NEW YORK - Currie Graham jumped aboard the long-running "NYPD Blue" for its last lap. But the character he portrays is there to make sure it'll be a bumpy ride.
Deemed edgy and raw when it premiered in September 1993, the police drama had, by this 12th and final season, become rather mannered, even quaint.
That's why viewers have found Lt. Thomas Bale to be a welcome addition to the squad.
A former Internal Affairs detective, Bale is a dress-for-success, by-the-book administrator sent to leash the 15th Precinct's maverick spirit.
That prevailing rogue culture is best exemplified by testy, tormented Detective Andy Sipowicz, who, as played by Dennis Franz, has been the heart of "NYPD Blue" since its beginning. In Bale, his new boss, Sipowicz is colliding with the worthiest opponent he's had in ages, a guy whose very smoothness makes waves. With Bale on board, "NYPD Blue" has regained a bit of its original spark as it heads toward its March 1 finale. It airs 10 p.m. Tuesdays on ABC (WJBF-TV, Channel 6).
"Bale is very direct, very matter-of-fact," says Graham, "and there's something about that I really like. Because this is kind of an emotional show, and here's a guy who chooses to reveal nothing of himself.
"But he's very tightly wound, and I always find characters like that interesting, because I wonder: What's going on under there? There's obviously something serious going on inside."
The tone was set with the season opener when Bale laid down the law to his new team, discharging pointed words in his silky voice.
"I come with a specific mandate from my bosses to make this squad reflect today's job, today's policing," said Bale, his face a mask of maddening composure. "So I ask that you join me in accomplishing what I've been instructed to do. If you elect not to, you won't be working here anymore."
"Whatta we gonna do, Andy?" moaned Detective Medavoy (Gordon Clapp) moments later.
"Nothing," snarled Sipowicz. "I ain't changing a damn thing."
Juicy conflicts like this make Graham laugh.
"To sit back and sort of be in a power position behind that desk and watch people squirm has been a lot of fun," he says.
In from California for a publicity visit, Graham drains repeated cups of coffee against the frigid morning outside this Manhattan cafe, while he marvels at the heat he took from viewers last fall.
"'The detectives should all get together and take you outside and shoot you' - that was the gist of a lot of the letters and e-mail." He lets out another chuckle, an actor with none of his character's guardedness and gloss.
"I never expected to be a villain," he declares. "This guy's just doing his job. And as the season continues, viewers have gone, 'You know what? I don't necessarily like him, but what he's saying is not THAT wrong: asking to know where his people are, asking for them to be accountable. He's not THAT far off.'"
A 37-year-old native of a tiny town in Ontario, Graham gathered pre-Bale credits including guest shots on such series as "Law & Order," "24," "Monk," "CSI," and, in 1997, "NYPD Blue" ("I played a skell," he says, employing "NYPD Blue" lingo). He was a regular on the sitcom "Suddenly Susan" for its final season, and is currently appearing in the action film "Assault on Precinct 13."
He landed Bale in a flash, he says. He got word the part was available early one week. That Wednesday he met with the show's creator, Steven Bochco. Friday the deal was signed, then Wardrobe began fitting him for Bale's natty suits. Monday morning he was on the set.
"I was concerned about stepping in front of the camera with Dennis," Graham admits.
Mindful of that, he made sure "I was up to speed. Because otherwise he's gonna eat me alive, he's played Sipowicz for so long and he's so skilled at it. But I think we both had fun going at it.
"The longevity of the show has a lot to do with Dennis' attitude, because he's so easygoing. It's a fun group of people, a dedicated bunch."
As Graham speaks, this dedicated bunch has just two more episodes to shoot. And, yes, it's bittersweet for him, only now settling into a role he savors.
But throughout his brief run, Graham has refused to see himself as a lame duck. In his view, he's a guy who got to stir the pot on a landmark TV series. And he's done it with gusto.
"It's not the final year for me," Graham sums up. "It's my first year."
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