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‘Crime Story’ a 1980s gem

Actors like Bill Smitrovich (left) Dennis Faringot their first big acting breaks earned some chops “Crime Story.”

Actors like Bill Smitrovich (left) and Dennis Farina got their first big acting breaks and earned some chops on “Crime Story.”

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Updated: February 2, 2012 8:00AM

Throughout five action-packed months in the summer and fall of 1986, locations all over Chicago served as bleak and stunning settings for the short-lived but much beloved NBC series “Crime Story.”

As the New York Times noted in 2001, it’s “one of the best television series you’ve probably never seen.”

Shot in hospitals and police stations, Rocky’s Fish House and the Ambassador East Hotel, the Monadnock Building and North Avenue Beach, the snappily written and meticulously stylized cops-and-mobsters saga — a precursor in tone and tempo to “NYPD Blue” and “The Sopranos” — was an instant critical hit. Lots of viewers loved it, too, but ultimately not enough of them. After a measly two seasons, NBC pulled the plug.

Still, for 44 artfully rendered episodes, whose timeline began during the Rat Pack’s early 1960s heyday (when there were no such things as Miranda rights), it swung hard — figuratively and often literally.

The complete series (including its Abel Ferarra-directed two-hour pilot) recently was released, though not remastered, on nine DVDs.

Executive produced by Chicago native Michael Mann (“The Insider,” “Public Enemies”), conceived by ex-Chicago detective Chuck Adamson and championed by Chicago-launched NBC honcho Brandon Tartikoff, “Crime Story” starred another ex-CPD dick, Dennis Farina, as the brooding, wisecracking, wiseguy-battling Lt. Mike Torello. Well-known and soon-to-be-well-known guest stars abounded: David Caruso, Gary Sinise, Julia Roberts, Kevin Spacey, Miles Davis, David Hyde Pierce and Stanley Tucci to name but a handful.

Following stints on the big screen in Mann’s “Thief” and “Manhunter,” it was Farina’s first full-time TV gig and a swell boost to his fledgling showbiz career. The show was a springboard for many of his co-stars, as well.

“It gave me confidence,” says Bill Smitrovich, a veteran character actor who played Torello’s right-hand-man, Sgt. Danny Krychek.

“It made me understand how to work on film. When you’re in front of a camera five days a week and [working] these long hours — we’d have long, long days — you learn how to pace yourself, you learn how to wait, how to prepare yourself for the scene. And I learned not to smack my lips when I was eating food on camera,” he adds with a laugh.

While “Crime Story” was a similarly important step in Stephen Lang’s burgeoning career, he was largely unaware of its influence until later.

“It was a break, but you don’t even feel it when you’re doing it,” says Lang, who was cast as hard-charging attorney David Abrams and starred this season on “Terra Nova,” the Fox sci-fi drama. “There was so much ego and testosterone that everybody was throwing elbows all the time. First of all, it could just be a right cross that just comes out and clips you!” He laughs at the memory.

“I always said, when you went to work at ‘Crime Story,’ you put your shoulders back and you doubled your fists. You never knew what was going to happen.”

Lang says the bravado-charged atmosphere was encouraged by Mann.

“Absolutely, Michael fostered it, the sense of aggression. But that sounds so bad. It would be like a football practice, where the coaches are saying, ‘Go on! Beat the s--- out of ’em.’ ”

Not every fan realized that “Crime Story,” though loosely based on actual people and events, was fiction — mere entertainment.

Anthony Denison, a standout as cucumber-cool, pompadour-sporting hoodlum Ray Luca, was at a hardware store one day during the program’s original run when a fellow browser sidled up next to him and said, “I wanna be in your gang.”

“He seemed like he was sober,” jokes Denison, who initially referred the gentleman to central casting.

The guy persisted.

“No, no, you don’t understand, I want to be in your gang.”

“My gang?” Denison replied, still stumped.

“Yeah, man, you’re the iceman. I want to be in the gang with you.”

Finally it clicked. This bloke thought Denison actually ran a crew of murdering, thieving thugs.

Denison says he also was nearly cuffed by a plainclothes cop who momentarily confused Denison’s character with a real-life criminal whose mug he’d seen on the station-house bulletin board.

Then there’s the zealot who legally changed his name to Ray Luca and wanted a signed glossy to read: “To Ray Luca, from Ray Luca.”

Most other admirers are less wacky. Some are well-known. Denison recalls the night a friend summoned him to meet actor Tom Hanks on a movie set. When Denison arrived, the “Road to Perdition” hit man and two-time Oscar winner turned fanboy, excitedly dissecting “Crime Story” plot points and quoting dialogue.

“I’m on the [TNT] show “The Closer” right now,” Denison says, “and people will say, ‘Oh, I love you on “The Closer,” but whatever happened to “Crime Story”? Why did they take it off the air?’ ”

Well, for one, its ratings never were stellar. In today’s increasingly fragmented marketplace, where audience shares are comparatively minuscule, they would have rocked. Not back then. Shifting locations during the latter half of season one (from gritty Chicago to glitzy Vegas) and time slots (from Friday following Mann’s “Miami Vice” to Tuesday opposite ABC’s “Moonlighting”) proved no great boons. A per-episode production cost of $1 million-plus didn’t help matters.

Despite its truncated tenure, however, “Crime Story” lives on — not only in digitized glory but also in the minds of fans and cast members.

“It is still the crown jewel,” Denison says. “It made my career.”

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