The star trades a lead role in ''Law & Order'' for more time with his family and his girlfriend, a struggling actress named Julia Roberts

By Betty Cortina
May 21, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

Benjamin Bratt is working double duty. In addition to filming an episode of NBC’s Law & Order, the 35-year-old actor is dealing with a mini drama of his own: It seems he’s just about had it with all the media hoopla surrounding (in succession) his relationship with Julia Roberts, the milestone of L&O‘s 200th episode (which, thanks to guest star Roberts, achieved this season’s highest ratings), and his just-announced decision to make this his last season as strong-but-sensitive Det. Rey Curtis. In fact, Bratt is so media saturated, he’s seriously considering pulling the plug on this interview before it even starts. ”I just did People‘s ’50 Most Beautiful’ and so many television interviews,” he says, peering peevishly at his publicist, who is now sweating as much over her client’s obvious annoyance as from the bright lights on the set. ”I’m just feeling a little overexposed.”

Which, in a nutshell, is why Bratt — whose departure is already being mourned on several Internet chat sites — has decided to turn in his L&O badge and move back to his hometown, San Francisco. The move will allow him to be closer to his tight-knit clan (his mother, brother, three sisters, and their families), pursue more feature films, and free himself from Law & Order‘s demanding 12-hours-a-day, 5-days-a-week production handcuffs. ”On my niece’s second birthday, my entire family was gathered celebrating,” he says, discussing the key reason for altering his lifestyle. ”We had salsa music playing, my sister had made a home-cooked meal, and we were all dancing. I looked around the room and saw all these faces of people who I love so deeply and I realized this is crazy what I’m doing.”

Costar Jerry Orbach knew this day was coming. ”He’s been talking about it for a year, and yes, I’m going to miss him,” says Orbach, ”but I think this is the right time. He’s got to strike while the iron is hot. And boy, is it hot right now.” Apparently Roberts also supports the move: ”She knows how important my family is,” says Bratt. ”She accepts that as part of me.”

Although Bratt was confident in his decision, telling L&O‘s executive producer Dick Wolf about it still proved difficult. After all, Bratt and Wolf had worked together nine years ago in the short-lived TV crime drama Nasty Boys, shortly after the young actor left the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco. And it was Wolf who’d handpicked Bratt to replace L&O‘s Christopher Noth in 1995. ”I asked him to come into my trailer and the hardest part was just saying the words,” says the actor of breaking the bad news. ”I knew on some level I would disappoint him.”

Bratt’s ”a gentleman down to his toes,” says the exec producer, who was indeed disappointed but graciously let the actor out of the last year of his contract. And, this being Law & Order — a show that has survived and thrived despite a virtual revolving door of lead actors — Wolf also managed to bounce back, instantly replacing Bratt with Ally McBeal‘s Jesse L. Martin.