The show must go on Analysis: Cast changes add plenty of drama for a TV series' producers, but as long as the story is good, even upheaval can prove healthy in the long run.

July 21, 1998|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,Sun Staff

Rick Schroder replacing Jimmy Smits?

Had Steven Bochco lost his mind?

More than a few people were wondering just that last month, when it was announced that the brooding, charismatic Jimmy Smits would be leaving Bochco's "NYPD Blue" next season. To fill his shoes, Bochco will be counting on former child star Rick Schroder, who will forever remain, in many people's minds, as that cute Ricky Stratton on NBC's "Silver Spoons" from 1982 to 1986.

And that announcement was just the opening salvo in what promises to be a bombardment of cast changes this season in some of television's finest dramas. Both "Homicide: Life On the Street" and "Law & Order" are losing key cast members. Even powerhouse "ER" is losing Maria Bello and girding up for 1999, when George Clooney has said he'll walk away from the show.

But far from spelling doom, as such cast changes might have in the past ("The Untouchables" without Robert Stack? "The Defenders" without E.G. Marshall? "The Fugitive" without David Janssen?), chances are the shows' popularity with their fans won't falter. David Caruso left "NYPD Blue," Smits came on, and the show's ratings climbed. Michael Moriarty left "Law & Order," Sam Waterston came on, and the show won its first Emmy for best drama series (and climbed in the ratings). Ned Beatty left "Homicide," and the show's fans barely flinched.

Why? For one thing, the quality of writing on television is better than ever - more than a few critics have noted that this is the real Golden Age of TV drama. For another, today's best dramas, in a tradition that goes back at least as far as "Hill Street Blues," are ensemble shows, where no one character consistently dominates. That's why "Hill Street" wasn't called "Furillo" and why "Law & Order" isn't known as "The Trials of Jack McCoy."

"As long as the quality of writing and the level of acting is maintained, I think that the audience remains loyal to the show," says "Homicide" executive producer Tom Fontana. "The characters are part of a larger system. It's easier for the show to adapt to the loss of a major character because that's what happens in real life. The institutions go on."

Adds "Law & Order" executive producer Dick Wolf, "If you see cast changes as an opportunity to show the audience something they haven't seen, [audiences] cut you some slack, as long as it's done correctly."

Perhaps no decision is going to test that loyalty more than Bochco's choice of Schroder, who, since leaving "Silver Spoons," has acted in "Lonesome Dove" and its sequel, "Return to Lonesome Dove."

Reaction ranged from the skeptical to the curmudgeonly, the latter exemplified by Newsday critic Marvin Kitman. "My first reaction was to call 911 to report a crime in progress," Kitman wrote. "Or make a citizen's arrest of Steven Bochco for impersonating a producer."

But Bochco didn't get to be the guiding force behind some of television's top dramas by being crazy unless you count crazy like a fox. By replacing Smits with Schroder, he simply addressed one of the most vexing problems facing TV producers in the '90s with one of the tactics that seems to work best: hire someone who will take the show in a different direction.

"It would be foolhardy to try and replace Jimmy Smits," says Bochco, who's enraged by Kitman's nay-saying. "I would certainly never want to burden an actor with that kind of comparison. What you try to do is find someone completely different, find a way to go that doesn't just replace a character but really alters the chemistry of the series.

"The moment you say, 'What if you bring in a young guy, a baby, a detective 28 years old?' it changes everything. He doesn't have the eight years of experience [he needs] to sort of compete in the squad room. He has to overcome all the biases a guy like [Dennis Franz's] Sipowicz brings to the party.

"And," Bochco adds, sounding like a man who relishes the challenge, "it gives you the opportunity to really take a look at your show and expose aspects of your existing characters that perhaps haven't been seen before."

Shaking off the cobwebs

Fontana is using much the same philosophy in the wake of the departure of Andre Braugher, the closest thing to a breakout star NBC's critically lauded and tepidly rated "Homicide." So far, two new cast members have been announced for the series, which will begin its seventh season having lost not only Braugher, but also Reed Diamond and Michelle Forbes (who left the show in March). Giancarlo Esposito, a veteran of four Spike Lee films, will play the FBI agent son of Lt. Al Giardello (Yaphet Kotto). And actress Michael Michele ("Central Park West") will play Detective Rene Sheppard, a former beauty-pageant contestant.

"'Homicide' is so true-to-life," says Esposito, "and so steeped in reality, it will suffer less from the cast changes than other shows would. It's not a show based on personalities or stardom. It's a show based on very good writing and a talented cast."

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