Gregory Peck rushes into his living room, late and apologetic, wearing a white warm-up suit. He'd had to take his 60-year-old azalea bonsai to a Japanese tree surgeon.

"I'm not a great gardener," confesses the 72-year-old actor who will be honored tonight (9 p.m., Ch. 2) on "The 17th Annual AFI Life Achievement Award: A Salute to Gregory Peck" on NBC. "I just try to follow instructions and keep things from dying."Peck, who has reached the twilight of his acting career, finds plenty of time for gardening.

"I'd like to keep working," he says, "but if I don't work again that's OK with me."

In the NBC special, such former co-stars as Lauren Bacall ("Designing Woman"), Audrey Hepburn ("Roman Holiday"), Charlton Heston ("Big Country"), Jennifer Jones ("Duel in the Sun") and Jimmy Smits and Jane Fonda ("Old Gringo") will pay tribute to the star whose film career goes back to 1943.

His latest film is "Old Gringo," in which he plays author-journalist Ambrose Bierce in a fictional account of his disappearance during the Mexican Revolution in 1913. The movie, in which Jane Fonda plays a spinster American schoolteacher and Smits is a fiery Mexican general, will be released later this year.

"Things are slowing down, but I expected that," Peck says. "I'm getting on in age. There was a time I was champing at the bit if I didn't make three pictures a year. For all I know I may never make another picture.

"But somebody may be at a typewriter writing a new picture and thinking of Greg Peck for one of the roles. Most of the good pictures I've done have been dropped into my lap."

Peck says his own favorites from among the 51 pictures he's made are "To Kill a Mockingbird," the film that brought him an Academy Award as best actor in 1962, "Roman Holiday," "The Gunfighter," "Captain Horatio Hornblower" and "The Guns of Navarone."

"Hornblower" was based on the books about the British naval hero created by C.S. Forester. Peck says he'd always hoped to do a sequel.

Peck describes "The Guns of Navarone" as "good, all-out entertainment," but says it's really a comedy.

"It's a put-on," he says. "Five or six guys take on the whole Nazi army and beat them. Every time we turned one way, the Nazis went the other way. It was the Keystone Kops. It was a put-on of a great war picture."

He refers to "Duel in the Sun" as a parody of a Western that they called "Lust in the Dust" when they were making it.

"Jennifer Jones had just played a saint in `Song of Bernadette' and I had played a saintly priest in `Keys of the Kingdom,"' he says. "David O. Selznick took great delight in casting us as Lewt and Pearl. I was the renegade son and she was the wild half-breed."

In recent years, Peck has also appeared on television. He played Abraham Lincoln in the 1982 miniseries "The Blue and the Gray" and was a priest in "The Scarlet and the Black" in 1983.

"I've been offered series," he says. "I'm not snobbish about television. You want to make it as good as possible, but on television you never have enough time. I'd rather wait for something good to come along. Or not work at all.

"When you reach 70 it limits people's perceptions. They begin to think of you as too old for roles. But that's OK. I don't blame them. And I do want to play parts my own age."

Unlike some actors, Peck admits that he occasionally watches his old films on television.

"I saw `Shootout' recently for the first time since we made it in 1971," he says. "It was directed by Henry Hathaway, who also directed me in `How the West Was Won.'

"He was a director from the old school who tried to tell a story visually. `Shootout' was somewhat similar to `True Grit,' which Hathaway had also directed. He always had something going, an energy, a drive, and a way of linking the scenes together.

"Seeing my films years later I've come to appreciate the director much more. At the time you're wrapped up in your role and you're trying to do it as well as you can. You can't see the forest for the trees. But after time has gone by I can appreciate the director's style."