He's never been a critical darling, but television audiences have always responded to Robert Conrad, whether he's been a Hawaiian detective, an Old West version of James Bond, a World War II flying ace or a "High Mountain Ranger."

And CBS is hoping that those audiences will continue to respond to the hard-nosed, tough-talking actor when it premieres Conrad's fifth television series, Jesse Hawkes, with a two-hour movie special Saturday at 7 p.m. on Ch. 5."Jesse Hawkes" is basically "High Mountain Rangers" meets "The Streets of San Francisco." Conrad and his two sons, Shane and Christian, play the same characters they played in last year's series - father-and-sons mountain men - only now they're bringing all their survival skills to the scariest forest of them all: The Big City.

"It's kind of a fish-out-of-water format," Conrad said during a telephone interview on Monday. "But he's not a local yocal type. He knows what's been going on in the world while they've been up in the mountains. He just doesn't accept the way everything's turned out down here.

"He's a guy who thinks that if you commit a crime, you ought to pay a price," Conrad continued. "He thinks the ACLU is a college football team, and the right to remain silent means you keep your mouth shut. He wraps himself in the American flag and doesn't apologize for it.

"And I don't think he watches `thirtysomething."'

In other words, Jesse Hawkes is a lot like Robert Conrad.

"He's the guy I'd like to be," Conrad said, correcting the implication. "I know a lot of guy like him - a good neighbor, a good person, but not the kind of guy you want to have against you. I've gotten closer and closer to making that my reality, but I'm not there yet."

Still, Conrad concedes that there's a lot of Robert Conrad in Jesse Hawkes (or is it a lot of Jesse Hawkes in Robert Conrad?).

"I'm not reverent," he admitted. "I do apologize if I bump into you while walking out of a restaurant. But I don't apologize for telling you what I think if you ask my opinion."

Just ask John Carmody, TV writer for the Washington Post. In writing about "Jesse Hawkes" Carmody referred to the show's star as "tiny Robert Conrad." The actor, who stands 5-feet, 9-inches tall and weighs in these days at about 150 pounds, wasn't pleased.

Said Conrad: "I called him up and said, `Hey, get with the program, Jack. You just offended all of the average-sized men in America."'

The next day in his newspaper column Carmody apologized - sort of - by referring to the "not-so-tiny Robert Conrad".

Christian Conrad, who is by no stretch of the imagination "tiny" and who plays his father's oldest son in the show and in real life, approaches life in the same straightforward fashion. "He's a radical," Conrad said, chuckling. "When he believes he's right he won't back down from it, no matter what. At least I'm willing to moderate a little."

And as for younger son, high school senior Shane, well . . .

"He doesn't care," said Conrad. "He just wants to go to college and look at the honies."

But for now Shane and the rest of the Conrad clan (including big sister Joan, who is executive producer for "Jesse Hawkes") will try to repeat what they did last year with "High Mountain Rangers."

"I was real proud that we beat ABC and Dolly Parton," said Conrad, who also directed the two-hour pilot. "But that wasn't enough for CBS to renew us for this season. I guess they wanted to go more upscale with `Dirty Dancing.' But `Dirty Dancing' got a 10 share where we were getting a 20 share.

"So CBS decided to bring us back with the same show in a different setting. And this time they're saying that we don't have to beat NBC - just ABC. The way I see it, if all the people who watched last time watch this time we'll be home free."

No matter what the "tiny"-minded critics say.