NBC hopes sexy lieutenant will bring heat to 'Homicide'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

An incorrect name was given Friday for the Daily Grind in Fells Point in an interview with "Homicide" actress Isabella Hofmann.

The Sun regrets the errors.

She's a 35-year-old single mom who made her name busting drug dealers in Baltimore. She wears silk dresses and commands a grungy, gray-metal squadroom full of men with very strong personalities and some rather strange opinions.

She's got a B.S. from the Naval Academy, an ex-husband she doesn't even want to think about now that they're divorced, and, oh yeah, she's sleeping with one of the detectives on the day shift. He's that good-looking, younger guy with the bedroom eyes, who has a frightened mouse of a wife and two kids back at the rowhouse crying their eyes out and wondering when daddy's coming home.

Say hello to Lt. Megan Russert, "Homicide: Life on the Street's" new character and the one NBC is counting on to lead the series from the nether world of rave-reviews-but-weak-ratings to the promised land of weekly Nielsen winner.

While it has not been a great fall for new network series, it's been a fairly good one in terms of interesting new female characters. There's Bess Armstrong's Patty Chase on ABC's "My So-Called Life," Cicely Tyson's Grace Battle on NBC's "Sweet Justice," and Judith Ivey's Alex Buchanan on CBS' "The Five Mrs. Buchanans" to name a few.

Add Isabella Hofmann's Lt. Megan Russert to the list.

"I think, perhaps, the most important thing about Megan Russert is that she's a woman who embraces her femininity as well as her masculine qualities," Hofmann said last week over a cup of cafe latte at the Coffee Grind in Fells Point.

"Publicly, at work, she's a force to be reckoned with. I think she's a bit of a quiet storm. Privately, we get to see more of her emotional and sensual side.

"And I think this is something she struggles with," Hofmann says. "Not in a heavy way, but she is in a male-dominated arena where she has to show her strength and competence, which she does. . . . But she is not trying to be a man, which is something that I think is very, very important. Megan Russert is full of dichotomies. She's very complicated. She's very complex. And aren't we all?"

Hofmann, 35, has a degree in theater and music from Columbia College in Chicago, her hometown and also where she was a member of the famed Second City theater troupe.

Hofmann has done New York theater and Hollywood films, but she's probably best known for playing Kate McCarron for four years on NBC's "Dear John." Kate was the seemingly well-adjusted member of the One-Two-One Club for singles, which included wounded-man John Lacey (Judd Hirsch) and macho-man Kirk Morris (Jere Burns).

While Hofmann was an important player in the "Dear John" ensemble, she is crucial to the future of "Homicide."

While ABC's "NYPD Blue" -- another gritty, big-city police drama -- became a ratings hit and big Emmy-winner in its first season, "Homicide" struggled in its start-and-stop runs the last two years.

NBC believes there is no real difference in the quality of the two series. But "NYPD Blue" had s-e-x, and "Homicide" didn't. NBC wants "Homicide" to get sexy this season. This is where Hofmann's Lieutenant Russert comes in.

To their credit, executive producers Tom Fontana and Barry Levinson didn't simply add a bunch of bedroom scenes to heat up "Homicide." In Russert, they created a character who brings a sexual tension to the show. Because of her position in the squad room and the kind of character she is, her sexual relationship is as much about gender, power and identity as it is raw sex.

Ultimately, that should be even sexier -- if it actually plays out that way. If it doesn't, "Homicide" could be history. It's scheduled against Emmy-rich "Picket Fences" and ratings-rich "20/20," which means there's not much room for error.

Hofmann nods over the rim of her coffee cup in seeming agreement with the assessment of Russert's importance to "Homicide." But she's not saying anything that might jar the many supercharged egos she works with, and for, on the sound stages at Recreation Pier.

"I can't wait to see what the audience's reaction is going to be to Russert," Hofmann says. "I think at the very least they'll tune in because she's a provocative character."

Hofmann is even more diplomatic when asked about her first big scene in tonight's episode, in which she addresses the squad in the wake of a gruesome, politically explosive murder. In order to convincingly take control of the testosterone-charged squadroom, actress Hofmann has to somehow overpower the huge talents of Yaphet Kotto, Andre Braugher, Ned Beatty and the rest of what might be the most talented troupe of actors working in weekly television.

"I'm really glad to hear you thought that scene worked," Hofmann says, now looking into her coffee cup. "But Lieutenant Russert was able to take command in a convincing way in part only because the actors you named helped create that space for her to move into."

Maybe Hofmann is just "happy to be here," as she says.

She first read for the part on a Wednesday in July. That was with an assistant casting director. Two days later, she was reading for Levinson. Two days after that, she was on a plane for Baltimore. She hasn't been back home to Los Angeles since that Sunday in July.

She says she misses home and her two German shepherds, but playing Russert is a once-in-a-lifetime shot. She wouldn't want to be anywhere else right now but in Fells Point making "Homicide."

"This is the kind of role that just has so much that's connected to where I am now . . . where women are, I think. I mean, even the subtleties. This is a woman who wears dresses. This is a woman who doesn't necessarily wear suits. She wears things that are kind of feminine.

"And this is a statement in and of itself. This says, 'Accept me for who I am. I am a woman, and I happen to be your boss. And I'm not going to hide from either fact,' " Hofmann says. "There's a statement about equality, too. As far as the women's movement goes, we may have set ourselves back by trying to be little men in the workplace. Maybe we had to go through that. But, now it's starting to change a little bit, I think.

"To get a role that deals with those sorts of things is wonderful. It's exactly the kind of role I want to be doing at this time in my life. It's the perfect job for me right now."

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