''Homidice: Life on the Street'' lives on -- TV's most vibrant drama faces the loss of its brightest star

We were on death’s door several times,” says Andre Braugher of his NBC cop drama Homicide: Life on the Street. ”This was a two-pound baby we brought forth the first season. And we slowly nursed it to health, and we prayed and we stayed up nights watching it, and finally we’ve got a healthy six-year-old.” Healthy, if slightly anemic: The Baltimore-based show has never drawn killer ratings, yet it has survived to see its 100th episode and has been renewed for another season.

But now that six-year-old may be wandering into traffic. Det. Frank Pembleton — played by Braugher, the show’s undisputed breakout star — will turn in his badge at the end of this season. ”I’m not the sentimental type. It’s just one day like any other day,” Braugher says as he prepares to film his final scene on this early April evening. ”The danger is that Andre Braugher will become inextricably bound with Frank Pembleton, just like Peter Falk is Columbo,” he explains of his decision to leave (it’s a syndrome he witnessed firsthand as Telly Savalas’ sidekick in ABC’s 1989-90 Kojak revival). ”Then I’d just be waiting for my TV movies — The Return of Frank Pembleton. That sounds like a nightmare to me.”

The prospect of a Homicide without the relentlessly intense Pembleton may seem like a bad dream to die-hard fans (akin to the Chicago Bulls sans Michael Jordan). Yet the show has endured so many hardships, there’s reason to hope it can live through this one.

After a high-scoring post-Super Bowl 1993 debut, it got sacked by ABC’s Home Improvement. ”When we premiered and 43 million people watched, and the next week 12 watched, I went, ‘Hmmm, doesn’t bode well,”’ recalls Clark Johnson (Det. Meldrick Lewis), slightly exaggerating the figures.

The next season, NBC ordered just four episodes, giving the show a test run in the coveted Thursday-at-10 p.m. slot. Only the premiere — featuring Robin Williams (who had worked with Homicide executive producer Barry Levinson on Good Morning, Vietnam) as a bitter widower — performed well, but NBC ordered 20 more episodes. ”Homicide wouldn’t have gotten a third season without Robin,” says executive producer Tom Fontana. ”NBC didn’t want us to shoot the script — they found it too depressing — until we said, ‘We’ve got Robin.”’

The show was shifted to 10 p.m. on Fridays, one of the least-watched nights of the week. ”The network had a low expectation of what any show could do in that time slot, and we’ve been able to maintain that,” says the self-deprecating Fontana. But while the show ranks 85th overall and gets beaten by ABC’s 20/20 and CBS’ Nash Bridges, it commands a fiercely loyal, demographically desirable cult of 10.6 million viewers.

In a rare instance of network suits showing taste, NBC has stuck with Homicide. ”Each season, we felt it would be a mistake to extinguish it — there was just too much that was too good,” enthuses NBC Entertainment president Warren Littlefield. Proclaims Fontana, ”God love NBC and God love Warren — they always seem to find their balls.”

Homicide: Life on the Street
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