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Trust, Respect Loyalty--for Fans as Well as for Art : Television: An actor who makes it big in one season feels free to follow bigger bucks. Sounds like baseball, doesn’t it?

<i> Joe Morgenstern is a journalist and screenwriter in Santa Monica. </i>

Foolish as it is to confuse great characters with the actors who play them, I was shocked and angered by news reports that David Caruso wants out from his co-starring role as Detective John Kelly in “NYPD Blue.” Kelly wouldn’t do a thing like that, I caught myself thinking; he would never betray a trust.

Trust? Why bring such exalted language to bear on commercial television, where cop shows come and go and contracts are routinely broken? Because “NYPD Blue” is a show apart. After only one season on the air, this complex and often stirring series has set new standards of excellence for the medium; all those recent Emmy nominations, including Caruso’s, were richly deserved.

Maybe Caruso never signed up for standard-setting. Maybe he was only looking for a good part that would put his face on the screen, a fat paycheck in his pocket and residuals in his mailbox down the road. What he got, though, was something that American performers rarely dream of any more: a starring role, as a Chandleresque knight of honor, in a show that trusts its actors--along with its writers and directors--to work as the artists they once set out to be.

That was not, evidently, enough. Caruso’s eye, or so we’re told, is on the richer prize of feature films. Having already earned $1 million for his efforts in the upcoming movie “Kiss of Death,” he sees more where that came from. Thus Caruso has begun to make the noises that TV stars often make when they feel constrained by contracts they once signed, before stardom, with great eagerness and gratitude.

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If the gossip columns have it right--and when, in the era of O.J. Simpson, have they gotten anything wrong?--Detective John Kelly will be history shortly after “NYPD Blue” starts its second season.

We should be used to such behavior. Last week, after all, baseball fans were disabused of sentimental notions about any debts of loyalty that players and owners might owe to the game. It’s just a business like any other, the fans have been told, one that operates according to business rules.

Yet I can’t get it through my head that loyalty has been canceled, in our culture, like a TV dud that fails to pull in the ratings. I don’t want to get it through my head that an actor like David Caruso owes no more than a single season to the show, and to the audience, that made him famous.

The issue of trust extends to people like me, loyal members of that audience. I know that actors aren’t the characters they play--I was a movie critic for many years--and I’m not denying Caruso’s right to move on, once he’s given two or three seasons to his character. But thanks to scores of wonderful scenes that he’s been a part of, I’ve come to believe in the quirky probity of John Kelly, just as I believe in the importance of rare triumphs like “NYPD Blue.”

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In one of those scenes, which happened to turn up in last week’s rerun, Kelly commends a murder witness who has come forward at great risk to his own career. “And you know what?” he says. “It’s the right thing to do. Somebody has to represent the dead here.”

As usual, Caruso’s reading is restrained and entirely believable. But leaving the show at this point is the wrong thing to do. Somebody has to represent the public here.


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