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Partners in Crime Show

March 19, 2000|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Derek Cecil and Mark Ruffalo play New York cops on the new UPN police drama, "The Beat," premiering Tuesday.

But the two actors were often mistaken for real beat cops while shooting the gritty new series from producers Tom Fontana and Barry Levinson ("Homicide: Life on the Street," "Oz") on the mean streets of the Big Apple.

"If somebody was coming up and asking for directions and I knew the directions, I'd give it to them," says Cecil, who plays the earnest patrolman, Mike Dorigan. "The big question was, 'Can I park here?' We would be in the middle of the scene and they say, 'Can I park here?' "

"You'd forget you were in uniform," offers Ruffalo, who plays Dorigan's hotheaded partner, Zane Marinelli. "One time there was this woman who had a little kid and I said 'Hi' to the little kid and the mother just scowled at me. I realized then I was wearing a uniform."

"The Beat" chronicles the professional and personal lives of Marinelli and Dorigan. Partners at the 12th Precinct on New York's Lower East Side, Marinelli has been a cop for three-and-a-half years and Dorigan for three. The team doesn't solve crimes, but waits on the scene until the big-shot detectives arrive to take over the case. Dorigan is engaged to a beautiful medical student (Poppy Montgomery). Marinelli, who is haunted by the fact his father murdered his mother, is currently involved with an unstable young woman (Heather Burns).

Both theater actors, Ruffalo and Cecil had little or no experience in front of the camera until Fontana and Levinson cast them for "The Beat."

Fontana says he and Levinson always try to cast fresh faces. "That way the audience doesn't bring any kind of weight to the roles," says Fontana. "They have more of an opportunity to accept them as the characters we present."

"I did a movie-of-the-week when I was 19," says Cecil, who resembles a young Anthony Perkins. "It was called 'The Unspoken Truth.' I played a witness to a murder ... but I had mainly a theater background." "The Beat" came just at the right time for Cecil. When he auditioned for the part, he had $6 to his name and was about to be kicked out of his sublet.

"I didn't have anything when I got here other than friends I had from graduate school," he says. A few commercial gigs kept him going for a while. "But I think I had been two or three weeks without any of those checks [from commercials] coming in. I had acquired quite a bit of debt being out of graduate school. We started filming on a Wednesday and I had to be out of the sublet on a Friday. I had no money and no place to go."

Cecil says he's a bit more solvent thanks to the series. "I have a big, nice fifth-floor walk-up in the East Village. I have a roommate. I walk to work."

Both actors had an instant rapport when they auditioned together. "When Mark Ruffalo came into the room we were like, 'OK. This is the guy,' " Fontana recalls. "They had never worked together before, but they have great instincts."

"It's my joke, but I say I knew that Derek was cast before they even cast him," says Ruffalo, who is now appearing off-Broadway in the new James Lapine play, "A Moment When." "The moment we walked in the door we were playing with each other. It is one of those kind of friends-at-first sight kind of thing."

Ruffalo also liked the fact they had the same backgrounds. "He and I don't watch TV," says Ruffalo. "We both come from a pretty intense underground theater kind of thing. We were both destitute!"

At one point, though, Ruffalo tried to talk Fontana out of casting him as Marinelli. "The furthest thing from what Derek and I are, are cops," he says, laughing.

"When Derek came in, basically he had a pompadour--this wild hair standing off of his head--crummy shoes and jeans," says Ruffalo. "I looked at him and said, 'This is one of my kind of people--unshaven."

If it wasn't for Fontana, says Ruffalo, probably he and Cecil would never have had a chance to play these parts. "No one else would have taken us," he explains. "Tom Fontana saw two cops in these two ragamuffins, which says a lot for him. Most TV, you get stuck doing one kind of part the rest of your life. But Tom is willing to take the risk on new people. When he sees a good actor, he knows it."

*

"The Beat" can be seen Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on UPN. The network has rated it TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14).

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