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NBC's 'Homicide'

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”I’m gonna kick your ass,” Richard Belzer says firmly, moving his rook in line with his opponent’s king. ”Check.”

”Oh, that’s good. That works for a couple seconds,” Ned Beatty replies with the relaxed confidence of an old pro.

In Homicide: Life on the Street, Oscar-winning director Barry Levinson’s grittily realistic new NBC police drama, Belzer (Det. John Munch) and Beatty (Det. Stanley Bolander) are partners. But on their lunch hour, the two are foes in a string of chess matches.

As Beatty prepares his next move, stand-up comic-turned-actor Belzer discusses the series, which is based on Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon’s nonfiction book about a year in the life of the city’s homicide department. ”I asked Barry why we’re filming in Baltimore,” Belzer says. ”He said first of all, the book was set here. The fact that it’s his hometown is incidental to the fact that the book was so good. Secondly, he likes the idea of not being in New York, L.A., or Chicago. He likes the idea of showing America a city that doesn’t look like any other city.”

”It’s also possibly true that most network executives can’t find Baltimore,” notes Beatty, deftly moving his king out of harm’s way.

”That’s probably the main reason,” Belzer agrees, turning back to the board.

NBC executives may not be able to find Baltimore, but they’re not going to lose track of Homicide. Shot documentary-style, with a jittery hand-held camera, and edited with liberal use of jarring jump cuts, Homicide is the most artistically ambitious series in years. More important to NBC, it is the network’s best shot at a mid-season hit. The third-place network, stung by the losses of Cheers and David Letterman, has put all its muscle behind the show, premiering it after the Super Bowl to guarantee it a huge initial audience. NBC is also heavily promoting Homicide by trumpeting co-executive producer Levinson’s résumé of acclaimed hit films (Diner; Good Morning, Vietnam; Rain Man) while skipping any mention of his recent critical and box office failure, Toys.

It’s a big kickoff for a new series, but when Homicide settles into its regular 9 p.m. Wednesday berth on Feb. 3, it will have to survive against ABC’s smash sitcoms Home Improvement and Coach, which have regularly trounced NBC’s Seinfeld and Mad About You in that time slot this season.

”The good thing about being on NBC now,” says co-executive producer Tom Fontana (St. Elsewhere), ”is that they might be willing to stick with the show longer since they’re not fighting to maintain first place. They’re just fighting to keep above ground.”

Homicide‘s high-profile publicity campaign began months ago, when Levinson accused John Wells, creator of CBS’ fall series Angel Street (starring Robin Givens as a Chicago cop) of plagiarizing Simon’s book. Without admitting guilt, Wells made changes in Street‘s pilot; the series became this season’s first casualty after three episodes. ”We sort of agreed that we weren’t going to discuss it past the fact that we were pleased with the result,” Levinson says now.

With that controversy resolved, the producers of Homicide set out to find a location in Baltimore in which to shoot the series. That wasn’t an easy task either. ”The police stations here don’t look like police stations,” explains supervising producer Jim Finnerty. ”The actual homicide building is just an office building with a logo on it.” The producers chose instead a recreation center on a little-used pier in the city’s Fells Point section and turned the brick building into a faux police station so convincing that local residents routinely come in to report real crimes. A former ballroom now houses the homicide unit’s seedy, institutional brown-and-green squad room.

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