Cover Story

'NYPD Blue' — Copping a New Attitude

David Caruso's departure and Jimmy Smits' arrival herald big changes for the cop drama

During a break in filming NYPD Blue in Manhattan's East Village, new kid on the beat Jimmy Smits is running down the stairs of an eight-story walk-up when a resident pops out of his front door with a camera.

''Can I take your picture?'' the apartment dweller inquires sheepishly. ''I promise not to sell it.''

''You won't sell it?'' Smits asks, then stands still briefly to oblige. The camera flashes, and Smits bolts downstairs. ''Thanks!'' the amateur paparazzo calls after him. ''Good luck with the show! I know you'll be great!''

''I hope so,'' Smits mutters to no one in particular. ''Because if I'm not, they'll let me know real quick.''

A month earlier, in late September, David Caruso had made his own dramatic exit from NYPD Blue. After a tumultuous summer of contract disputes, producers let the movie star wannabe leave the show after this season's first four episodes, even though he had earned an Emmy nomination and had helped make NYPD a hit. At the end of a stressful five weeks of work, Caruso shot his final scene, in which his Det. John Kelly, having resigned from the force under the pressure of an internal-affairs investigation, says goodbye to his squad-room colleagues.

With cameras rolling, Caruso delivered his last lines of dialogue. And then ''he walked out of the door, off the set, and off the lot,'' reports Dennis Franz, who won an Emmy this year as Kelly's partner, soft-shell crab Andy Sipowicz. ''It made a lot of people feel foolish. A lot of the crew had gathered around the set to applaud him and give him an adequate farewell. They were left with egg on their face when he did what he did. But that's David.''

Sitting in his trailer on First Avenue during NYPD's first week of non-L.A. filming this season, Franz suddenly feels compelled to argue the case for his ex-costar. ''In his defense, David is not a mean-spirited guy. If he'd known that those people were gathered there to do that, I don't think he would have been that rude. I think it was, 'This is the last performance I got in me, the last exit I'm making — adios!'''

It was a fittingly edgy ending to Caruso's tour of duty on the show. Since premiering last season, NYPD has prevailed over bluenosed opposition to become a critical and popular smash, winning a record 26 Emmy nominations, rising to sixth in the ratings, and turning Caruso from a journeyman film character actor (Thief of Hearts, Mad Dog and Glory) into a TV superstar. But the fiery redhead grew agitated with the series' tight production schedule, which he felt didn't allow him enough takes to achieve his optimal performance. ''When you have eight days to do an hour episode, you have to be satisfied with less than perfect a lot of times,'' says Franz. ''David became frustrated a lot with himself, and with other people around him.''

''David always cares a lot about the quality of the work, and sometimes that gets misinterpreted,'' adds costar Gordon Clapp (Det. Greg Medavoy), a friend of Caruso's since working with him in the 1991 TV movie Mission of the Shark. ''Sometimes he lost it in the heat of the moment.''

Caruso has declined comment on his departure. (''David's not very vocal about his side of different stories,'' says Clapp. ''He's not a big publicity hound.'') But his former representative, Stan Rosenfield, defends the actor's prima donna reputation: ''Artists are always portrayed as difficult. David was accused of wanting to do scenes over because he wasn't happy with what he had done. Obviously the people who make motion pictures look past that.'' (This summer, Caruso completed his first starring role in a feature, Kiss of Death, for which he was paid $1 million; he'll get $2 million for Jade, a Joe Eszterhas-penned erotic thriller set to start shooting in January.)

Executive producer David Milch says that NYPD's makers were aware of Caruso's artistic temperament when they signed him for the series: ''David's a whole package. He won't let himself be anything other than interesting. What drives him to that also makes him very, very difficult. On balance, I'm far from regretting having chosen David.''

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