It's said that when a redhaired young hellion named Jimmy Cagney hauled off and slammed half a grapefruit into the face of a lovely young thing, movie audiences of the early 1930s shrieked with delight. Enter the age of the Tough Guy.

Cagney's success, if that word can be applied to such an act, spawned a series of imitators. All played sneering, snarling, hardboiled types. Edward G. Robinson, Bogart and the rest were part of a process that continues to this day -- the glorification of the gangster. In that, those early actors mirrored the romanticized exploits of hoodlums with fetching nicknames -- Scarface Al, Lucky, Dutch -- portrayed in papers and magazines of the day. Hollywood only made them seem even more glamorous and larger than life.

Perhaps that romantic aura accounts for the behavior of Frank Perdue, the self-professed "tough man" who makes "tender chickens." Perhaps as a child he spent too many hours in movie theaters fantasizing over swaggering gangster/mafioso characters.

But how can there be other perhapses when Perdue's words brand his business dealings with mobsters for what they clearly are -- a classic delineation of the anything-goes, all-for-a-profit mentality that pervades certain levels of American business?

The presidential commission on organized crime details the Perdue story in terms that cannot be misunderstood.

First, it describes how Perdue came to sell his chickens to a poultry firm identified by the commission as controlled by organized-crime figures. His reluctance to do business vanished when he realized that competitors were profiting by dealing with them. As Perdue put it, in a commission deposition: " . . . I started saying to myself, why shouldn't I have some of that business that other people have . . . . They're selling it. Why shouldn't I sell [to] them?"

The next step was to seek out the help of a Mafia godfather type, whose sons ran the family poultry business. Thus, his meeting with Paul Castellano Sr., shot and killed three months ago in a gangland slaying in midtown Manhattan. Perdue asked Castellano's help in resolving a union problem and, according to his testimony, Perdue knew exactly with whom he was dealing, and why.

Q: Why did you go to Paul Castellano Sr.?

A: I don't know. I just thought -- you know, they have long tentacles, shall we say, and I figured he may be able to help.

Q: When you say they have long tentacles, as an organized-crime figure?

A: Yeah. Mafia and the mob.

Were this an isolated case, it would be of no national significance. The commission makes clear that this was not an aberration but part of a pattern: "Perdue is hardly unique in his willingness to do business with a company in a legitimate industry, even when a person controlling that company has a reputation in that industry for significant criminal activity."

This case therefore raises anew an old concern: the state of business ethics.

American business has traveled light years from the lack of social consciousness that characterized the Robber Baron, laissez-faire, let-'er-rip, survival-of-the-fittest days of decades ago. It and the country are infinitely better off because of the far greater degree of enlightenment collectively practiced. In the area of organized crime, however, as the Perdue episode shows, old problems and practices remain.

The vast majority of the nation's Fortune 500 corporations have written codes of ethics. But these, as the commission notes, "fail to focus on the influence of organized crime in the marketplace." By far the greatest number deal with white-collar crimes against the corporation. Some address bribe offers to corporate employes. Only 7 percent emphasize a need to protect corporate reputations.

Combatting organized crime requires something far more difficult than compelling citizens to take drug tests or appointing commissions to document business and/or union dealings with mobsters. The real problem involves attitudes. What the Perdue case exposes is that human avarice, the compulsion to make an extra buck no matter who gets crushed, remains one of the greatest obstacles to eliminating organized crime.

The immediate reaction to stories about a Perdue-Mafia connection was withdrawal of radio commercials touting his tender chickens. In the commercials, Perdue was heard rendering the famous old gangster-movie lines, "You dirty rat. You shot my brother." From -- you got it -- Jimmy Cagney, the original Tough Guy.