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No Laughing Matter

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Far from the mean streets of New York, James McDaniel, who plays Lt. Arthur Fancy, the no-nonsense head of detectives on “NYPD Blue,” was footloose and apparently Fancy-free.

Instead of the somber, edgy demeanor of Fancy, McDaniel was howling with laughter as he performed impressions of actors he had seen the night before in a movie. His infectious loud laugh could be heard a block away.

Fans of the much-honored ABC drama who might have wandered near the lot recently to witness this scene may have had trouble recognizing the smiling McDaniel as he leaned against a brick wall behind a Culver City coffee shop. While cast members are familiar with the lighter side of McDaniel, “NYPD Blue” fans know him better as the serious Lt. Fancy, who, like other of the series’ characters, sometimes has experiences that hit a little close to home to the actor who is portraying them.

One of those instances takes place during tonight’s episode of “NYPD Blue” when Fancy, an African American, and his wife, on their way home from visiting relatives, are pulled over by two white police officers. The cops order the couple to get out of the car with their hands raised. Fancy and his wife are further humiliated when the officers point guns at them and tell them to put their hands on the hood of the car.

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Even after Fancy angrily informs the lead officer that he is a detective lieutenant, the officer said he had a duty to pull him over. The tension between the two escalates as Fancy clings to the notion that the officer pulled him over just because he is black, and he sets about a plan of revenge, using his clout to punish the officer.

It’s not the first time Fancy has had to confront racism within his department. Some of the drama’s most memorable episodes have revolved around racial clashes between Fancy and Det. Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz), whose bigotry bubbles just below the surface.

McDaniel said he understood Fancy’s reaction in tonight’s episode: “If I sense any trace of racism, it affects my life. I tend to see red.”

He said that he has had friends who have been ordered by police officers to lay down on the pavement, with guns pointed at the back of their heads.

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McDaniel added: “I get pulled over all the time. One time I got pulled over three times in one evening, the last time about 200 yards from my house. The officers always have an excuse, especially when they recognize who I am. I don’t get angry, but I express my disappointment when I get asked to speak at a medal of valor dinner or some police event. I always turn them down. I am not going to be used as a poster child.

“So in terms of doing research for the scene, I knew all the moves. It’s not like I had to do a lot of research.”

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McDaniel also feels that the episode will show a side of Fancy that audiences have not yet seen during the four years of the drama. It will reveal some gray areas of his character that have been hidden, he said.

“Fancy really wants to hurt someone, and I wanted this character to go into areas of revenge and irresponsibility,” he said. “I’ve known that I have no fear of making him less attractive and more flawed. I’ve been wanting to do that for a while, but sometimes I think there’s a desire to keep a lid on James McDaniel.”

McDaniel added: “The truth is a weird thing. On the show, we get close enough to issues and we try to get everyone’s viewpoint, therefore the answers are more murky. Everyone is on the same plane, and that’s what makes it entertaining.”

The actor, a veteran of stage, screen and TV, has often said in the past that he would like his role on the drama to be expanded. The show--which is known for its blunt language, steamy love scenes, dramatic intensity and its tackling of delicate personal and cultural conflicts--mostly focuses on Sipowicz and his partner Bobby Simone (Jimmy Smits).

David Milch, the co-creator and executive producer of “NYPD Blue,” said he sympathizes with McDaniel’s frustrations. “Because of the construction of the show, James doesn’t get to show his chops as often as he would like. And the tensions that bring his character to the fore are often racial in nature.”

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But Milch said the situation with Fancy, as well as other supporting characters on the show, such as detectives James Martinez (Nicholas Turturro) and Greg Medavoy (Gordon Clapp), is not likely to change.

“It’s just not the way the show is built,” Milch said. “It’s a particular kind of burden that a successful show is asked to bear. The fact is, Jimmy’s and Dennis’ characters are at the center of the show. The subsidiary characters are seen in relation to those characters.”

However, he added, “Anything we ask of James, he does as well as anyone can. He’s a great actor.”

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McDaniel has gotten to the point where he even jokes about the situation.

“People are always asking me when they are going to see more of me and my family on the show,” he said. “I tell them at this rate, by the year 2050, I will be speaking every line in the script.”

But McDaniel is not lacking for work or offers. He has appeared in several series produced by “NYPD Blue” producer Steven Bochco: “Hill Street Blues,” “Cop Rock,” “L.A. Law.” and “Civil Wars. He also appeared on Broadway in “Six Degrees of Separation” and in films such as “Malcolm X.”

McDaniel said he is pleased to work on a series in which “everyone has similar sensibilities: They’re smart and they have a healthy degree of cynicism.”

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“Before the cameras roll, and after the director yells ‘cut,’ everyone on the cast and crew is all in hysterics. They’re all my friends. Everyone keeps trying to tape a ‘kick me’ sign on my back. When I’m there, I’m hanging from the rafters, it’s so fun,” he said.

He then smiled his wide un-Fancy-like smile: “Life is all right with me.”

* “NYPD Blue” airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on ABC (Channel 7).


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