Director and writer Elia Kazan

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Yellow bars of light filter through mahogany shutters as Elia Kazan leads the way into his Manhattan study. He sits obscured in darkness, his back almost to the camera, as the interview begins. He is badly lit, a flaw this famous director would not tolerate if the hero of this particular scene were anyone but himself.

But Kazan is about to be forced into the klieg lights as star of his own life , a life dedicated to directing. He has been selected as one of the honorees of the Kennedy Center Honors of 1983. The Kennedy Center Honors, the American cultural equivalent of being knighted, are awarded for a lifetime contribution to the performing arts. This year the honorees, in addition to Kazan, include dancer-choreographer Katherine Dunham, singer-actor Frank Sinatra, actor James Stewart, and composer-critic Virgil Thomson.

Flashing up on the screen at Kennedy Center the night of Dec. 4 will be a montage of clips from some of the films Kazan has directed with such brilliance: ''On the Waterfront,'' ''Splendor in the Grass,'' ''East of Eden,'' ''A Face in the Crowd,'' ''A Streetcar Named Desire.'' There will also be scenes from some of his plays: Arthur Miller's ''Death of a Salesman'' and ''A View from the Bridge,'' Tennessee Williams's ''Streetcar'' and ''Sweet Bird of Youth,'' Robert Anderson's ''Tea and Sympathy.''

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Kazan may watch, bemused, because the spotlight of his mind is focused not on the past but on the now. For this is the night his new play, ''The Chain,'' closes its Stamford, Conn., run before going on to Broadway. It is a measure of his restless genius as an artist that at an age when most men would be basking in a famous past he is sprinting into a new career as playwright.

For Kazan has not only directed but also written ''The Chain,'' which deals with a cast rehearsing an eccentric director's play adapted from ''the Orestia, '' but using it as a springboard for their own conversations. During our interview Kazan mutters darkly about any possibility of the play's going to Broadway. But later his longtime friend Cheryl Crawford, the producer, says this will be the fifth production they've done together and she fully intends to open it on Broadway after Christmas. The play, she says, is ''most extraordinary,'' and she has high hopes for it.

Kazan himself admits that ''I don't want a lot of publicity - the old man coming back to the theater, and all that, and then the play's terrible. I'd just as soon open it quietly.''

When the top shutters in his bay window have been opened a crack, the honoree sits slightly more revealed but still in profile. But we are almost through the first reel of our interview before he relaxes and turns toward the light, allowing the camera to intrude on his face and thoughts. It is a strong face that might have been quarried from the unrelenting rock of a difficult life. Rough-hewn and dramatic in profile, it is dominated full face by a forceful, jutting nose above a wide, expressive mouth.

Below a cliff of forehead grow thick black eyebrows brambled with gray, shading lively eyes of a dark brown sparked with amber. When he turns those headlights on you, you feel as though you're in freeze-frame. His silver hair has a crisp look.

Even when he's sitting in a chair, as he is now, he seems to seethe with energy. There is a bouncy, irrepressible, cocky quality about the way he tussles with life, even now, after four careers (actor, director, novelist, playwright), three wives, 26 plays, 22 films, two Oscars, a series of Tonys, Drama Critics Awards, and the co-founding of the Actors Studio.

He is dressed simply: a black turtleneck sweater, blue jeans, and sneakers. All through the interview he clasps and unclasps a small blue-handled gadget. He is wiry, short, and lithe; his friends point out that Kazan stays in shape. But it can be taken metaphorically, too. He is currently working out, not just on his new play, but on a new novel, a sequel to the best seller ''The Anatolian ,'' to be titled ''Beyond the Aegean.''

To understand Elia Kazan you must read his novels, particularly those rooted in his Greek heritage: ''America, America'' and ''The Anatolian,'' the first two books in his trilogy on the immigrant experience. Their hero is Stavros Topouzoglou, a young Greek born in the Asian section of Turkey known as Anatolia. Stavros wrenches out a new life in America for his family, away from the poverty and repression of his homeland.

Kazan himself was born in Constantinople, Turkey, to Greek parents named Kazanjoglous. His father, a rug merchant, brought the family to America when Elia was 4. In his autobiographical family novel, ''America, America,'' Kazan writes in a style as lucid, sharp, and beautiful as the ice Stavros cuts from Mt. Aergius to sell. Twenty years later, when Kazan wrote his best-selling sequel, ''The Anatolian,'' his style had become much more complex and visceral.

Stavros too, had changed: from a Greek Candide to a tough, driven, rapacious rug dealer who takes the American name Joe Arness in his scramble to the top. The simplicity of the first book springs from the fact that he wrote it first as a screenplay, says Kazan, who later directed the film. Then he wrote three or four novels, he says, determined to learn the trade.

''America, America'' was originally written as a screenplay, like ''Beyond the Aegean,'' then rewritten as a novel. Today, Kazan wants to make only films based on his own books, to do it his way. After two of his autobiographical films were financial failures, he resented having ''to beg for money. I'd had a couple of Academy Awards, and to say, 'Please give me the money,' or 'I'll do better next time' - I couldn't stomach that.'' But isn't Kazan, who has made some great films, depriving moviegoers by refusing to direct anyone else's films? ''I'm depriving you of films? Go over to the bookstore and buy my books.'' Read your own movies in my books, he suggests, until they can be filmed , ''and don't break my heart.'' He pauses, thinks for a minute about hot Hollywood directors like George (''Star Wars'') Lucas and Steven (''E.T.'') Spielberg, whom he considers very talented, but he shakes his head over the subjects of their films. ''Why should I be interested in the subjects? I'm not a broad-jumper, either, I'm not a pole-vaulter. As I get older, I only make what I want. And I think that's my integrity, too. I don't do anything someone else wants. I can't be bought. No one can hire me. I have just enough money to live as I want. I own this house. I sit here. I'm happy. And now someone has honored me, I'm glad to accept the honor, I bow from the waist, say thank you to Mr. Reagan when he puts it (the award) around my neck, and go home.''

Kazan has homes in Connecticut and New York. His Manhattan study is vivid, eclectic. It includes a rose and blue Hamedan Persian carpet that belonged to his mother, a mauve crushed-velvet antique couch, an exercise machine, family portraits over the marble and mahogany fireplace, half a cord of firewood in front of wall-to-wall bookcases, a big cluttered desk topped with a brass incense censer from Egypt.

Kazan as a child lived first in a Greek community, then moved to New Rochelle , N.Y., when his Oriental-rug-peddling father began to prosper. By the time he was ready to go to Williams College, Kazan's only ambition was ''to stay out of my father's business.''

At Williams, Kazan found himself lonely and isolated, an immigrant working as a waiter in a gentleman's club of a college, dishing up steak and French fries at a fraternity. But he graduated cum laude in English, then sailed on to the Yale Drama School.

His lifelong friend Robert Lewis (one of the founders of the Actors Studio with Kazan and Cheryl Crawford) remembers him first as an actor in the '30s in the Group Theater.

''Gadget (Kazan's nickname) was born a character actor, but we didn't realize his power as an actor in the beginning; he was giggly, shy, and he'd break up a lot.'' But he shot to stardom with the part of the taxi driver in Clifford Odets's ''Waiting for Lefty,'' Mr. Lewis says. ''He came onstage and tore the joint apart. He had such power. . . .''

Lewis, a director himself, says Kazan's special gift ''is clarity, clarity of the line of the play. He was able to take a script like Tennessee's (Williams) and others and even before they started rehearsing he was able to clarify the inner line of the play and so bring form to it.''

Another longtime friend and collaborator, writer Budd Schulberg, says Kazan's gift as a director is that ''he's magic with actors.'' Mr. Schulberg says actors trust Kazan like a father and will take risks in reaching for a performance that they wouldn't with any other director. The team worked together on such distinguished films as ''On the Waterfront,'' ''Viva Zapata,'' and ''A Face in the Crowd.'' Schulberg is at present writing a sequel to ''A Face in the Crowd, '' a contemporary version of the pop culture hero-turned-political demagogue.

For a Wesleyan University retrospective of Kazan films, Schulberg once told this story: A tough hombre named Big Jeff Bess, a non-actor, was hired on location for ''Face'' in Piggott, Ark. The scene required Big Jeff to be so mad at star Andy Griffith that tears came to his eyes. After endless takes and no tears, Kazan suddenly stepped forward, slapped Big Jeff in the face, and yelled ''Roll 'em!'' It worked.

Again, to get what he wanted in a performance, the tough Kazan could be tender and nurturing with a young actor named Marlo Brando, who was having a ''terrible struggle'' with a role in ''Streetcar Named Desire,'' as producer Irene Mayer Selznick documents in her book ''A Private View.''

Kazan has a genius for directing films in which the performances take your breath away. He is like some legendary trapeze king whom the actors trust so completely they let go and soar in daring, wonderful new ways, knowing he will always be there to catch them. And he does: that poignant moment in ''On the Waterfront,'' when Brando gulps, ''I coulda been a contender,'' the searing father-son battles between Raymond Massey and James Dean in ''East of Eden,'' the sad, sweet lightning between Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood in ''Splendor in the Grass.'' His films have mingled a lyrical realism with a sharp social conscience, dealing with such subjects as union corruption (''On the Waterfront''), anti-Semitism (''Gentleman's Agreement''), racism (''Pinky''), and the environment (''Wild River,'' one of his favorite films).

Here's Kazan himself on the essence of film directing: ''You have to be the foreman of a construction gang. You're the man in charge of where the cranes are put and what the personnel is and who does what. At the same time you're a psychoanalyst, because you've got to deal with extremely volatile creatures, men and women who are very volatile. At the same time you've got to be a showman. You also have to be true to yourself, you have to not lie.''

As he talks, a soprano who lives across the street from his gray town house on Central Park West hits a particularly piercing note on her scales. Immediately he starts talking about women. He says he prefers strong, independent women: ''I've been married three times and all three wives are very strong people.'' (Writer Molly Day Thatcher and actress-director Barbara Loden, whose deaths left him twice widowed; his present wife is Frances Rudge, also a writer).

On the subject of the theater today he is less sanguine. ''At the moment the theater is in the hands of lawyers and accountants and real estate operators . . . so I think that's regrettable and too bad.''

He is just as candid about one of the most controversial episodes in his life , his testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee in which he admitted he had once belonged to the Communist Party and named others. ''I think of the choices I had, that was the right choice. I certainly wouldn't want to defend the secrecy of the Communists. . . . As a matter of fact, as the years pass, I've been rather pleased with myself for what I did.''

Elia Kazan is looking forward to what he calls ''the Kennedy Center shindig'' (to be broadcast by CBS on Dec. 27). ''It's flattering,'' he admits, ''but the main thing is, I'm glad the federal government is recognizing artists who have given really all their lives to doing something in the arts, to making our scene better.''

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