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'NYPD Blue' Is Losing Another Cast Regular

Television: Sharon Lawrence's character, a deputy D.A. and detective's wife, will depart after tonight's season-ending episode. Other changes loom.

May 18, 1999|BRIAN LOWRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

After beginning the year with a wrenching five-episode story culminating with the exit of Jimmy Smits, "NYPD Blue" will make another significant change as its sixth season comes to a close, bidding farewell to longtime cast member Sharon Lawrence.

The departure of Lawrence--who parlayed a single appearance as Assistant Dist. Atty. Sylvia Costas into an Emmy-nominated regular part as the wife of Det. Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz)--will be explained in a two-part story line starting tonight with a 90-minute episode.

Lawrence, who at one point temporarily reduced her role to star in a short-lived NBC comedy series, "Fired Up," already has lined up several projects for the 1999-2000 TV season. They include a new CBS sitcom, "Ladies Man," opposite Alfred Molina; and "Aftershock: Earthquake in New York," a four-hour miniseries that CBS will air in November.

Despite expressing disappointment regarding the limited screen time allocated her character this season, Lawrence insists she was willing to stay on the ABC drama in some capacity.

"My choice would be to always have that relationship of Andy and Sylvia be part of the show. They felt there really wasn't any more they could do with the character," she said.

Others close to the show say Lawrence's frequent complaints about marginalizing Sylvia inspired the producers to consider alternatives. The actress did acknowledge going to the producers before the season began, saying, "Unless there's juicy stuff to do here, we should really think about what purpose the character's going to be serving.

"I said I'd like a story line that focuses the character. That's not an easy thing for them to do. . . . Characters really need [story] arcs on dramas, and Sylvia has never really had any arcs." Lawrence added that these last few episodes did present her with "some material that I can sink my teeth into."

Executive producer David Milch conceded the show has always centered on police work and found it difficult providing characters who don't wear the badge equally compelling material. Sherry Stringfield was an early casualty of that dynamic, opting to leave after the first season, in what turned out to be a fortuitous move, to join the cast "ER."

"The home for us is the station house. . . . Some would say that the family we're portraying is that family," Milch said.

Producer Plans for His Last Season

Milch hopes the changes augured by this season's final two installments--which extend well beyond just Andy and Sylvia--will pave the way for a less tumultuous course next year. The producer has indicated it will be his last year with the series, after almost literally injecting his heart (he underwent major coronary surgery early in the program's run) and soul into the police drama.

Because of the events that took place this year, from the death of Bobby Simone (Smits) to introducing Rick Schroder as Det. Danny Sorenson, Milch shouldered an inordinate amount of the writing--something he hopes to avoid during the coming season.

"It seemed like every episode we would start shooting without a [finished] script and go day by day," Milch said. "You don't want to ask people to do that forever. . . . We need the blessed normalcy of stories."

In seeking more stability, the program has brought back some familiar faces, including Bill Brochtrup as precinct aide John Irvin and recurring appearances by Daniel Benzali as defense attorney James Sinclair. Despite publicized clashes with "Blue" producer Steven Bochco while starring in another of his ABC productions, "Murder One," Benzali will again be featured next season, Milch said.

For her part, Lawrence said she knew there would be less for her to do once Andy and Sylvia had a baby. Though Sylvia gave up her job for a time, remaining in the courtroom would not have entirely resolved the issue of the character's lower profile.

"We were never going to spend a lot of time with Sylvia in the workplace," she noted. "It's not 'Law & Order.' "

While Sylvia served as an emotional anchor for Sipowicz through Simone's death, Milch said the show's ability to deal with loss reflects his own philosophy--namely, "You have to accept life on life's terms." Even so, he promised the program's audience, after this season's finale, will feel safe to "invest emotionally in our world."

Ratings for the series have declined this season, though "Blue" remains prime time's fourth most-watched drama, at about 14.4 million viewers per week. Milch added that Schroder has done a superb job under difficult circumstances and that the character's personality--revealed gradually this season--will be brought out more in the future.

"Having kind of established him, I think now we're going to be able to develop him, to make him much more accessible," Milch said.

Lawrence Got Boost From Show

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