Known for his activism - and films like "The Candidate" and "All the President's Men" - Robert Redford is about to star in what casting materials call "a modern-day romantic fairy tale comedy" about . . . the U.S. presidency.

Part of a rush to escapist fare in troubled times?Not at all, Redford relays through a publicist. While "The President Elopes" is a romantic comedy, he explains, "it deals with important and serious issues" and is not "an attack on the presidency."

The storyline has Redford as a White House widower who finds he's lost touch with his young son, as well as "the people." He ultimately hits the road, incognito, and makes some surprising discoveries with the help of a gutsy, outspoken young woman.

Fred Schepisi will direct for Universal, tentatively in April, on locations in Washington and the Midwest. Redford, a co-producer, became involved with the project four years ago. To date, several writers have made contributions.

Redford believes it's premature to say much about the picture, because there's no final script and no other stars signed.

"One fact you can be sure of is that we will not trivialize the presidency," he says. "We are too sensitive to that. It is too important." -PAT H. BROESKE

- `Sammy' loses lumet:

HOLLYWOOD - Scot director Michael Caton-Jones ("Memphis Belle," "Scandal") has replaced Sidney Lumet on "What Makes Sammy Run?"

Budd Schulberg's novel of Hollywood ambition, published 50 years ago and hibernating as a movie project since, has been in development at Warner Bros. for over a year under producer Gene Kirkwood.

Kirkwood does not ascribe Lumet's departure from "Sammy" to the poor box-office performance of his last two Warners pictures, "Q&A" and "Family Business."

"Things change," Kirkwood said. "First Sidney let another film project take precedence, and he's a New Yorker. He never came out here and fought for the picture." - RAY LOYND

- Goodbye, Vietnam

HOLLYWOOD - Do TV viewers want to watch feature films about the war America "lost," while real battles rage in the Persian Gulf? The networks seem to think not.

NBC has pushed back the air date of "Good Morning, Vietnam," the irreverent 1987 comedy that stars Robin Williams, from Feb. 3 to Feb. 24.

"But that's a tentative date," stresses a network spokeswoman. "Because of the war in the Middle East, we feel it's inappropriate to air (the movie). We'll continue to monitor events in the gulf during the next two weeks, and at that time we'll take another look."

CBS, meanwhile, has yet to schedule "Born on the Fourth of July," director Oliver Stone's biopic about Vietnam veteran, anti-war activist Ron Kovic, played by Tom Cruise. The network purchased the film last year prior to its sale to cable channels.

Susan Tick, CBS publicity executive, says the network "looks forward" to airing the film - at a later date.

"I'm sure that the war will play into the decision, clearly," she adds. -PAT H. BROESKE

- Oscar watch: Elizondo wants an `A'

HOLLYWOOD - He's been a working actor for more than 30 years. "But people still don't get my name right," Hector Elizondo says. "They think they saw me in something, but they're not sure what."

So he's taken out half a dozen full-page ads - three each in the two Hollywood trade papers - to remind Oscar voters of his performance as the helpful hotel manager in "Pretty Woman," supplementing additional ads paid for by Walt Disney Studios.

Elizondo admits he's "riding a dark horse" but thinks a nomination "wakes people up. . . . I'd like a chance at the A-roles instead of the roles other actors have turned down. I've been around a long time. I'm tired of being rediscovered every two years."

Known for immersing himself in ethnic roles, Elizondo now goes before the cameras as a Greek who owns the diner where Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer meet in Paramount's "Frankie and Johnny" - his seventh teaming with director Garry Marshall.

Oscar ballots were due by Feb. 1; nominations will be announced Feb. 13.

Along with the usual splashy trade ads, studios are vying for attention by sending out videocassettes of a number of titles. Disney has gone a step further, targeting special videocassettes to various voting groups such as art direction, cinematography and makeup, featuring appropriate clips from the studio's films.

As for those omnipresent trade ads: Per our count, "The Russia House" (MGM-Pathe) leads with 41 pages, followed by "Green Card" and "Dick Tracy" (both from Disney), with 35 and 34. "Avalon" (Tri-Star), "Awakenings" (Columbia) and "Edward Scissorhands" (Fox) follow with 30 each. - PAT H. BROESKE

- Cinefile:

HOLLYWOOD - Kathleen Turner will star in A&M Films' family drama "House of Cards," due to start filming April 1 in North Carolina. The film will be directed by Michael Glattes and produced by Dale Pollock, Lianne Halfon and Wolfgang Glattes.

Roy Scheider and Sab Shimono head the cast of "Bar Sinister," a fantasy-adventure that begins production in March in Malaysia, Thailand and London. Bar Sinister is a soldier-of-fortune comic-strip character. Joe Zito directs from a script by Flint Dille. Zito and Laurence Vanger produce for Eagle-Intermedia and Brault Holdings.

Tommy Davidson of Fox Broadcasting's "In Living Color" has been cast in his first feature, Island Pictures' "Go Beverly." Director Rolando Hudson begins shooting in mid-March in New York. David Kappas, Andre Harrell and Pamela Gibson produce a script written by Gibson and journalist Nelson George.

Bill Paxton will star in Brooksfilms-MGM-Pathe's "The Vagrant," in which he portrays a yuppie who buys a new house and is terrorized by a vagrant, Marshall Bell, who used to live there. Michael Ironside, Colleen Camp and Patrika Darbo also star for director Chris Walas and executive producer Mel Brooks. - Kirk Honeycutt

- Quibbles & bits:

- Scary thought: "The Night of the Hunter" (1955), which starred Robert Mitchum as a psycho preacher, is being remade for TV - with Richard Chamberlain starring.

- Correction: In last week's column, we stated that Orion Pictures would not be remunerating actor Rodney Grant beyond his expenses while he promotes "Dances With Wolves" overseas. Actually, London's Majestic Films, not Orion, handles foreign distribution.

- No awards for good taste: In trade paper ads, the Wyoming Film Office is using a vintage photograph of a grimacing man about to be hanged, and the sales pitch, "Just tell us what you need, and watch us execute."

- `Robin Hood' trailer gives audience the shaft:

HOLLYWOOD - Filming a speeding arrow - from the arrow's point of view - for Warner Bros.' "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" teaser trailer was no flight of fancy.

It took unusual footage shot in an English forest, combined with special effects involving an eight-foot arrow, to give audiences their exhilarating ride with the feathered shaft as it flies to its target - splitting another arrow.

The trailer is now in theaters, well ahead of the summer release of the Morgan Creek film, which stars Kevin Costner as the legendary outlaw of Sherwood Forest. While the footage will also be used in the TV campaign, says Joel Wayne, Warner Bros. senior advertising vice president, it may or may not end up in the film itself.

Tony Seiniger, the ad executive who directed the trailer, utilized a camera traveling along 300 feet of dolly track covered with leaves straight to a stately beech tree. The camera was "undercranked" at one frame per second - rather than the customary 24 frames - and the footage then projected at the normal 24 frames, creating the illusion of flying.

Special-effects director Michael Bigelow then constructed an 8-foot arrow here, as well as a huge prosthetic hand to draw the arrow back. The objects were filmed frame by frame on a motion-control rig and the footage optically joined to the forest footage, to create the illusion of an arrow in flight.

If the sequence seems reminiscent of a tree-dodging chase in "Return of the Jedi," it should.

"That's what inspired us," Seiniger said. - JOHN M. WILSON

- The movie chart:

Films going into production:

FRANKIE AND JOHNNY (Paramount). Shooting in Los Angeles. Garry Marshall directs Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer in the filmed version of Terrence McNally's acclaimed two-actor play, "Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune." Pacino plays a cook who meets Pfeiffer, a waitress, and the two have a furious love affair. McNally adapts his play. Executive producer Alex Rose. Producer Chuck Mulvehill. Summer release.

FREE-JACK (Free-Jack Productions). Shooting in Atlanta and New York. Action-adventure with Emilio Estevez as a young race car driver who is plucked from the clutches of death, dropped 20 years into the future and finds himself a pawn in a bizarre plot. Executive producers James G. Robinson, David Nicksay and Gary Barber. Producers Stuart Oken and Ronald Shusett. Director Geoff Murphy ("Young Guns II"). Screenwriters Shusett, Steve Pressfield and Dan Gilroy. Distributor Warner Bros.

THE MRS. (Aysgarth Productions). Shooting in Toronto and New York. Goldie Hawn and John Heard star in a thriller about a woman who's disturbed to learn that her murdered husband wasn't who she thought he was. Executive producer Anthea Sylbert. Producer Michael Finnell, Wendy Dozoretz and Ellen Collett. Director Damian Harris. Screenwriter Mary Agnes Donoghue. Distributor Buena Vista.

NAKED LUNCH (Naked Lunch Productions). Shooting in Toronto and Tangier. William Burroughs' '50s narcotic-induced surrealistic and apocalyptic stream-of-unconsciousness novel comes to the screen directed by David Cronenberg. Cronenberg also adapts Burroughs' work. His cast includes Peter Weller, Judy Davis, Ian Holm, Julian Sands and Roy Scheider. Producer Jeremy Thomas.

TOKYO DIAMOND (Universal). Shooting in Tokyo and Los Angeles. Tom Selleck stars as a big league ballplayer who travels to Japan when his playing days here near an end. Once there, he becomes lucky at the plate and lucky in love. Executive producer Jeffrey Silver. Producers Robert Newmeyer and John Kao. Director Peter Markle. Screenwriters Monte Merrick and Gary Ross. Summer release.