered fondly in Lebanon.