Listen to your television at night, and there is James Earl Jones. His voice, that is. Over the years, Jones' throaty grumble has pushed tires, gasoline and food chains. Now, he's in front of the cameras in the flesh, in the acclaimed ABC series "Gabriel's Fire."

Jones' past five years have been extremely successful: He starred in "Field of Dreams" and "The Hunt For Red October," and won a Tony award for his role as the gruff patriarch in the Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway hit "Fences." Strangely, Jones may be best known for a role he didn't act but talked: Darth Vadar in the "Star Wars" trilogy. Jones' public image is of a stern, eyebrows-knitted, serious guy. Actually, he's a pussycat, with a great sense of humor and an endearing fascination with the mechanics of a toilet.Q. You are often called the best actor of your generation. Who is your favorite actor?

A. I don't know how to judge that. You can compare things, but not people. Man is not finite. . . . But I do admire Marlon Brando. He's one of the best. An actor's job is to try and establish some kind of parallel experience between the character and themselves, and Marlon has certainly created these experiences. (Laughs) And I like him because he's a weighty person, like myself.

Q. How much do you think Marlon weighs these days?

A. Hmmm . . . I don't treat the topic of weight frivolously. Those who tend to put on weight do it because they don't give a ----, like myself. (Laughs) But saying THAT is unheard of in Hollywood. I mean, I've had people walk up and instead of shaking my hand, they pat my belly.

Q. No way . . .

A. Yes! True! And I feel like kicking them when they do that.

Q. What's your favorite thing to eat?

A. Well, I'm a Capricorn like Benjamin Franklin. In "Poor Richard's Almanac," he wrote that his poor mother never got the satisfaction of seeing how much he enjoyed a meal, because he never knew what he was eating - he ate everything in sight. I'm that way . . .

Q. When you do the role in the screen version of "Fences" . . .

A. (Interrupts) I don't know if I'll get the role. It doesn't always work that way. I lucked out with the film version of "The Great White Hope," but that was just an accident.

Q. Well, if you lost the part, what would you do?

A. I don't have the part, so nothing would be lost. I would have had the glory of playing the part on Broadway, so I figure I've already eaten at the feast.

Q. Your voice is deep and scary. Does it ever frighten little children away?

A. No, but my voice is so low that dogs are terrified of me. I had a Great Dane once who just would not respond to my voice. I'd speak to her and she'd run off into the woods.

Q. Who do you dress up as at Halloween?

A. I tend not to go out. But I've been tempted to dress up as Darth Vadar. I once used Darth Vadar as my CB handle, but it freaked people out. They were scared. So I stopped.

Q. Which do you prefer - Wheat Thins or Triscuits?

A. Wheat Thins seem to be easier to come by, so I guess I prefer those. Grocery clerks always know where to find them, you know? They have more salt, and I know I'm supposed to avoid that, but I like them anyway.

Q. Since "Roots," do you think blacks have fared better with the roles they get offered on television?

A. Look, it's simply a matter of talent, not race. I can't measure all that sociological political bull. Some blacks use their race as an excuse to say, "Well, that's why I can't make it." And then there are whites who say they can't produce films or shows starring women or Asians because they are minority groups and the populace won't support them. I believe talent will win out. `Roots' did help a great deal, because it helped a huge audience become aware of a lot of black talent. And it broke a lot of bad habits.

Q. Do you think the gulf war was a racist war?

A. No, I don't. Things are almost never racial. It's all about economic tyranny, instead of racial tyranny. People who say this, it's just paranoia talking. Blacks have only said the war is a racist one once the shooting started. Before that, the Army was a good place to go. It was a good place to escape the ghetto, a good place to get an education. Now, people are just looking for something to hang the problem on.

Q. If you could start your own 1-900 number, what would it be about?

A. I'd say, "Dial 1-900 for peace and quiet."\