The marble floors outside Paul Newman's Fifth Avenue office look as slick and icy as a frozen pond. At the front entrance, a couple of doormen are pretty certain you're not supposed to be there. Pretty certain you're not supposed to be anywhere.

"What's your name again? I don't think he's here. Is he expecting you?"He's not there, in fact. Cold feet. Then a botched rescheduling.

Four hours and a couple hundred phone calls later, Newman is slapping his palms together, acting the genial host. "Hey, you haven't had lunch yet, have you?" he says, practically shouting. "I'm going to fix you the greatest, sexiest salad you've ever eaten."

Two minutes in the door and already a commercial.

"Sit down," he says, offering a seat next to him on the sofa. "You're in for a real treat." Posters of his movies - many of them from the nine films he's made with his wife of 33 years, Joanne Woodward - punctuate the walls: "A New Kind of Love," "The Long Hot Summer," "Rally 'Round the Flag, Boys!" On the other side of the room is a pool table covered with what looks like a Navajo weaving, something very Santa Fe.

An assistant brings in the salads. And a big carafe of . . . salad dressing. Newman's Own Salad Dressing.

He wants to know what's up. "Don't turn that thing on yet," he says, pointing to the tape recorder. Stretching out in his tan corduroys and sweat shirt, he starts firing questions, none of which has anything to do with acting or with "Mr. and Mrs. Bridge," his new film with Woodward. What, he wants to know, is the mood in Washington? What kind of shape are the Democrats in? What's going to happen with the war?

There's an edginess to his questions, as if he's determined to keep from talking about himself. Slip a personal question in and he dodges it, moving on, dancing away. He says nothing interests him less than rehashing his own life. His memory of his own movies is vague at best.

An hour later, he still hasn't allowed the tape recorder to be turned on.

The fact is, he's in a bad way. When he finally talks about his business, it's with the exasperated air of a man who's fed up, who's seen the glory days come and go, and who's struggling to find a reason to keep fighting the fight.

The vibrancy and sense of moment has gone out of the business, he says. Maybe out of everything. At 66, there's exhaustion in his voice. Talking to him is a long slide into the abyss - it's all darkness. Darkness about the movies. Darkness about the culture. Darkness about his own place in either.

It wasn't always thus. He remembers getting hooked on theater at Kenyon College in Ohio, graduating in 1949 at 2 o'clock and hopping a train for summer stock in Wisconsin at 3. He had been sort of a big deal on campus, acting, directing, even writing musicals. He also ran a laundry service - "Newman's Own Laundry," he jokes - that made him a mini-mogul. "I always had a talent for business," he says. "I just never pursued it."

He remembers the thrill of first coming to New York. "It was a vibrant time for people to be involved," he says. "There was the tradition of the Group Theater, of the kitchen drama, naturalist theater, the whole influence of Freud and the whole coming out of the oratorical school of acting. The theater was bustling. Live television was just coming out. And people aspired to do good things on film. There was an audience for films of consequence. And it was fun." He remembers when it was fun making movies too.

- The Career:

Newman's career is a distinguished one, but he's practically allergic to viewing it that way. Though he studied at Yale, has been a regular fixture at the Actors Studio and prepares with what he's described as a "bulldog tenacity," he dismisses his accomplishments with a cruel sort of self-criticism, stating without equivocation that his success has been the byproduct of luck. "Didn't have much to do with me," he says. "Just being in the right place at the right time."

He says he never had a great compulsion to be an actor. "I'm basically an irresponsible person, and I wanted to find a way of life that allowed me to continue in my irresponsibility. If you're lucky enough to do that, there's a kind of genius in it. If you fail, of course, it's disastrous. I've been lucky, but now it looks like some kind of grand design."

His dream, he says, was to have been an athlete, but a junior-year bar brawl that landed him jail got him kicked off the football team, ending his college career. Plus, he says, he didn't have much of a talent for it. Didn't have much of a talent for anything, in fact, which is why he took up acting.

"It's the thing I did best," he says, "which isn't to say that I did it well or thought I did it well. I just couldn't do anything better."

With Newman, everything's an accident.