After finishing his first TV miniseries, Maximilian Schell was understandably ambivalent about the format, television in general and, perhaps, life as a whole.

"I think it's going to work in spite of it all," he said looking back on "Peter the Great," the NBC miniseries that begins tonight. "For me it was a bitter experience, but rewarding. Sometimes bitter experiences teach you more about life than the good experiences."

And what did he learn from "Peter"?

"Not to do a miniseries anymore," he said with a laugh.

His tone was pleasant and his mood upbeat enough. But the Maximilian Schell story behind the making of the miniseries would make a fine miniseries of its own. It is a melodrama filled with episodes of illness, broken schedules, dissension at the top and, ultimately, artistic frustration, all of it played out against a background of a cruel Russian winter of Schell's discontent.

Meanwhile, back in America, NBC has ordered "Peter" to the front line of the ratings war, mobilizing it against CBS' high-glitz "Sins" series. A strong campaign by "Peter" at the start of the February sweeps could just about win the ratings war for the network for this season, if No. 2 CBS hasn't already posted the white flag by then.

To help get over the top, NBC has given "Peter" a Patton-sized lieutenant, enlisting Bill Cosby -- the good soldier who got them within striking distance in the first place -- in a specially scheduled episode of his sit- com to lead off the evening at 8. The idea is to wipe out "Sins" -- also scheduled at 8 -- before it gets off the ground.

But back to the Russian front. Going in, "Peter" looked great to Schell. "It's one of those roles that is the reason I became an actor," he said. "Hamlet. Iago. Lear. Peter the Great is almost a Shakespearean character."

"Peter the Great" is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography by Robert K. Massie. It is the story of Peter's quest to transform Russia from a relatively isolated feudal country into a modern state at the turn of the 18th century.

The wheels on Schell's cart began to wobble two months into the filming when Lawrence Schiller was replaced by Martin Chomsky as the series' director. (Schiller, who lost his job after line producer Konstantin Thoeren claimed he was breaking his budget, has since sued Thoeren and the network.)

"I had to change and make adjustment," said Schell. "I was not quite happy with the change.

"I think Peter the Great is a complex figure. He changed his mood -- one day he was excited and full of energy, the next depressed, then slow. There was a great variety of colors to him. Chomsky said it should not be so colorful, more smooth. As an actor I must obey the director, but I felt restricted."

The cart was almost wrecked in March when it was time for Schell to go to Berlin to direct an opera. But his work on "Peter" was not complete, having been slowed by illness.

"I fell ill," he said, "like many did under the conditions." The series was shot in several Russian locations, including Moscow and Leningrad. "It was cold," recalled Schell, "a very hard winter. Most of the shooting was outside, and even inside it was cold."

Six doctors examined him, he said, as he suffered through a high fever and cold sweats, nearly contracted pneumonia and developed a kidney stone. "I was not capable of work."

But Dennis De Marne was. He is the actor who, heavily plastered with makeup, took Schell's place for about an hour in the series. Schell later dubbed his voice over his pinch-hitter's. The series now has a built-in Schell game of sorts, a challenge to the viewers to tell the two men apart.

Viewers should also be reminded that while Oscar-winner Schell is the show's prime attraction, his role is relatively small. The young Peter is played by Jan Niklas, and Schell, who plays him from age 38 to 50, does not appear the first two nights. Add the role of doubling Dennis and you have a relatively small slice of the eight hours left to Schell. The cast has other stellar attractions -- Vanessa Redgrave, Omar Sharif, Laurence Olivier and Trevor Howard among them.

Reflecting on the ordeal, Schell remained philosophical. No, he hadn't given up totally on the idea of doing another miniseries, he said, acknowledging that such productions are often a proper way to treat the larger characters he loves. Besides, how could he dismiss the miniseries when he had helped invent the form 20 years ago?

"Orson Welles and I were in a restaurant in Paris with a producer," recalled Schell, "talking about the possibility of doing 'Crime and Punishment' as a movie. I told Orson it was a shame to have it reduced to two hours, that it would become only a table of contents, a mere skeleton at that length. Orson agreed and said it should be 10 films.

"The producer stood up, paid the bill and left. Orson and I talked about the idea until 2 a.m. We didn't realize the producer was gone."