Since he first gained prominence playing a lawyer, Jimmy Smits is coming full circle in some ways. And in other ways, not so much.
The Emmy-winning veteran of such series as "L.A. Law" and "NYPD Blue" returns to weekly television as a Supreme Court judge who leaves the bench to resume practicing law -- but very much in his own way -- in "Outlaw," an NBC drama that gets an early premiere Wednesday, Sept. 15. It settles into its regular Friday berth two nights later.
Gambler and womanizer Cyrus Garza (Smits) remains a rebel in deciding that holding one of the highest judicial positions in the United States isn't for him. What experience he has accrued while on the Supreme Court comes in handy as he goes "where the action is," as the show puts it, and tackles controversial cases
often to the chagrin of influential people worried about such a loose cannon zeroing in on their interests.
Jesse Bradford ("Flags of Our Fathers"), Carly Pope ("Popular"), David Ramsey ("Dexter") and Ellen Woglom ("Californication") also are in the regular "Outlaw" cast. Melora Hardin, who also will remain on NBC's "The Office" as Jan, will have a recurring role.
CBS' short-lived "Cane" and his season on Showtime's "Dexter" allowed Smits to alter his image in recent times, but he believes his "Outlaw" role takes him even farther in that direction.
"You haven't seen me tackle this kind of character before," he says. "You draw from yourself, but the artistic nourishment that you want is to be versatile and do something different. I think I get a chance to do that in a lot of ways here."
Some of those ways are furnished by the types of cases Garza takes. Smits deems "Outlaw" to be "an opportunity to deal with legal matters that are substantive in terms of a legal show, but at the same time, (the series has) a character who is outside the box in a lot of ways.
"This jurist has made such a radical switch, then surrounds himself with a team that has different types of political viewpoints, it does give an opportunity for us to tackle these hot-button issues in a new, kind of fresh way."
John Eisendrath ("Alias"), an executive producer of "Outlaw," wrote the pilot episode, but he credits fellow executive producer David Kissinger with the idea for the show.
"It appealed to me because I have a belief that the judicial system doesn't always lead to justice," Eisendrath explains. "Good people in the system often can follow the law, do their jobs, and know in their hearts that it's hurting innocent people. I always imagined that a judge who has to do that might have a hard time living with himself."
Kissinger adds that the concept for "Outlaw" really kicked in during the 2009 confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
"There was a lot of writing about her life," he recalls, "and the dues that she had to pay to get to that point. It struck me that (for) someone who had worked that hard and achieved that incredible position, what would it take to bring that person to the point that they give it all up? And what would they give it up for? It seemed like a very dynamic starting point for a show about the law."
As for the politics of "Outlaw," Eisendrath says Garza is "more of a libertarian than a conservative, so you will find that as we go week to week taking on the biggest issues of the day, you won't really be able to gauge what his position is. It should be a surprise to the audience what his position is going to be on gay marriage, or on freedom of choice, or on the death penalty. And I think the team he's participating with will be equally surprised and along for the ride."
Having Smits as Garza is considered a bonus by the "Outlaw" creative team. Eisendrath predicts, "There will be many instances where (Garza) will do things and the audience will be like, 'Wait, he can't do that. Oh, but I love Jimmy Smits!'
"I think we will have him pay a price sometimes, but part of the joy will be to see him toe that line and find a way around the barriers that other lawyers and judges live by. The whole point is that he's not going to stop at the line everyone else stops at, in his quest for justice."
Also an "Outlaw" co-executive producer, Smits has a busy household in terms of new NBC series: His companion of almost 25 years, Wanda De Jesus, will co-star as a police captain when "Law & Order: Los Angeles" premieres Sept. 29 in the same slot where "Outlaw" is getting its launch.
On the acting side, Smits is reorienting his approach to portraying an attorney, having done so for five years (1986-91) as earnest Victor Sifuentes on "L.A. Law."
"When we shot the ('Outlaw') pilot in Philadelphia," Smits reflects, "to walk in and see the jury box there on the side, it was a little intimidating, because I have this Sifuentes thing in the back (of my mind)
but they're very far apart. There is that young idealism the Sifuentes character had, and this guy is more open and loose, because he has been on both sides."
'Outlaw': Jimmy Smits plays fast and loose with the law
Jimmy Smits stars in "Outlaw," premiering Wednesday on NBC.