November 06, 1998 at 05:00 AM EST

Chris Noth is downing a beer in a New York City bar, looking at a picture of a dead hooker with her hands cut off. Seems like old times. And it is a flashback of sorts. Noth is shooting a scene as his former TV alias: tough, heavy-lidded, beefy-sexy Law & Order character Det. Mike Logan, for the NBC telefilm Exiled: A Law & Order Movie (airing Nov. 8). This should make his legion of female admirers — who continue to regularly post dewy valentines on his on his Internet fan sites — very happy. Since his departure after five seasons in 1995, they’ve had little to satisfy their Noth cravings beyond L&O reruns on A&E and his recurring role as Donald Trump-like romancer Mr. Big on Sex and the City, the HBO series starring Sarah Jessica Parker (expect a second season next summer).

Back at the Manhattan bar set, a Third Avenue joint called Molly’s, Noth, 42, has been asked to redo his scene a couple of times; the photo of the prostitute keeps falling out of his jacket pocket. Between takes, he turns to a reporter and says in an attempt to stave off boredom, ”Hey, you could play a drunk at the bar if you want.” His offer is declined, and soon, under the direction of Jean de Segonzac (Oz), he nails the scene.

”Logan is in exile,” Noth explains in his trailer a bit later. ”He was transferred from New York to Staten Island, you may remember, for punching out a corrupt politician in front of a TV camera crew. The big dope,” he adds with a laugh. ”I gotta say, I wanted to get off the show at that point, and I admire [executive producer] Dick Wolf for getting rid of me that way, because that’s the way a hothead like Logan would do it — he’d blow his top and get busted.”

So Exiled is all about the humbled Logan trying to claw his way back into Manhattan. He pursues a low-priority murder case, hoping it’ll turn into something big, and in the course of his investigation, runs into his old partner Lennie Briscoe (Jerry Orbach), his replacement, Det. Rey Curtis (Benjamin Bratt), and Assistant DA Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston). ”It’s great,” says Noth, ”because, dealing with these guys, Logan is ashamed and defensive yet proud and sullen. He’s out to prove himself.” Which are the qualities Noth brought to the original series — a bracing bullheadedness that mussed the neatest story lines. Which in turn leads one to ask: Hey, Chris, why’d you leave the Emmy-winning Law & Order in the first place?

”Here’s what went down,” he says, leaning forward intently. ”By my fifth year, I was really burned out. I wasn’t making any bones about it, I was saying it in the press. I might have been tempted for a s—load of money to stay another year. Now, Dick [Wolf] got wind of that — and also I think my agents called and said, ‘You better triple his fee’ — and there was a lot of miscommunication. I should have gotten in a room with Dick before all that. It looked like we hated each other, and that’s not true. We disagree on many aesthetic things, but we can work together.”

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