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Between the Blotter's Lines

In the new UPN cop series 'The Beat,' director Barry Levinson, master of the conversational film, reveals the personal side of patrol work.

March 05, 2000|JOHN CLARK | John Clark is a New York-based freelance writer

NEW YORK — There was a classic Barry Levinson moment on an otherwise banal day of shooting on the pilot of his new cop show "The Beat," which will join UPN's schedule March 21. Standing on a set dressed to look like an emergency room, Levinson remarked to executive producer Tom Fontana that nobody wears a uniform anymore--except cops. An hour later, actor Mark Ruffalo, playing a cop, was ad-libbing the same thing to a nurse as the camera rolled. He went on and on and on, bantering, flirting, keeping himself amused. It was funnier and more real than anything that could have been scripted.

"Most New York cops that I know, being a cop is a job," says Fontana, a writer-producer on such shows as "St. Elsewhere." He is also the creator/co-executive producer with Levinson of "Homicide: Life on the Street," which aired for six years on NBC, and HBO's current hit "Oz." Fontana, 48, is wearing shorts and an elastic bandage, having torn cartilage in his knee during a drunken shoving match with actor Peter Berg ("Boys will be boys!" he says).

"Eighty percent of the time it's a boring job," Fontana continues on the life of cops. "They sit in squad cars. Barry and I were having this conversation, 'Well, what in the hell do they talk about in the 80%? We've seen the 20%. Anybody can do the 20%. It's the 80% that's boring that we want to shine a light on.' And what's great about Barry is he's the king of those kinds of scenes."

When asked about "those kinds of scenes," Levinson shrugs. At this point it's second nature to him. He's been doing it as a feature film screenwriter, director and producer for 30 years, most notably in his directing debut, "Diner," which featured a bunch of guys yakking, and more recently in the political satire "Wag the Dog," a title that has entered the American lexicon, and his 1999 film, "Liberty Heights," which captured a Jewish neighborhood in Baltimore circa 1954.

Levinson, 57, is a fastidious, avuncular presence on the set. He's wearing charcoal pants, a black shirt and tortoise-shell glasses beneath white hair that's swept back and thinning on top. Between takes he makes wry observations of the type that might end up in somebody's dialogue, blasts the Motion Picture Assn. of America for meddling with "Liberty Heights" and tells stories drawn from a treasure trove of projects and personalities he's been involved with: "Rain Man" (Dustin Hoffman, Tom Cruise), "Good Morning, Vietnam" (Robin Williams), "Bugsy" (Warren Beatty). He says "stuff" a lot, and "thing." He thinks nothing of blocking out a scene on the spot, no matter how complicated, or inserting a bit of dialogue. However, he's not doing this simply because he likes to or he's good at it.

"I have two things I have to accomplish with a pilot," Levinson says. "One is that I want to set the tone, and, two, I want to find the zones where the actors are that I could take advantage of. A lot of it's going to hinge on their personalities, etc. Then the writers can say, 'Oh, that person can do a little bit of that.' Even if it's not going to happen now, we'll know elements that we could play with."

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Taking notes on all this is actor Bruno Kirby, who has worked with Levinson before ("Tin Men," "Good Morning, Vietnam") and will be directing a future episode. He is sitting quietly in a director's chair with a fanny pack cinched around his middle. Occasionally he leans over to ask Levinson a question. When asked if he'll block out scenes on the fly as Levinson does, he grins and shakes his head.

The tone that Kirby and the show's other directors and writers will be following might be described as "bipolar." Levinson is not out to make a traditional cop show, even one as untraditionally traditional as "Homicide: Life on the Street," for which he also did the pilot (and won an Emmy doing so). There is very little violence, rough language or nudity, though there may be some topicality (issues of police brutality, for instance) and lots of action on New York's streets. Perhaps most surprising, the cops on "The Beat," Mike Dorigan (Derek Cecil) and Zane Marinelli (Ruffalo), will not be solving crimes.

"Unlike most TV mythology, uniformed cops don't get involved in most of the stuff that they come across," Fontana says. "They get to a situation, they either defuse it or pass it off to the guys from homicide, narcotics, robbery, the detectives. They're only there for the moment, and they don't carry it around with them."

"It's really akin to 'ER' in that those physicians and interns are dealing with the medical problem virtually the moment it's occurred," says UPN Entertainment President Tom Nunan, who also compares the series to "Diner" and a more recent boy-fest, "Swingers."

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