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ABC, ‘NYPD Blue’ Respond Calmly to Smits’ Departure

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Steven Bochco is not crying the blues about the future of “NYPD Blue” without star Jimmy Smits.

True, Bochco, the veteran producer who co-created the hit ABC police drama with David Milch, would prefer that Smits would stay on. But he respects the actor’s decision to leave, adding that the parting of the ways is on the best of terms.

More importantly, Bochco says Smits’ announcement Thursday has not resulted in the same level of anxiety that erupted with the less-than-amicable withdrawal of original star David Caruso, who left the show shortly after the first season in 1993.

“We’re a well-established show now,” Bochco said in an interview. “Creatively, this transition does not represent the kind of risk that the last one did.”

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Bochco and Milch have not yet mapped out the specifics on Smits’ replacement or on how the show will deal with his departure. Smits, who plays Detective Bobby Simone, will leave next season after a half-dozen episodes that will phase out his character.

“David and I simply have not sat down to figure it out,” Bochco said. “We’re obviously going to add someone to the cast. But we haven’t figured out who, what gender or anything like that.”

He added: “Am I nervous? Yes. You don’t lose an actor and a character of that significance and depth and quality without being nervous. What you try to do is translate that anxiety into a positive challenge to do something that is fresh and equally as interesting.”

Bochco said the show, which also stars Emmy winner Dennis Franz as the troubled Detective Andy Sipowicz, will undergo a dramatic change without Smits: “Everything will change. When Caruso left, everything changed. As writers, we want to respect that change, which will generate stories and different relationship alignments. Everything shifts around.”

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Some critics had speculated that “NYPD Blue” would suffer without the fiery charisma of Caruso, who left to do feature films after a dispute with Bochco and Milch over his salary. Also, Smits was coming off a less-than-stellar movie career after leaving his Emmy Award-winning role as attorney Victor Sifuentes in 1991 on NBC’s “L.A. Law,” another Bochco-created series.

But the drama became more popular than ever with Smits, who brought his own quiet volatility and sexiness to the series. “NYPD Blue” ranks No. 18 among all network series this season, and is ABC’s highest-rated drama.

ABC executives begrudgingly accepted the news about Smits. The network is faltering this season, and has few hits besides “NYPD Blue” to boast about.

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“Jimmy is a very tough act to follow,” said Stephen Tao, vice president of drama series for ABC. “We are very proud of his work. But we have every confidence that Steven and David will find someone to step in the same way that Jimmy stepped in.”

Network executives can also take hope in the fact that other drama series in recent years have survived and prospered after key cast members left, including “Law & Order,” “Chicago Hope” and “Homicide: Life on the Street.”

Further lessening the pain are reports that Smits is close to signing a deal with ABC to star in another series.

Smits said in an interview with columnist Liz Smith that he wants to do cable and feature films as well as more television work. “The support I have had on ‘NYPD Blue’ has been incredible, and there was a lot at stake in the beginning. I feel now I can walk away and know I achieved what I wanted with this show.”

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Smits is leaving just as some critics have charged that “NYPD Blue” has fallen into a bit of a rut this season with annoying supporting characters and story lines that have not been as involving as in previous seasons.

Responding to the criticism, Bochco said, “In my own personal opinion, the fifth season of ‘NYPD Blue’ is certainly as good as any we’ve ever had. In many ways, it’s more complex than any we’ve ever had. I can cite 10 episodes that were stunning.”

Among those episodes, he said, was the “Lost Israel” two-part episode revolving around the murder of a child who had befriended a deaf-mute transient. Said Bochco: “I think that episode and others we’ve done this season are as good as television gets.”


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