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For 'NYPD' Producer, Script Gets to the Heart of the Matter

Television: David Milch relives his own health battles as Jimmy Smits' character grapples with treatment.

November 23, 1998|BRIAN LOWRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Fans of "NYPD Blue" may feel as if they've been getting an extra dose of "ER" the last few weeks, watching the police drama delve into heart problems plaguing Det. Bobby Simone, played by departing star Jimmy Smits.

For executive producer David Milch, that plot invokes both memories as well as strong feelings about the medical field, which Milch witnessed on an up-close-and-personal basis.

Milch, who created the ABC series with Steven Bochco, suffered his own serious heart ailment five years ago and underwent multiple angioplasty operations to deal with coronary blockages. He vividly remembers suffering through procedures similar to those endured by Simone.

"Simone's experience in the catheter lab . . . taking the angiogram, that was kind of a lived experience," Milch said. "If I hadn't been so sure that I was about to die, I would have been laughing."

Still, Milch--who crafted the season-opening story arc leading to Smits' exit, which concludes Tuesday, with Bochco and producer Bill Clark--based the scenario less on personal recollection than on the more general way people tend to interact with and idealize medicine.

According to Milch--whose brother is a surgeon, as was his late father--programs such as NBC's "ER" offer a somewhat idealized view of the field, in which occasional failings of the system and those within it rarely result in a patient being harmed.

To Milch, this represents something of a paradox: While people enjoy watching the drama that surrounds the practice of medicine and seeing doctors as heroes, their own experiences are often less comforting.

"Every working-class person feels he has been mistreated at the hands of medicine," Milch suggested, adding that he wanted Simone's condition to explore "the alienation and dis-empowerment that almost everyone feels in a hospital, without demonizing the hospital."

Said Emmy-winning director Paris Barclay, who directed Tuesday's episode and has also worked on "ER," "It's different from 'ER' in that it's all from the patient's point of view. It's sort of the reverse of 'ER,' since it's like you're [the patient], in bed with Bobby Simone."

This week's episode begins at 9:30 p.m., having initially run too long to be a regular episode and not long enough to fill 90 minutes. Rather than cut key moments from the show, the producers shot additional scenes to round out the extra half an hour.

In another deviation from the norm, this week's episode doesn't feature the detectives investigating cases, as they are instead consumed by their concern for Simone.

"As it's always been explained to me, [the show] isn't about police work anyway," Barclay said. "It's about a family that happens to be set in a police station."

Looking ahead, Rick Schroder will make his debut on the series next week, playing Det. Danny Sorenson. The emotional crescendo of the Simone story arc could make introducing that character more of a challenge--a fact the producers recognized by having the cast, in a sense, function as surrogates for the viewers.

"I tried to anticipate that in the way I constructed the story," Milch said. "There is tremendous emotional resistance among [the characters] to any sort of new experience."

Bochco and Milch said during the summer they hoped to construct a plot around Simone's departure--brought about by Smits' decision to pursue other opportunities after four years on the job--that would be worthy of the actor's contribution to the program. Unlike David Caruso, who left the series early in its second season, Smits has done so on amicable terms.

Milch, whose pastimes include owning racehorses, is satisfied the send-off met the goals he and Bochco set for it.

"I felt like, as they say at the racetrack, we didn't leave anything in the barn," he said.

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