Is this a typical Hollywood story or what?

Very successful film actor, renowned worldwide for playing a stumbling, bumbling cop in a succession of hit film comedies, decides to spend nearly a year in legitimate theater, even trying his hand at the Broadway stage, to build a new image as a serious actor.It's been done a million times, hasn't it?

So that's what you'd expect to hear from young Steve Guttenberg, a film and television presence for 11 years and still only 32, who became prominent with starring roles (Officer Mahoney) in four of the "Police Academy" movies and "Three Men and a Baby" and its sequel "Three Men and a Little Lady."

The comic actor has changed course and plunged into theater, starring in London in Tom Griffin's drama "The Boys Next Door," about a counselor to handicapped men, and, as of Tuesday, the comedy/

drama "Prelude to a Kiss" at the Helen Hayes theater here. He also starred in a 1989 murder mystery film, "The Bedroom Window."

Guess again about the new image theory.

A bewildered Guttenberg, sporting near-shoulder-length locks of curly hair and a five-day growth of beard, opens his eyes wide at the insinuation as he lounges casually in a seat in the back row of the Helen Hayes Theater following a long rehearsal.

"Oh, no . . . ," he says with believable sincerity. "I'll do comic movies again. Of course. I'm not doing theater to change my image, or get a new image. I do it because I like it, because I found two good plays and, well, I want to act in different things, different places. That's all there is to it. All actors like to act in different venues, different types of roles. There's nothing more to this than that."

Guttenberg saw "Prelude to a Kiss," the story of a young woman whose life is turned around when she kisses an old man, last June while he was in town to visit his family (he's from Massapequa, Long Island).

"I fell in love with it. My agent suggested I think about doing it down the road. I called back right away and told her to book me into it if possible," he says. "When I went to see it I didn't know what to expect because the premise of it is so unusual. What made me fall in love with it, and I'm even more in love with it now, after rehearsals, is the sheer poetry and forcefulness of the language. It's done in such a way, the words . . . that . . . well, it's like we all want to express our inner feelings about life and love and happiness if we could only find the phrases. Here are the phrases."

He went to London to star in "The Boys Next Door" after he saw "Prelude to a Kiss" and it renewed his desire to do more theater.

"I enjoyed London and that play and I'll enjoy this play. It's been a terrific winter and spring for me," he says.

But Guttenberg is not abandoning films. He has an amazing succession of box office hits, including "Diner," the "Police Academy" movies, the "Baby . . . " films, "Cocoon" and "Cocoon: the Return" and "Short Circuit." His films have grossed $750 million. He has had success on the small screen, too, starring in "Miracle on Ice" and "The Day After."

"There's no movie in my immediate future, but in a few months I'm sure something will appear that looks good for me. I just go along month by month. I'm not one for long-range planning."

And he hasn't turned his back on the "Police Academy" stories either.

"If there was another `Police Academy' film I probably wouldn't do it, but I'll tell you what I'd like to do. I'd love to take my guy, Mahoney, and spin off a movie about him. He'd be a cop involved in a scandal, or an investigation that backfires or something like that. It might make for a funny story," he says.

The actor, who married two years ago, thinks theater is harder work than film, but has advantages over film.

"You get immediate reaction from a live audience in a play, which you don't get in a movie. The big advantage of a film, though, is that the `take' they use is the one in 20 where you're absolutely perfect. So, all over the country, the people you see you at your very best. A person who sees you on a particular night in the theater might catch you on an off night, a night you have a cold, a night the air conditioning isn't turned up. Who knows? That never happens in movies."

But there is one part of the theater that he loves.

"You can work on your craft, every part of it, each night in theater. You can work on delivery one night, or the way you move on stage, or the way you play off the other performers, or your pitch, or facial expressions. You can be like a painter who keeps going over things again and again, dabbing here and there. You can never do that in film. Theater is wonderful for that."

Don't tell Commandant Lassard he said that.