IN A WAY, James Andrews owes his notoriety to Mel Gibson.

Two years ago the Utah Department of Transportation was looking for someone to take on the role of a character based on Gibson's "Mad Max" movies for a new anti-littering campaign - and though a lot of local actors tried out for the part, it was apparent that Andrews more than fit the bill.But there was actually a lot more to the job.

"We got lucky - really lucky," says UDOT community relations director Kim Morris. Not only was the part-time actor/model able to play the role in the popular "Don't Waste Utah" television commercials, he was also willing to don the costume for regular encounters with the public and proved to have a natural rapport with the elementary school children he speaks to regularly.

Morris says Andrews is booked six months in advance for speaking engagements as "Max" and often appears at celebrity events.

Once, Thurl Bailey asked for his autograph.

"We're fortunate that he's got an employer (the Utah Air National Guard) that's willing to give up a little time in the middle of the week," Morris says. "And they probably also see the long-range benefits to the Guard."

Andrews adds, "It does help with recruiting. Kids do find out I'm in the Guard and it becomes a recruiting tool. In the last year I've switched over to being an Air Force recruiter as my job."

A Salt Lake native, Andrews had tried some acting and modeling locally before a four-year hitch in the Air Force, then tested the waters in New York for a year. "It was kind of crazy out there," he says with deft understatement. "And I wanted to come home for my family, so I got back with an agent here."

He also went back into the Air Force and for the past eight years has been with the Utah Air National Guard while pursuing his acting ambitions on a part-time basis.

It would seem that Andrews was destined for show business. "Both times I've gotten involved with this business it's been a case of having agents come up to me and ask me to do spots."

Among his credits are ZCMI ads, JB's commercials, a low-budget B-movie for Jimmy Osmond that was sold to French television and "Stranger on My Land," a TV movie that starred Tommy Lee Jones.

"I pursue it whenever I can take leave. I really want to go back to school and work on acting classes. I have a full-time job, but I love theater and I love acting."

Andrews says the "Don't Waste Utah" campaign is successful because Utahns really care about their state. "It has an appeal to so many people, whether it's the muscle car that reminds them of what they drove when they were younger or this macho character appealing to women or the kids who see a superhero that doesn't say anything. Older people come up to me and say it's their favorite commercial - that it's the only one they'll watch. And, let's face it, picking up trash is a basic responsibility for everyone."

As for the kids he meets with regularly: "They're just unbelievable - they love us. They ask, `How's the dog and how fast does the car go?' Kids give me their phone numbers and want me to be their pen pals. They say, `Call me, I love you.' They want to know if I'm married, which I am, and they thank me. There are a few smart alecks, of course, but most are so positive about everything."

And being "Max" has some additional responsibilities, as well. "People say, `Hey, that's the guy.' And people come up to me in the grocery store and ask if I use paper or plastic.

"I use burlap and bring my bags back." - Chris Hicks