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Profile : Red-Hot and 'Blue' : AFTER LAST SEASON'S 'TRANSITION,' JIMMY SMITS LOOKS FORWARD TO A LOW-PRESSURE FALL

August 06, 1995|GIGI ANDERS | SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON POST

LOS ANGELES — A familiar, pudgy face leans into the cigarette-smoky doorway of Jimmy Smits' trailer here on the set of ABC's hot cop drama "NYPD Blue."

"Ah, so you're having a little smoke party in here." Co-star Dennis Franz steps inside the homey refuge for a brief "Heyhowyadoinman" with his handsome, real-life friend and make-believe partner-in-crime-fighting.

"I was wondering what all that buzzing was," Franz continues, bubbly and relaxed. Dressed in the plainclothes of his detective alter ego, Andy Sipowicz, he carries a bowl of salad in one hand and a script in the other, with a little pistol inside a leather holster slung across his hips.

Say, is that a real gun, detective?

"Naw, it's not a real gun. It's real rubber. You just never see the rubber ones in use. We get a real one when we do the actual deal."

"With blanks," Smits adds tersely, his lanky physique stretched out on a sofa. He lights up another in a series of True cigarettes.

"NYPD Blue's" latest star attraction, a.k.a. Bobby Simone, had the day off on a strangely chilly, overcast morning. He wore a black Brooklyn baseball cap, nylon warm-up jacket, blue jeans and sneakers--his "homeboy mode."

Despite the proletarian rags and a few thinning hairs under his cap, an elusive allure emerges: at 6 feet 3 and 210 pounds, the 40-year-old Brooklyn native is aging gracefully. His sex appeal is sort of brooding and smoldering, with a dash of danger, perhaps.

"Women think the people that I play are smoldering and dangerous," Smits says with a smile. "I look in the mirror and I go, 'I don't get it.' I'm getting a little more worn-looking. Anyway, if you're thinking about your sex appeal when you're doing your work, you ain't got it. And I've always liked the work to just speak for itself."

Getting the laconic actor to speak for himself, however, can be tricky. Smits is guarded with most folks, the press in particular. In the down-home presence of Franz, though, for whom Smits feels a genuine affection, he begins to thaw.

After all, they are really buddies; Smits and longtime squeeze Wanda de Jesus (she played Santana Andrande on the defunct NBC soap "Santa Barbara") attended Franz's off-camera wedding on April Fools' day.

In a town where professional friendships bloom and crash like Nielsen ratings, Franz and Smits and the characters they play have nothing to worry about. "Blue" was among the top 10 series last season, and the outlook for fall is bright and strong.

After so much chaos last year when actor David Caruso left the show over a salary dispute, how did Franz feel about the transition with Smits?

"I'm happy he's here, I'll tell you that," he says. "I couldn't have asked for a better choice. Jimmy won't say it, but I will: He was the first choice all along. He was the one the role was initially intended for. He was unavailable at the time. And so it was not a surprise when it came around that this was who it was gonna be. And I was just thrilled when he was able to work it into his schedule."

"It's a good karma," Smits says, in proper L.A.-speak. "We're having a good time working together."

In part, the success of "Blue" is due to the ongoing relationship between the two detectives Smits and Franz play. And it's also due to Smits, whose charisma have helped land him on another televised winner. (He won a 1990 Emmy for his supporting role as attorney Victor Sifuentes on "L.A. Law.")

What's kept viewers and critics alike intrigued as well is the show's darkness, its edge. Smits never wants to lose those moody, urban-cop qualities.

"Dennis and I talk about this all the time," he says. "Each one of the characters has a flaw that lends itself to the kind of work they do. You saw an uneasiness between our characters when I first came on, and now we've kind of, like, bonded and come together more. But Dennis and I both agree that we have to keep that tension going between us, because all relationships have their highs and lows--and work relationships especially, considering the kind of pressure these cops undergo every day."

You could also consider the kind of pressure Smits underwent when he came in to replace Caruso last fall.

"Listen, I gotta tell you that when I first started the show, because of all the stuff that had gone down, and coming in the way I had to come in--it was weird. There was a lot of pressure, a lot of pressure.

"And that's one of the reasons why I didn't start going out there. I mean, they really wanted to do, like, a big publicity push. And I just had to focus on the work. I didn't want to get involved in that.

"I can't get into talking about why another actor left. It has nothing to do with me. As long as people are watching the show and the numbers are good -- we've been in the top 10 all season -- we're excited."

On the show, Smits's character's ethnicity is French-Portuguese, but off-screen, the man is actually "Mr. Puerto Rico-Suriname. I am very Latino in everything I am and I do, but there's a part of me that's also something else. I'm reflective of the way this country's gonna be in the next 40 years. More multicultural is what we'll see."

"NYPD Blue" airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on ABC.

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