Please try to avoid the dead-ends TV: As new faces replace the familiar ones now missing, 'Homicide' -- which begins filming today in Baltimore -- will go, once more, in new directions.

July 20, 1998|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

PASADENA, Calif. -- The cast and crew of "Homicide: Life on the Street" go back to work today in Baltimore, and executive producer Tom Fontana says they are feeling "strong and feisty" about the start of their seventh season -- even without Andre Braugher.

"We're not nervous at all about it. In fact, we're feeling very strong and feisty," Fontana said yesterday.

"Obviously, the tone of the show is going to change. It changes every time we make substitutions," he added.

"But all I can say is that the show this year will be a show about the entire cast instead of just focusing on one character like Frank Pembleton. We have so many great actors that we're very excited about the chance to take time out this season for all them," he said.

Fontana met with TV critics here yesterday to introduce the two members of the cast who will replace Braugher, Reed Diamond and Michelle Forbes who left the show last year as it completed its milestone 100th episode.

They are Giancarlo Esposito and Michael Michele. Esposito was seen most recently in "Twilight," with Paul Newman. He has an impressive feature film resume that includes "Do the Right Thing," "Mo' Better Blues" and "Malcolm X," all from Spike Lee. He plays FBI agent Mike Giardello, estranged son of Lt. Al Giardello (Yaphet Kotto), who is assigned to Baltimore as part of a violent crimes unit.

Michele has appeared in "New Jack City" and "The Sixth Man" feature films. Her television work includes a recurring role for two years on Fox's "New York Undercover" and a regular spot on the short-lived CBS series "Central Park West" as a Soho art dealer. She will play Detective Rene Sheppard, a former Maryland beauty queen who is transferred from the fugitive squad to the homicide unit.

When asked about his role and whether he's talked with Kotto about how best to create the on-screen dynamic between them as father and son, Esposito said, "No, not really. Actually, I've been thinking this weekend that I don't really want to even see him until Tuesday when we have our first scene together.

"Yaphet's a really imposing personality. He's a very big man. He's a very black man. He's a very wonderful person.

"I had met him before, but I've been molding him in my mind into my father the past few weeks, so, now I'm not sure whether I want to meet him before our first scene Tuesday in Baltimore."

For her part, Michele seems a little uncomfortable with the former beauty queen part of her character description, but she does bring a kind of glamour not before seen on "Homicide."

"We've discussed it, and I've been told I just have to be good at my job, be convincing as a cop. I don't know about the beauty queen. I think it's just something Tom came up with," she said.

"Actually, it was Barry who came up with it," Fontana said, blaming it on Levinson who was not at the session.

Both Esposito and Michele are African-American, and several questions from the critics noted how far ahead of most other network shows "Homicide" seemed in presenting a quality, integrated cast.

Esposito said, after spending some time in Baltimore this summer, he thinks the city has a lot to do with it.

"The reality is that Baltimore is an integrated city with all kinds of people, not just black and whites, but Asians as well and all kinds of other people who are also truly American," he said.

"And this show is different because it plays against what we think of as normal. You know, Al Giardello is half Italian, and I'm a living example of that: My father's from Italy, and my mother's from Alabama. And I've spent much of my life explaining that.

"And that's one of the things that makes 'Homicide' wonderful: Most of the characters are made up of many different pieces and parts. 'Homicide' can teach the rest of Hollywood what's possible in terms of looking at people as they really are," he concluded.

Fontana pointed out that this is the first network drama with two black women in the regular cast -- Michele and Toni Lewis (Detective Terri Stivers).

In terms of what's ahead this season, Fontana said there would be more sexual ambiguity for Detective Tim Bayliss (Kyle Secor), a possible guest star turn for Braugher and at least one crossover with "Law & Order."

"We are going to continue that storyline for Bayliss, but it will be part of the story rather than the story. It will be woven into his character along with the Adena Watson case and the fact that he was abused as a child.

"The network hates it. The network wishes it would go away. But it will be there," Fontana said.

As for a return by Braugher, Fontana said Braugher, Diamond and Forbes all said they'd be willing to return. In Braugher's case, it is being discussed, Fontana said, but won't happen until he or one of the writers comes up with a realistic storyline.

"I don't want to do 'Andre just happens to be driving through Baltimore and his car breaks down in front of the squad room one day and he says, "Oh, hi, guys, what a surprise." ' " Fontana said.

As for the crossover with "Law & Order," Fontana said, "We were going to try and do it with 'South Park.' You know, someone says, 'Hey, they killed Kenny,' and our guys go, 'Pffft. Who cares?' "

For the third straight year, "Homicide" won the Outstanding Achievement in Drama award from the Television Critics' Association. For the second time, Braugher won for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Drama.

The awards were presented over the weekend. Fontana was here to accept the award for "Homicide." He also accepted on fTC behalf of Braugher, who was directing a film in Toronto.

Pub Date: 7/20/98

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