Los Angeles -- NBC's "Homicide: Life on the Streets" is going through some character changes this summer. Two are going, one is coming, and there's going to be even more of Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher), easily the most interesting African-American character in prime-time.
Just as the critically acclaimed series finally won a measure of security in May with its first full order of 22 episodes from the network, it was announced that Ned Beatty and Daniel Baldwin were leaving the show.
Beatty said he wanted to return to feature films. Baldwin said he wanted to try features, too.
But Baldwin also said he was leaving because he didn't see much growth for his character. This led to speculation that "Homicide," which begins shooting in Baltimore for the new season next Monday, was changing from an ensemble show into more of a star vehicle for Braugher, whom TV Guide anointed "the best actor on television" in a feature story in May.
Producers Tom Fontana and Henry Bromell, along with Braugher and his fellow actors Richard Belzer and Kyle Secor, met with television critics here yesterday, and they talked about the changes.
Yes, there is going to be more of Braugher's Frank Pembleton this season, they said. But, no, they don't think "Homicide" will be any less an ensemble show -- the loss of Beatty and Baldwin notwithstanding.
"The public statements [on Beatty and Baldwin] are exactly what they are -- they want to do films," Fontana said. "It's just a natural thing for people to leave on a series like this. You know, on 'St. Elsewhere' [for which Fontana won an Emmy as writer-producer], we had half the cast when we ended the show as we did at the beginning. So, it's not unusual for these kinds of changes."
To support the claim that the partings were amicable, Fontana said they aren't going to kill off Bolander and Felton -- the characters played by Beatty and Baldwin -- in hopes that the two will return to the series from time to time.
"I won't tell you how we are going to write them out [of the series], but we are not going to kill them off," Fontana said.
Bromell said part of the slack left by the departures will be picked up by Reed Diamond, who will play Detective Mike Kellerman. Kellerman will appear in the season opener as an arson investigator butting heads with Pembleton and Bayliss (Kyle Secor) on a major investigation. Kellerman will wind up as the new partner of Meldrick Lewis (Clark Johnson).
Asked to describe the Kellerman character, Fontana said, "Well, if you think of the Bayliss and Pembleton team as existential police work, Lewis and Kellerman are frat-boys-with-a-gun . . . Just say they're not tortured by everything the way Bayliss and Pembleton are."
Some other character developments for the season, as described by Fontana and Bromell: John Munch (Belzer) and Kay Howard (Melissa Leo) both take the sergeant's exam, but only one will pass. (A grimace from Belzer suggests it isn't him.) There's also big career trouble ahead for Capt. Megan Russert (Isabella Hofmann, Baldwin's real-life fiance). And, yes, the Fells Point bar owned by Lewis and Munch will stay open.
"We're hoping it becomes like the Bull & Finch for 'Cheers,' " Fontana said, "with people making pilgrimages to Baltimore to get their 'Homicide' T-shirts."
What the audience of critics seemed most interested in knowing about was Braugher and his complicated, Jesuit-educated, angst-saturated character.
One of the first questioners asked Braugher how he feels about being known as "the best actor on television."
"It's like an albatross you wear around your neck," he said in the serious tones of Pembleton. Then, after a pause to set up the punch line: "And I have it taped right over my mirror where I can see it every morning."
Braugher did talk seriously about his future with the show and his climb from playing a one-dimensional assistant for Telly Savalas in "Kojak" to his present acclaim in "Homicide."
"I go back to the 'Kojak' series, where I played the sidekick who always runs off and does things for Telly Savalas," Braugher said. "And now, instead of those cliches, I am working with scripts that deal with the frustration, the despair, disbelief and the sorrow of crime-solving. They deal intelligently with age, class, sex and race."
The scripts for "Homicide" dealwith things that are fundamentally human, he said. There is simply no comparison. "You say, 'I don't want to do that, I want to do this. And I want to do this for as long as this can go on.' "
Referring to Beatty and Baldwin, Braugher added, "The business is the business. And Dan and Ned go on to pursue [feature film] careers. But I'll be here as long as the thing that drew me to the show is here -- great writing."
Braugher got even more serious when asked about race, and thepraise "Homicide" has received -- mostly from white critics -- for its handling of race issues.
"Some [episodes about race] are better than others," he said. "Race and race relations are not pretty. And you can't talk on TV about what people actually talk about.
"So we talk around it, we talk above it, we talk about it. We do a
lot of things -- we illustrate it, and blah, blah, blah. But a long, complex, in-depth discussion about how race and racism affect detectives in Baltimore is not within the scope of our show. . . . We do the best that we can."
Braugher's increased stature on "Homicide" was perhaps most clearly underlined during the weekend rollout of NBC's fall shows by Warren Littlefield, the network's entertainment president.
"Andre Braugher is definitely thego-to player on 'Homicide,' let's face it," Littlefield said in an interview Saturday. "To not take advantage of that would be insane. He is a tremendous talent, and we're hoping there's an Emmy for him this year. . . . But 'Homicide' is still an ensemble show."
Bromell also addressed the issue of Braugher's star status. He said the ensemble dynamic built during the last three years might be affected when the cast and crew returns to Baltimore. "To be honest, it could be a problem. I'm sure it's hard sometimes for the other actors. But, on the other hand, we have and we will continue to make every effort to treat this as an ensemble showcase. And Andre knows that and approves of that, because that's the heart of the show."
"Homicide" will return in the fall at it's usual 10 p.m. Friday time slot.