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Tensions Simmer ‘Undercover’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

More than the cops are undercover on “New York Undercover” as the edgy Fox police drama enters its third season tonight.

The behind-the-scenes conflict sparked by a brief strike last month by the series’ two lead actors is still simmering beneath the surface.

Michael DeLorenzo and Malik Yoba, who declined to show up for the season’s first days of filming while demanding more money and creative input, remain bitter about the handling of their holdout by the show’s executive producer, Dick Wolf.

They claim Wolf “vilified” them and misrepresented their positions in statements to the news media and that the rift went far beyond pay raises.

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“This was not about money,” said DeLorenzo, who plays the emotional Puerto Rican detective Eddie Torres. “This is about respect and broken promises.”

Wolf said he was surprised and not particularly pleased to hear of the ongoing stance of his two stars. He thought the rift was over.

“They both have said they’re pleased to be back with the cast and crew and that they were looking forward to the best season ever for the show,” said Wolf, who also has had his share of cast turmoil on his other series, NBC’s “Law & Order.”

There were no outward signs of discord last week inside the commercial-industrial Manhattan warehouse that serves as headquarters for “New York Undercover.” Yoba and DeLorenzo were joking easily with crew members around the deliberately drab and shopworn set of the 27th police precinct that is the drama’s home base.

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Producers expressed pride in the show’s standing as the only network drama with two minority leads and with its potent mix of propulsive music and stylish camera work that has made it the most popular prime-time series among African Americans and Latinos. They hope the series will do even better with the addition of Jonathan La Paglia as a ruggedly handsome undercover detective.

But in separate interviews, DeLorenzo and Yoba said that although they “love the show and love our jobs,” they were less than satisfied with the resolution of their dispute, saying they still believed that their actions were justified.

Yoba, who is passionate in his commitment to aiding urban youth, said he was unhappy that a marketing and merchandising plan that he had developed to link the show with a national strategy on violent crime prevention had been ignored.

He also expressed frustration that the producers declined to spend money to improve working conditions for the cast and crew but came up with the cash to “hire a white actor for the No. 1 show in black and Latino households.”

Yoba, who plays African American detective J.C. Williams, a single father, said that he has had several clashes with Wolf and is working under “extremely difficult conditions.” He added: “I never asked for money. I didn’t demand anything. My agent did all that. It’s the art of the deal. It’s done all the time.”

“I find it incredible that Malik now chooses to blame his agent for his own actions,” Wolf responded in a separate interview. “However, I live in the hope that they will act professionally and continue to live up to the terms of the contract, which they have publicly acknowledged to do.”

Yoba also expressed exasperation that other struggling Fox shows, like “Party of Five,” receive more publicity and attention from the network than “New York Undercover.”

Fox Entertainment President John Matoian disagreed, saying that the network has spent far more in advertising for “New York Undercover” this season than for “Party of Five.” The network, along with Universal Television, which produces the series, held a press conference this week to contribute $10,000 to the National Council of Churches as part of an effort to publicize tonight’s episode, the first of a two-part story about a rash of church burnings in Harlem.

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“ ‘Party of Five’ has been a media darling and a critical success,” Matoian said. “But both shows are important to me personally. I’m sorry that’s Malik’s perception.”

The furor on the show erupted when DeLorenzo and Yoba, who were both largely unknown before the program’s premiere, failed to report for work on July 22, the first day of production. Statements released by Wolf and the studio said that one of the actors was seeking $75,000 an episode. Each lead makes between $20,000 and $22,000 per episode.

Yoba also wanted more creative input, “a gym, a star trailer and better food,” and DeLorenzo said he wanted assurances that he would get to direct episodes of the show, the statements said. Yoba said he was asking for better equipment in the existing gym, which is open to everyone on the show, and for a trailer to replace the broken-down one he had.

The action took place just days after word broke about a salary dispute involving the six regulars on NBC’s “Friends,” each of whom was asking more than $100,000 per episode. However, both DeLorenzo and Yoba said their action had nothing to do with the “Friends” situation.

Saying the series was operating at a deficit and was not yet a success with a large audience, Wolf and Universal wasted no time in responding to Yoba and DeLorenzo. Wolf called their demands “a virus” in the entertainment industry and threatened to write them out of the show by killing off their characters. Universal filed a $1.2-million lawsuit against the pair, alleging breach of contract and claiming that the delays were costing the production company $60,000 a day.

By July 25, Yoba and DeLorenzo had returned to work, with none of their demands met.

DeLorenzo said last week that he was still hurt by Wolf’s response.

“I wanted to grow as an artist,” he said. “I wanted to explore the opportunities to direct. Everyone else on dramas gets to direct. Jason Priestley directs episodes of ‘Beverly Hills, 90210.’ This was a matter of broken promises and giving people respect.”

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Responded Wolf: “I have never been disrespectful to any actor on my shows. That does not necessarily entitle anyone on my shows to direct an episode. In my 10 years as an executive producer, no actor working on my shows has ever directed an episode. Mr. DeLorenzo was informed of this position last spring.”

Yoba was much more vocal in stating his grievances. His complaints against his bosses ranged from charges of racial discrimination to unresponsiveness to concerns about security and the well-being of the crew.

“If I’m asking for better food, it was for better food for the crew,” he said. “I can order anything I want from any restaurant in New York. But when we would go on location, in the middle of the ghetto, we were being served green eggs and ham or some awful stuff. This isn’t about me being comfortable. I’m doing work in the community. I’m building a school in East Harlem. If you do God’s work, all your needs will be provided.”

Yoba said he decided to return because “New York Undercover” gives him a forum to reach young people: “It’s better for me to stay on this platform. There are a lot of things I want to do. This is not about entertainment. We can shift social norms with this show. We’ve made cops cool among criminals.”

Wolf said he didn’t think the attitude of the two stars would have a negative effect on the quality of the show.

“The proof of the pudding is in the first two episodes,” the producer said. “This is among the finest work that has ever been done on the show. Malik and Michael are excellent, as well as co-stars Lauren Velez and Patti D’Arbanville-Quinn.

“I couldn’t do this show if I were not an optimist,” Wolf continued. “I just hope that everyone involved approaches this show with the consummate professionalism which I know they are capable of.”

DeLorenzo said that was their intention.

“I’m a professional, not a social activist,” DeLorenzo said. “The next season will be great, and we will do great work.”

* “New York Undercover” airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. on Fox (Channel 11).


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