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Smits means business

Special to The Times

Jimmy Smits stars on “Cane,” CBS’ Tuesday night drama about a Cuban American rum family; he is also an executive producer. His TV history includes “The West Wing,” “NYPD Blue,” “L.A. Law” and “Cop Rock.”

When you do interviews back to back, like today, don’t you run out of stuff?

It discombobulates me, but that’s how they schedule stuff. That’s how they do it -- and the other half I’m doing on the producorial side.

Yes, you’re a biz man now!

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That’s been interesting. Be careful what you wish for. I haven’t slept yet, since the pilot got the green light in May. It’s all about putting stuff together. You want to be involved in all these things: getting the writer’s room together, scoring the stories, being in on the hiring of people, watching it all come together. And you’ve got to save stuff for in front of the camera. It’s been an exercise in time management. It’s in question as to how I’ve been handling it.

Who questions how you’ve been handling it?

I do! I haven’t read a newspaper in two months. That bothers me. I take them with me every morning. They’re in my bag. I just never crack them. It’s a big ship, and I’m just trying to point it in the right direction so it can stay in calm waters.

David Duchovny told me that the worst part of being an actor and producer is that you have to set a good example -- you can’t act out.

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I never would. I know Dave, he said that in total jest. He’s nothing if not a team player. I don’t have to worry about the example -- I like working in this environment I’m in now.

You’re a TV veteran. Can you tell me what you’ve noticed changing in the industry?

I’ve noticed that my dear friend, and somebody that I respect so much for giving me so many chances, Steven Bochco -- if Steven were to pitch “NYPD Blue” to executives, that would be a hard sell today. So in this 200-channel universe that we’re in, with many different niches, the scope of what you do on broadcast TV, there’s still limitations and barriers that you have to deal with. But at the same time, they realize they need to compete with their cable brothers and sisters! It’s interesting how you try to serve those masters.

We pitched what we think is kind of an edgy show, and because of that, because you’re on broadcast television, there’s restraints you have. But we’re finding our way to what the show will be. It’s a hybrid: Of course those shows that were very popular in the late ‘80s, which you guys kind of term nighttime soaps -- we should be so lucky, those are iconic! But the television appetite has changed immensely. How do you work in that serialized box and at the same time have the edge? And deal with that audiences can switch to watch the cable? That’s what we’re dealing with.

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Audiences are a pain! I know I want narrative but I want comfort but I also want excitement but I want resolution.

On networks there’s a large block of successful procedural-type shows. Which although they try in their own kind of way to deal with characters, it’s not at the forefront of what the show is about. But because of that, they’re the most successful. You look at the top 10 shows, they’re wrapped up every episode, and good to be able to syndicate and all that. But there’s this other school of thought of character-driven shows. That requires a certain participation from the audience, the viewers. You have to figure out ways that you can wrap up B and C stories so you can satisfy that audience desire for things being ended and still have long character arcs. It’s something we’re navigating every day as we do the show and find out what the show will be.

Hmm. Cool.

It’s cool if it works.

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What if it doesn’t work?

Mmm, I don’t even want to go there. We’ll make it work.

Will you take me back in time? What would you have to do to “L.A. Law” to make it a hit today?

I think it would still function -- it would need some kind of different dressing. But it would function on its own. I have nothing but fond memories of that show. It was a springboard for me on so many different levels. It was just a great time.

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Was it a fun set?

It was a great set. There were a lot of people who had theater backgrounds, people transplanted from New York or who had done theater. I just have vivid memories of those conference room scenes and the topics of discussion about art and all of that. Then to watch as the success changed them -- they became about what addition people were doing to their homes. The machine takes over! But it was a great bunch. And certainly Steven Bochco put together a wonderful family. David Kelley got his start on that show.

What else is going on besides business? How are your eight spare hours a week?

Dude, what eight hours! On Sunday I was trying to watch the Yankee game, and I had to go hear a mix of a new episode. There’s a lot to do. I don’t want to paint a picture of Sturm und Drang.

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For me more than anything, it’s not just signing on and saying I won’t just have my name on a producorial level. I want to contribute and participate. That’s part of it too. As long as it’s still welcome, and the voice doesn’t get marginalized: “You belong on set.” I’m not going to let that happen.

What’s your shooting schedule?

The initial order was for 13; that’ll take us through Christmas and over the break. We’ll find out what happens in the next month. It’ll be very telling, what the audience response is. It’s a tough night that night, all those factors. You listen to the numbers. The paper’s out with the numbers the day after and you can spin numbers so many different ways. Right now the network seems very encouraged. It’s our job to serve up what we pitched to the network and what we delivered in the pilot. There’s a lot on the plate there. It’s all good though! As they say in the hood.


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