Rick Schroder has been facing a lot of challenges since joining the cast of ABC’s “NYPD Blue,” in which he makes his first appearance Tuesday as Andy Sipowicz’s new partner, Det. Danny Sorenson.
Those challenges include being the new kid on the block on the Emmy Award-winning series and battling the ghost of Jimmy Smits, who last week departed the show after four seasons as Bobby Simone.
“I do realize that Simone was a loved character and respected by the audience,” he says. “Those are big shoes to fill.”
But perhaps the biggest challenge for Schroder, 28, is adjusting to the fact that his wife and three young children are back home on their ranch in Grand Junction, Colo., while he’s filming in Los Angeles.
Though Schroder has been commuting home on the weekends, the former child star confesses that the separation has been hard for all concerned.
“They miss me,” Schroder says over a cheeseburger-and-fries lunch at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. “They are used to having me there and I’m used to being there.” But he doesn’t want to uproot his family. So, he says “we’re going to stay this way for a while.”
Meanwhile, Schroder says, “it’s been challenging living on my own and doing my own laundry and cooking my own dinner. When I get home after a 12- to 14-hour day, I have two or three hours of studying lines to do. I don’t have time to cook dinner. I have been living on Franco American spaghetti for the past two weeks. I hear they have prepared meals they deliver to your house. I think I am going to look into that!”
Over an hour lunch, Schroder comes across as amazingly normal and down-to-earth, considering that he’s been in the public eye for two decades, including a lead role opposite Jon Voight in “The Champ” (1979) and starring for five years (1982-87) in the sitcom “Silver Spoons.” He thinks one of the reasons he didn’t run into the troubles that so many former child stars have encountered is that he kept a healthy perspective on the job.
“I always had a separate life than just my work,” he says. “I built my own family. I have my own hobbies and interests. I have a ranch with livestock and horses. I didn’t always get my self-esteem and identity from acting. I never worked unless I wanted to. I never did anything just to do it, just for the paycheck. I always did things that I liked.”
Over the past decade, Schroder has demonstrated his versatility and increasing maturity, starring in the “Lonesome Dove” miniseries and countless TV movies, including “My Son Johnny” and “Detention: Siege at Johnson High.”
He knew, though, that he would eventually want to come back to L.A. and work more consistently. “I wasn’t challenged any more doing [the TV movies]. I was ready to do a little more work. I was really torn, because I knew that if I did a one-hour show, my life and my family’s life was really going to change in a real big way.”
To offset that trauma, Schroder wanted something “special and great,” so he waited patiently for the right series. Then he learned about the new role on “NYPD Blue.” After two auditions, he got the job.
David Milch, the show’s executive producer and co-creator, says that of all the actors he auditioned, Schroder worked the most naturally with Dennis Franz.
“Frankly, our chief concern at that point was that Rick’s character would stand not only on its own, but in a relationship to Dennis that would sort of take the show in a different direction,” Milch says. “We just didn’t feel it was appropriate or frankly possible to have a replacement for Jimmy.”
Sorenson, says Schroder, is passionate about his job, a “straight arrow out of the military, a Desert Storm veteran. He’s single and emotionally closed off. Emotions scare him and when he’s working on his job, he has no problem. But talk to him about anything personal, and he closes off like a clam.”
The young detective also is savvy enough to know the squad is upset over the loss of Simone. “When he comes to the squad, he realizes that he is going to be talking some shots from them, but he’s smart enough to keep his head low. He realizes he’ll weather the storm.”
Schroder doesn’t think audiences have any trouble seeing him in adult roles these days. In fact, he says, people rarely mention his child star days, and when they do, “it doesn’t bother me much. I have a career I am proud of as a child actor. I’m not running away from it or embarassed with anything I did.”
Despite his experience, however, he says doing “NYPD Blue” has been making him stretch as an actor. “I am being pushed by David Milch to work harder than I have ever worked,” he says. “The cast has been great. Dennis has helped me immensely and supported me. Milch’s dialogue can be very tricky to understand as a viewer and to even say as an actor. But I feel like I’m getting stronger every day.”
And yes, in “NYPD Blue” tradition, Schroder will be doffing his duds. “I did my first nude scene yesterday,” he says with a slight smile. “It was actually fine. It was completely tasteful--[as was] the way they treat you on the set. We giggled all the way through. You’ve got to make light of it!”
“NYPD Blue” airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on ABC.