Catherine Bell: Fitzroy Barrett/Globe Photos
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December 04, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST

After seven years, CBS’ ”JAG” (Tuesdays; 8 p.m.) still gets treated like a buck private by the media. Despite regularly scoring in the Nielsen top twenty, the series generates all the buzz of a basic cable cooking show. Catherine Bell, the 33-year-old London-born actress who plays Lt. Colonel Sarah ”Mac” MacKenzie, talks with about why the media just doesn’t get it, what it’s like to be half-Iranian after Sept. 11, and how her character came back from the dead.

There’s been a boost in ‘JAG”’s ratings over the last month. Do you attribute that to post-Sept. 11 patriotism?
I think that’s definitely helping. But even though world events are working in our favor, I don’t think that’s entirely the reason. I keep reminding people that last season’s finale was the number nine show that week. We’ve really been just about the same in the ratings, just a little more consistent. And even though we had older demographics at the beginning, now we’re doing great with 18- to 49-year-olds, especially young men. If you look at the last seven years, [JAG] is the little show that could. It keeps going and growing.

So why is ”JAG” a covert operation when it comes to media coverage?
We’ve been going along with our 17 million viewers watching all the time, but no one writes about us. It drives me nuts! I’m not sure why that is, but the only thing I can think of is that we’re not getting naked and having affairs. We do have storylines that feature those elements, but it’s definitely more PG. I mean, we’ve had a story about someone who was gay in the military, but it’s never going to be, ”Hey, lesbian kiss tonight on ‘JAG’!”

Most people don’t know that you’re half Iranian. Is it a weird time to have a Middle Eastern background?
My grandparents were Muslim, and it’s a completely different religion than what we’re hearing about right now. It was pretty ugly for a while, but as far as hate crimes go, it seems like that kind of reaction has died down. Thank god.

When ”JAG” was on NBC for a season, you played a character who was killed off. How the heck did you become the female lead when the show moved to CBS?
I was on one episode as the love of David James Elliott’s life, then I died. But I lucked out, because the executive producer, Don Bellisario, directed that episode, so I got to be buddies with him while we were shooting. When the show got canceled by NBC and picked up by CBS, I read the breakdown for the female lead. Must be 5’9” or taller, brown hair, tough and fiesty, martial arts experience a plus — that was me! So I wrote him a letter telling him I was perfect for Mac, and wouldn’t it be interesting if his new partner looks like the dead love of his life, and that did the trick. When I finally got the part, Don thanked me for being persistent enough to write the letter.

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