The very first thing you notice about Kindergarten Cop's Pamela Reed is her steel-gray eyes ''those fabulous peepers,'' as her best pal, actress Margaret Whitton, calls them which you're sure you've looked into before. The second thing you notice is the voice smooth, smoky, and laced with irony and the next thing you may notice is that she is also a commanding actress. So why isn't Reed, who is a beauty on top of all that, a big star? Whitton, who worked with her friend in Aunt Dan and Lemon at New York's Public Theater three years ago and in the 1986 film The Best of Times, thinks she could have become one years ago ''if she played to the audience the way a lot of less talented actresses do. Pamela is silk on steel. She wants to be discovered but on her terms.''
Audiences have been slowly discovering Reed, and on her terms, for more than a decade. She won critical raves for her work in 1980's Melvin and Howard and The Right Stuff (1983). She has also been hailed as The Long Riders' feisty Belle Starr, as Robin Williams' wisecracking ex-wife in Cadillac Man, and as the savvy campaign manager in Robert Altman's ground-breaking TV show Tanner '88, for which she won cable TV's ACE Award as Best Actress in a Dramatic Series. She's even paid her dues in rickety vehicles like Young Doctors in Love, in which she reminded one critic of ''a Mercedes pulling a U- Haul.''
What Reed hasn't had, until Arnold Schwarzenegger's Kindergarten Cop opened last month, was a hit ''a big, fat box-office hit,'' as she puts it. ''I shoot a gun, I save Arnold's life, kids cheer me,'' Reed says. ''It's not a gold statue, but it's not a bad feeling.'' Then she turns mock solemn. ''I've found my calling. This is it. No more Ms. Cult Star. I'm going to be the new queen of the action movies.''
Naw. Reed will more likely go on playing the grittily glamorous roles that have won her cult acclaim, except that her characters will enter the film from the front door instead of the side.
And she has her own explanation of why, at 40, she hasn't yet cracked ''the group of five, the women who get offered all the best movie roles. I think it's partly the perception of me in Hollywood as a New York stage actress,'' she says. ''You know, a snob. I want to wear a sign that says, 'I was born in Tacoma! I lived in Maryland! I just keep an apartment in New York.''' (She also keeps a house in Los Angeles, where she lives with her husband of two years, director Sandy Smolan.)
What she won't do, she says, is accept a role that encourages sexual violence or ''perpetrates the idea of women as followers or appendages.''
Reed comes from a union family, and she herself is outspoken on liberal and feminist issues. One might think that would have damaged her relationship with Schwarzenegger, who is one of George Bush's most avid supporters, but Reed found the muscleman ''charming, funny, a heck of a guy for a Republican.'' At one point the script called for her character to pose as Schwarzenegger's sister, which meant she had to acquire an Austrian accent in a matter of minutes. For Reed, who delights in picking up the nuances of new accents, it was a lark: ''Inside of an hour he was calling me 'my leetle Pemelah' and I was calling him 'my deah Ah-nold.'''
That suggests a sequel might conceivably lie in her future. ''Kindergarten Cop II?'' Reed muses. ''Hmmm. Yeah, maybe, if he asks me and if the role is written well. I've got a box-office image to live up to.''