Two years ago I played the role of Soviet human rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Andrei Sakharov. Glenda Jackson played the role of his wife, Dr. Yelena Bonner. We strained desperately to convey the feeling, the reality, the truth of the Sakharovs' experience as human rights activists and as political prisoners isolated in the closed and cold city of Gorky.

Through the whole process of studying for the part we felt an odd sort of detachment from the experience of Sakharov and Bonner, yet we pushed on.

Last week I was in Washington for the Helen Hayes Awards, special recognition of theater talent in the Washington area. During rehearsal on the afternoon of the awards, I learned that Dr. Bonner herself was in town for a meeting of the National Academy of Sciences and wanted to meet me. I, of course, said yes. She was to come to the awards ceremony.

Dr. Bonner arrived late from a meeting of the National Academy, where her husband was honored. She looked remarkably well for a woman who a few months earlier had undergone complicated surgery. I felt distraught and helpless that soon she would be returning to the Soviet Union with no guarantee of ever seeing her family here again.

She described to me the experience of her cab ride from the academy to the National Theatre. "As we were driving by the White House I had a strange, uneasy phantasmagoric feeling. I have just been to the National Academy of Sciences representing my husband, who was honored there, and now I am on the way to see a man who played the role of my husband, and at the same time, in the back of my mind I am packing my bags to return to the Soviet Union in less than a month. I wonder why I am not crazy."

Academician Sakharov, wherever he is, will celebrate his 65th birthday on May 21. Members of Congress have asked the president to proclaim that a day in honor of Sakharov, to be marked by "appropriate ceremonies and activities." To me, such a celebration -- and it must be called a celebration, if we are to bring moral witness to Sakharov's great achievements -- will be in part bizarre and in part harsh, cruel and real.

From Sakharov's writings I have learned that he believes that the world can be preserved only with the coexistence of peace and the rights of the individual, essentially what we in the West and so many brave souls in many places the world over call human rights. One of Sakharov's greatest achievements was persuading the Soviet government to sign the 1963 Moscow Treaty, which banned nuclear weapons testing in the atmosphere, in outer space and under water.

While many refer to Sakharov as the father of the Soviet hydrogen bomb, we forget to mention his ideas and efforts on the use of energy for peaceful purposes. He undertook this important work before he became a dissident and a spokesman for human rights. His first serious nonscientific work that became known in the West was called "Thoughts on Progress, Peaceful Coexistence and Intellectual Freedom" (1968). By the time of his Nobel Peace Prize lecture, which his wife delivered in Oslo in 1972, his views on human rights were crystallized.

While we as Americans are going to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty, we should call to mind Thomas Paine's response to Thomas Jefferson. Said Jefferson: "Where freedom is, there is my country." Paine replied: "Where freedom is not, there is my country."

Any celebration of Dr. Andrei Sakharov's birthday is bound to give rise to our worst fears -- and our best hopes. But it must also be a time for us to commemorate with living testimony our greatest hero of the 20th century.