Levinson's `Homicide': Back on the Screen

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`I'M NOT a detective," says Richard Belzer, "but I play one on television."

Beginning tonight Belzer and the rest of the cast of NBC's "Homicide: Life on the Street" return from hiatus limbo for a four-week run of new episodes.

The series's previous run of nine episodes early last year was enough to win it two 1993 Emmy Awards: a directing nod for series co-executive producer (and feature-film director) Barry Levinson; a writing award for co-executive producer Tom Fontana for the episode "Three Men and Adena."

With the series's future hanging on only four episodes, are the producers feeling some pressure?

"Yes, there's an enormous amount of pressure," says Fontana. "To tell you the truth, I think it's a little unfair only because, in this day and age especially, hour dramas need nurturing. They need time. Audiences want to get familiar with the characters. That's how an hour drama stays on the air. It's about the audiences feeling comfortable with the characters. It's like making friends."

"Homicide: Life on the Street," inspired by David Simon's non-fiction book "Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets," follows a squad of homicide detectives in Baltimore: Beau Felton (Daniel Baldwin), John Munch (Richard Belzer), Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher), Meldrick Lewis (Clark Johnson), Kay Howard (Melissa Leo), Steve Crosetti (Jon Polito), Tim Bayliss (Kyle Secor), Stanley Bolander (Ned Beatty) and the commander, Al Giardello (Yaphet Kotto). The series is shot in Baltimore, a favorite location for Levinson's feature films.

The opening episode (9 tonight on Channel 5), "Bop Gun," features Robin Williams playing a family-man tourist whose wife is murdered by muggers.

Says Fontana: "It's terrific. Evidently (Williams) watched the show last year and liked the show. Obviously he has a long-term relationship with Barry. He read the script and said, `I'll be there. When do you want me?' He came in for three days and shot, worked like a dog. It was quite a special event for all of us. It's very intense. He had no opportunity to do jokes and didn't want an opportunity. He wanted to play it exactly how it was written."

With a mix of intense emotion, dogged police work and humorous banter among the detectives, "Bop Gun" typifies the philosophy of "Homicide."

Fontana explains: "This comes from Barry right at the beginning, the idea that we're doing a police show with no gun battles, no car chases. …