LOS ANGELES -- There's nothing new about the television programming strategy of having stars from one series appear in another. As far back as the 1960s, for instance, Sheriff Andy Taylor and other Mayberry residents from "The Andy Griffith Show" were regularly visiting Pvt. Gomer Pyle on "Gomer Pyle, USMC."
But there's never been a crossover quite like the one NBC has planned for Feb. 7 and Feb. 9 on episodes of "Law & Order" and "Homicide: Life on the Street," when two of television's smartest adult dramas combine characters in a story line.
The story is about a poisonous gas attack in a New York subway. In the "Law & Order" episode airing Feb. 7, New York detectives Lennie Briscoe (Jerry Orbach) and Rey Curtis (Benjamin Bratt) find themselves working with Baltimore detectives Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher) and Tim Bayliss (Kyle Secor) when they learn their prime suspect is wanted for a similar attack at a Baltimore church.
The story continues in the Feb. 9 episode of "Homicide" when Briscoe, Curtis and Assistant District Attorney Claire Kincaid (Jill Hennessy) come to Baltimore to continue their investigation.
On paper, it might look like nothing but a crass attempt to hype ratings during February sweeps, without regard to how it might threaten the sense of realism viewers get from both shows. But on screen, it's a pure delight.
Besides the exquisite drama in both shows, viewers are treated to such delicious crossplots as Bayliss throwing himself at Kincaid, and Detective John Munch (Richard Belzer) going to pieces when he finds out that Briscoe and his first wife slept together.
This crossover is a brilliant bit of prime-time programming, and it all came about by accident, according to the producers and stars who met with television critics here yesterday during NBC's portion of the Winter Press Tour.
Tom Fontana, one of the executive producers of "Homicide," said the idea was first floated last May when actors and producers from the two shows went out for a celebration dinner on the night NBC announced its fall schedule.
"I don't know who first suggested it, but we all talked about it all through dinner, and said, 'Yeah, it would be great,' " Fontana said. "But, honestly, when I walked out of the restaurant, I never thought it would really happen. I just thought it was a bunch of guys talking about stuff."
One of the biggest problems was that the shows are so different in style and tone. In "Homicide," for instance, we know a great deal about the personal life of such characters as Pembleton. In "Law & Order," we know almost nothing about Briscoe, Curtis or Kincaid.
"I loved being able to get into some personal stuff about Briscoe in the crossover," Orbach said. "Over the years, we've talked about how nice it would be on 'Law & Order' to have personal things going on, but we get a lot of comment from loyal viewers who say what they like about our show is that it is not about personal lives . . . that it's strictly about the case we are investigating."
Orbach said he also enjoyed performing the more intense acting style favored by the "Homicide" cast, as opposed to the "Just the facts, ma'm," tone of his series.
"You know, when Noth was leaving," Orbach said, referring to the departure last season of Christopher Noth, who played his partner, "I asked if we could have him die in my arms. Then I could cry and get an Emmy nomination. We don't get to be that intense on 'Law & Order.' Once in a while, we slam somebody up against a wall, but that's about it."
Another difference is in how the two series are filmed. "Homicide" is looser; the actors improvise freely and the cameras run for long takes, giving the show the feel of documentary or even television news. "Law & Order" is shot more like a feature film, with every shot carefully blocked out and the actors forced to move precisely from spot to spot.
Dick Wolf, executive producer of "Law & Order," said one simple scene with Braugher had to be shot 23 times -- not because Braugher couldn't get the words or emotional impact right, but "because he had to hit a mark on the floor when he walked in and he kept missing it."
Fontana and Wolf said most of the credit for pulling off the crossover goes to Ed Sherin, an executive producer of "Law & Order," who directed both episodes.
"Ed did an extraordinary job not only of directing both episodes, but keeping them true to each of their own styles. He was also very clear-headed about how the stories connected from show to show," Fontana said.
Beyond that, it was attitude that made the project work, said Fontana.
"The analogy we tried to use for the project was that it was like two great mob families having a wedding," Fontana said. "Georgio is marrying Anabella, so everybody's gotta treat everybody with respect."