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When Jeff Maxwell took on the role of Pvt. Igor Straminsky, he wondered if he would have the gig for long.
The actor starred in “M*A*S*H,” the acclaimed sitcom set during the Korean War. While the TV series eventually became so beloved that a whopping 106 million tuned in for the final episode, CBS executives initially thought they had a dud.
“It wasn’t getting good ratings,” the 75-year-old told Fox News Digital. “After CBS moved it to another day, it immediately skyrocketed. Suddenly everybody was getting a chance to see it. But there weren’t enough eyes on it at first. Then it was put in a time slot with other great shows, and suddenly, people were discovering it.”
“The themes that the show dealt with week-to-week were always very universal,” he shared. “It had this amazing ability to navigate tragedy, the horrors of war and humor in a very sophisticated, human way. I use the term ‘situational comedy’ lightly when describing ‘M*A*S*H’ because it dealt with some pretty heavy-duty stuff … but it was always dealt with kindness. And I think it pushed buttons. And I think [creators] Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds put their arms around the show and said, ‘We’re going to do this right – no matter what.'”
The series, which premiered on Sept. 17, 1972, is turning 50 this year. On Sept. 13, Reelz premiered “M*A*S*H: When Television Changed Forever,” which explores how it captivated audiences for 11 seasons, as well as how it stands today. The show features exclusive new interviews with Maxwell, Jamie Farr (Cpl. Maxwell Q. Klinger), and Mike Farrell (Capt. B.J. Hunnicutt), as well as the producers and writers who brought it to life.
“I think it was around the third season when it really started to get noticed,” Maxwell recalled. “I think people realized that this was something they needed to pay attention to. And it didn’t take long for it to pick up traction with audiences. The ratings started to go through the roof. And that’s when things really started to get exciting.”
Maxwell said he quickly bonded with his castmates. Alan Alda, who starred as Hawkeye Pierce, even offered to give the newcomer a helping hand.
“Alan is a really special kind of actor,” Maxwell explained. “I remember at one point, I asked if he could recommend an acting teacher. I’ve been to several people, but of course, I was curious to see what he would say. He didn’t hesitate to recommend Viola Spolin, the mother of Paul Sills, a founder of the Second City theater company. He told me how she specialized in a concept called ‘theater games’ where it was a very improvisational method of acting. I’d come out of nightclubs as a comedian, and he assured me that she was really good and that I would enjoy it. There were many other famous acting teachers in Los Angeles, and I thought he would say one of those names, but he didn’t.”
“Two weeks later, she came out to Los Angeles [from New York],” he continued. “I went to her, and I ended up spending a couple of years with her doing the theater game technique. It was a wonderful experience, not only as an actor but as a person. It was enlightening, nurturing. Alan actually teaches it to scientists to help them communicate better. Alan has such a brilliant ability to connect with people. He was a giving actor. He’s incredibly talented, but more importantly, he’s just a wonderful man. I learned so much just being around him on set. And he made sure we all behaved and treated each other with kindness.”
Maxwell said his favorite episode to film was “Adam’s Ribs,” where Hawkeye becomes so fed up with the same mess hall food of liver and fish that he goes on a quest to order barbecue spare ribs.
“He started just freaking out on me,” Maxwell chuckled. “We had so much fun filming that. He just flipped out. At one point, he even jumped on the table and started shouting. It was unexpected but such great fun to see him that way. So whenever I think of that episode, I just smile.”
According to Maxwell, he realized that “M*A*S*H” was making a difference when he began meeting veterans.
“They would just come up to me and hug me,” he said. “They would just go, ‘Gosh, I so appreciate what you guys are doing, and it’s such a great show.’ That had such a profound impact on me. You had good, passionate veterans responding to it in such a special way. I did two USO tours with this comedy team, and we traveled to Korea, Guam, Okinawa – just all over the place. When I did the second tour, ‘M*A*S*H’ had already started, and people were already responding that way.”
“I learned a great deal about the military and a great deal about the dedication, the passion those guys have for what they do and who they are,” Maxwell reflected. “It impressed me – it still does. I came away with such tremendous respect for the military. It can be a terrifying machine. But at the same time, these are terrific people doing a tough job. You’ve gotta take your hats off to them and give thanks.
“This reaction was happening in 1974. It’s 2022, and it hasn’t changed. I meet with veterans and the military daily. We have such wonderful conversations about what they do, and how they’re instilling these virtues. They thanked us for what we were doing. You know, there were a lot of jokes about some of the personalities, officers and things in the show. But that’s life, and it exists in the military … but the underlying theme is respect. Meeting these veterans has been very moving for me. You can’t help but feel their passion.”
“M*A*S*H” has gone on to become one of the world’s most syndicated shows. Maxwell said he is not surprised by its lasting success.
“Show business is a business,” he said. “Everybody was there doing a job. Nobody showed up for free. But at the end of the day, it was such a joy to do. We were hired for our roles, and we wanted to do them the best way possible. And as a cast, we bonded. It was an emotional time when it came to an end. It’s a bond that’s broken for a while, and you feel very bad. We were sad that the show was over [in 1983], but we were also proud of our performances.”
Today, Maxwell said that he is in touch with his castmates. He is also the cohost of “M*A*S*H Matters,” a podcast featuring lively discussions about the series. His castmates have even stopped by to share their memories. At first, he wondered if the podcast would last past year one, but four years later, he is still happily chatting away. For the 50th anniversary, he will record a special episode during a VIP breakfast fundraiser for Malibu Creek State Park volunteers. Fans will get to chow down where the mess tent originally was and meet Maxwell.
“We wanted to support the volunteers that work and keep the set clean and alive for fans,” he said. “It’s a lot of work out there, and it’s in the middle of nowhere. And Igor serves you breakfast!”
Today, Maxwell said he was honored to serve on screen.
“‘M*A*S*H’ was written in such a way that there were lessons to be learned,” he said. “It’s a good little show, wasn’t it?”
“M*A*S*H: When Television Changed Forever” airs Sept. 24 at 1:00 p.m. ET.