Sam Keeley on Making ‘Something of Substance’ With ’68 Whiskey’

68 Whiskey Season 1 Roback
Paramount Network

“The hardest thing to do in those helicopters is not smile on camera when they take off,” says Sam Keeley, “because it’s so much fun.”

The star of Paramount Network’s freshman M*A*S*H-style dramedy, 68 Whiskey, about Army medics stationed in Afghanistan (he plays benevolent rogue Sgt. Cooper Roback) will suppress another grin this week when his character suggests a ride-along in a Black Hawk for the visiting secretary of the Army (White Collar‘s Tim DeKay).   

The skilled combat medic’s motivation is twofold: First, he needs to get his grounded team back in the air. He works alongside Staff Sgt. Mekhi Davis (Jeremy Tardy), the Dumb to Roback’s Dumber in various failed side hustles meant to pay for Davis’ mother’s cancer treatment, and Sgt. Rosa Alvarez (Cristina Rodlo), the kind of colleague Roback would trust with his life and possibly his darkest secret.

Roback also wants access to the government bigwig to plead his case for why Dreamer Alvarez should still be allowed to earn her U.S. citizenship through military service. He recently went so far as marrying her to keep her from being discharged and deported back to Mexico — now they’ll go through the rigorous application process for her green card: “Pretending to be husband and wife in everything except sleeping in the same bed is quite difficult to do without getting your emotions muddled up in that too,” hints the Irish actor.

68 Whiskey

(Credit: Paramount Network)

As with most of Roback’s plans, the ride-along goes sideways. The dignitary gets airsick and asks to land. They set down in hostile territory, and, as Keeley puts it, “The secretary very quickly realizes how important the medic’s job is.”

Whiskey‘s real-life hero, military med tech adviser Matt King, ensures that point is conveyed in every episode, through poignant moments such as the February 5 extraction of a gravely wounded soldier known as “Louisville.” The actor, Chris Van Etten (General Hospital), is a Marine vet who lost his legs in an IED explosion in Afghanistan in 2012.

“So he’s essentially reliving the most traumatic experience of his life over and over again in these takes,” Keeley recalls in awe. “That made me go, ‘OK, while this show is funny and we’re having a laugh [at times], we’re making something of substance also.'”

68 Whiskey, Wednesdays, 10/9c, Paramount Network