When it comes to "NYPD Blue's" acting ensemble, it's difficult not to think of Kim Delaney, who played Det. Diane Russell for six seasons on the Emmy-winning series. And though Jill Hennessy left "Law & Order" in 1996 after three seasons, there are still fans who think of Assistant Dist. Atty. Claire Kincaid when they hear her name.
It's not too surprising. Television characters often consume the identities of the actors who play them, and breaking loose from the shadow and stereotypes of a well-known role and a popular character can be tough. Think Shelley Long and "Cheers."
So for Hennessy and Delaney the fall provides an intriguing double-barreled challenge. Both have lead roles in new dramas--Hennessy in NBC's "Crossing Jordan" and Delaney in ABC's "Philly"--which is tough enough. But they also must deal with the undercurrent of memories: Will viewers be willing to let them move beyond Det. Russell and Assistant D.A. Kincaid? The task should be easier for Hennessy. She's five years beyond the series, though her episodes live on, as "Law & Order" is so widely syndicated that on most days it's possible to catch an episode with Hennessy in it. Still, in the intervening years, the actress has appeared in a number of small films and a few bigger ones--"Autumn in New York" in 2000 and "Exit Wounds" earlier this year. Hennessy has also turned up in two miniseries: "Nuremberg" and "Jackie, Ethel, Joan: The Women of Camelot" in 2000.
Hennessy's new character is a distance from Kincaid, too. While in the same crime-solving vein as Kincaid on "Law & Order," Hennessy hangs up the courtroom suits in favor of a ripped jeans and New York kind of toughness in "Crossing Jordan." As the drama's anchor, medical examiner Dr. Jordan Cavanaugh, she's tackling homicide cases with a spitfire, anti- establishment attitude. She's also dealing with anger-control problems that got her fired from a job in L.A. and forced her to head to Boston for a job in the state coroner's office.
"I think the reaction we are going to get from women is, 'Oh man, it's about time we've seen someone I can actually relate to'--a woman who gets up in the morning and has to sniff her undershirt to make sure it's clean," Hennessy explains. "You know, we've never seen women do that stuff. It's a very human thing, if you're male or female." There's also a harried reality that comes with Delaney's new character on "Philly," who plays a sexy yet no-nonsense criminal attorney.
A tested chameleon on screen, Delaney's career has run the gamut from roles as the poor girl breaking the class barrier as Jenny Gardner in "All My Children" to the cutthroat wire reporter in the Vietnam-era series "Tour of Duty" before finding Russell.
Where just last year she played the streetwise public investigator with a paycheck to match, now Delaney is set to encounter criminals as the bourgeois but bleeding-heart Kathleen Maguire, a trial lawyer sensitive to finding the truth whether it's confronting a murderer in prison or protecting her crazed law partner.
"She's a real television star," Steven Bochco--the executive producer of "NYPD Blue" who created "Philly" to showcase Delaney's talentNtold The Times in May. "By virtue of the design of 'NYPD Blue,' we knew there would never be a legitimate way to focus on her." With "Philly," all that changes.
"Crossing Jordan" premieres Monday at 10 p.m. on NBC. "Philly" premieres Tuesday at 10 p.m. on ABC.