''It's a television first,'' declares Charlton Heston, about his role in the CBS miniseries ''Chiefs.'' ''Television seems to allow only four categories of heavies - businessmen, bankers, politicians, and military men over the rank of major. I saw it so often I thought it was defined by statute. Well, my role in 'Chiefs' is a television first: The character I play falls into three of those four categories, and yet he is a good guy.''
The man who played Moses, Ben-Hur, and El Cid is happy to be returning to TV - after a 15-year absence - in the role of Hugh Holmes, banker and founding father of the small Southern town of Delano, where a mass murderer's crimes went undetected for decades.
The six-hour miniseries, a fascinating psychological thriller as well as a subtle character study, is based on the novel by Stuart Woods. The teleplay by Robert W. Lenski, directed by Jerry London, has a carefully honed ''To Kill a Mockingbird'' style. It started airing Sunday and continues tonight and Wednesday (CBS, 9-11 p.m.).
''But please don't call it a miniseries, . . . a ridiculous-sounding word. I hate that designation. Call it extended form or long form. In this long form, you can tell a story that takes more than three or four hours. When Irving Stone's 'Agony and the Ecstasy' was adapted for film, they had to begin by saying, 'What must we cut out?' With the long form, not very much has to be cut out.''
Mr. Heston believes that we are coming into a period where TV will look back at the 90-minute movie versions of classics and decide to do them again. ''The two leading candidates for finest American novel ever written are 'Moby Dick' and 'Huckleberry Finn.' Both have been filmed. But you cannot do justice to a great novel in 90 minutes. I would love to do 'Moby Dick.' But it has to be told in six or eight hours.''
We are lunching in the chic dining room of the Regency Hotel on New York's Park Avenue, where Mr. Heston is staying. He is obviously a favorite client of the maitre d', who understandingly takes his order of beef tartare ''with the beef cut into chunks rather than ground.'' When the dish arrives, it looks a bit like a mound of Alpo, but Heston digs in gleefully. He is dressed casually but correctly in gray flannel trousers, a blue blazer, chamois shirt, and red tie.
Does ''Chiefs'' give a fair picture of Southern life during the 1920s to 1960 s?
''Yes. I was not raised in the South (he was born in Chicago, raised in Michigan), but I spent some time in a small Georgia town to visit my uncle, a man not unlike Hugh Holmes, the character I play. I was also fairly active in the civil rights movement.
''On one level, 'Chiefs' is the story of a series of murders over a period of 40 years. But, on another level, it is a story of the social change in a small Georgia town over the same period, which reflects a very significant development in American history in this century - the achievement of equal civil rights by black Americans.''
Mr. Heston points out that it is not unexpected that so many Southern intellectuals, like William Faulkner, found it difficult to accept black activism. ''Although the great Greek philosophers are generally considered to be among the most profound minds in the history of the human race, there's not one example in the writings of any one of them in which they consider the condition of human slavery. Slavery was endemic in the classic world: If you lost a war, you were likely to be enslaved.
''This tells you something about the capacity for men of remarkable sensitivity, intelligence, and basic goodness to remain blind to an evil in their midst. . . .
''I think permanent change in society almost always happens quite slowly, . . . and that's appropriate. It was a remarkable demonstration of the strength of this republic that we were able to achieve the peaceful transfer of power from the revolutionary generation to the next generation. No other revolution in recorded history has done this. The other revolutionary change - the civil rights movement - was achieved by peaceful means within the structure of the society, without violence.''
Does Heston believe that ''Chiefs'' manages to pinpont that revolutionary change for TV audiences?
''It would be arrogant of me to say that a television show is going to accomplish such a thing. If it does remind people, it is at least an accurate observation. But I get a little bored with actors assigning sociological-significance values to every piece they do, and I will not make such a claim. I will say, however, that 'Chiefs' is historically accurate in my view. If in watching it, people are reminded that we did make this significant change - and this is a credit to all strata of our society - I think that's fine. But I am not saying that's why CBS is putting it on.''
Why has Heston not been seen on TV since his role in ''Elizabeth the Queen'' in 1968?
''In all honesty, I was not offered television because it was understood that I didn't do it. The reasons had nothing to do with condescension toward the medium. It was solely that I knew they didn't give shows enough production time because of costs.
''I was an enthusiastic watcher of television in the 1960s - Mary Tyler Moore , Bob Newhart, 'Police Story.' But I can't say I watch a lot now.
''I think the series format has been explored very fully. In a certain sense it is locked in, because - however charismatic the characters, intriguing the concept, however skilled the actors and the writers - they've got to shoot 15 pages a day. On top of that, you have to constantly re-explore the same story - with a few exceptions like 'The Waltons.'
''In series TV, you are in an encapsulated situation. In 'M*A*S*H' the Korean war went on for 15 years; it never changed. . . . They were fighting the Vietnam war; their values were those of Vietnam, not Korea. That is the limitation of the form. It's not an indictment of the talent of the people in it.''
Despite the fact that he has played many major figures in history, Mr. Heston refuses to sneer at his part in ''Planet of the Apes.''
''I was very fond of that role. Having done so many specific biographical roles in which I felt a responsibility to whoever it was I was playing, to reflect him as he was, with a fictional role you can do what you like. With 'Planet of the Apes' I could simply say, 'If I were there, this is what I would do.' So, I value it for that.
''But I've never done any part that I'm content with. If you want me to pick one part that I want to be remembered for, that would be the best thing I ever did.''
Although Heston is perceived as a political conservative - recently because of his highly publicized disagreements with Screen Actors Guild president Ed Asner - he says he is what he always has been: an independent.
''I have no idea whether my political activities have affected my career. But I certainly would not join Ed Asner, who claimed when his show was canceled that the President of the United States was responsible.
''I have never belonged to either political party, and I have supported both Democrats and Republicans for every office from city councilman to president.
''In films and TV, I have been president of the United States three times - Jackson, Jefferson, and F.D. Roosevelt. And I have actually been approached by both parties to run for political office.
''But I'd rather play a politician than be one.''