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WITH AN EYE ON . . . : Amy Brenneman walks the hot blue line toward ‘NYPD’ finale

Rubin is a free-lance writer based in Los Angeles

Amy Brenneman was never far from the law while growing up--her father’s an attorney, her mother a superior court judge. But until she landed the role of Officer Janice Licalsi on “NYPD Blue,” she had never come closer to the police than a few speeding tickets in Nebraska.

Ironically, the former New York resident relocated to the City of Angels for this series, which is situated in the Big Apple. Brenneman shows up at her publicist’s office on a lunch break from shooting the season finale wearing jeans, hiking boots and a T-shirt, with almost no makeup. Out of uniform and with her long hair loose, Brenneman, 29, little resembles Licalsi, except for those arresting blue-gray eyes.

Fans of the show may have noticed that Brenneman’s character has kept a low profile for the past several episodes, following a dramatic beginning--getting into bed with both the mob and Detective Kelly (David Caruso), and then killing the Mafioso. While she won’t divulge what happens next, Brenneman promises that Licalsi returns to the center of the action for the end of the season. Brenneman will only say enigmatically, “Things get resolved.”

Brenneman identifies strongly with her character. “I can’t say that it’s me; she’s more like a sister. I feel for her so much. She has a need to take care of things to the point of absurdity. ‘I’ll take care of it, I’ll take care of it,’ even when she can’t.”

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Brenneman herself couldn’t live with the secrets that haunt Licalsi. “I can imagine it eating me up. I’d probably have to come clean,” says Brenneman, who acknowledges having nightmares about it. “It’s easy for me to tap into those kinds of feelings.”

One adjustment Brenneman had to make for “NYPD” was to rein in herself, and her emotions. “I wear my heart on my sleeve, and cops don’t. Stuff is happening so fast, flying by, there’s no time to indulge.” To familiarize herself with the workings of police, Brenneman, who has never taken acting classes, spent some time with New York’s finest. She learned about the teamwork that is so integral to police work.

“Men and women make a great team. Much as I don’t want to believe it, sometimes you just need brute strength, you just need that guy.”

“NYPD Blue” is, by now, a show well known for its unusually realistic use of profanity and nudity, and it is Brenneman’s flesh that has most consistently been on display. Brenneman was initially nervous about the love scenes. “It’s sort of like having sex for the first time: It could be so bad.” But she says it was a positive experience. Regarding the series’ controversial sexuality, Brenneman says, “It has a certain spiritual weight. I don’t think the love scenes themselves are that risky.”

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Growing up in Connecticut, Brenneman never thought about being on television. Her childhood didn’t include a lot of tube watching, except for reruns of “The Waltons.” And though she was singing in the chorus of “The Music Man” before her teens, Brenneman didn’t look at acting seriously until after leaving Harvard, where she co-founded the Cornerstone Theater Group, which took classic plays to the backroads of America. Brenneman devoted five years to the company, but still wasn’t certain that acting was a viable career choice, even when she headed off to New York to try. “I had no track record, and I didn’t know if it was possible to make a living.”

Brenneman didn’t struggle too long. She was selected by series creator Steven Bochco after being brought in to read for the part by an ABC casting director. “She’s very talented, a real combination of smartness and attractiveness, and credible as a cop,” says Bochco.

The peripatetic actress has settled in L.A. for now, but staying put isn’t in her nature. She’ll appear in the upcoming Steven Spielberg-produced “Casper the Friendly Ghost,” and hopes to return to the theater in the off season. “Part of me can’t imagine leaving (“NYPD Blue”). ... I would like to be around for a long time on the show; I really love the people I work with.”

“NYPD Blue” airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on ABC .

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