TV fans dealt with a pair of shocking character deaths this week: Ron Perlman’s motorcycle-club bad boy Clay Morrow being shot to death by his stepson on FX’s “Sons of Anarchy,” and Taraji P. Henson’s heroic cop Joss Carter taking a fatal bullet to the heart from a corrupt cop she’d been trying to take down on CBS’s “Person of Interest.”
The demise of these popular characters, which both networks and series staffs managed to keep secret before they aired, came at a particularly interesting time, as this week marks the 15th anniversary of one of TV’s most crushing character deaths ever, the loss of “NYPD Blue” detective Bobby Simone (Jimmy Smits).
Though Smits’ 1998 departure from the ABC drama had been announced and was being telegraphed throughout the first five episodes of the season, the emotional farewell, “Hearts and Souls,” still proved to be a powerful, shocking exit for the actor and Simone. Fifteen years later, Smits and episode director Paris Barclay (now reunited on “SoA”) tell Yahoo TV they still feel the impact of that episode.
“As an actor, you think to yourself, 'I want to do good work,' but you also want the work that you do to make an impact in some way,” says Smits, who opted to leave “NYPD Blue” to pursue other roles after five Emmy-nominated years. “I always grapple with myself, from job to job, 'Is this going to make an impact in some way?' And at least I know, looking at an episode like that, that I was involved with something I can really be proud of.”
Barclay, who won Emmy and Directors Guild of America awards for directing “Hearts and Souls,” says Simone’s death felt so emotionally real because it was inspired by real life.
“[Series co-creator David Milch] really wanted to do an ode to a real death on television,” says Barclay, who was originally scheduled to direct the series’ next installment, where Ricky Schroder was introduced as Bobby’s replacement, instead of “Hearts and Souls." “He wanted to do what it was really like when he saw his father pass. He had a similar condition, I believe. He thought that that would be compelling television. I think he was right.”
Watch Barclay speak about directing Smits in "Hearts and Souls" right here:
Smits and Barclay both point to specific moments in the layered episode, which was the culmination of a heart condition for Simone that had been introduced in the Season 6 premiere of “NYPD Blue.” He eventually underwent a heart transplant, but the medicine he took to help his body accept the new heart opened him to a brain infection that was then difficult to treat.
In addition to the wrenching drama Bobby’s grave situation created for his wife Diane (Kim Delaney) and friends and co-workers like Dennis Franz’s Sipowicz, Milch infused the storyline with a subtle but powerful sidebar about the politics of the medical staff treating Simone.
Simone’s personal physician, Dr. Carreras, pushed for an acceptance of the dwindling options to treat Bobby, which would also minimize the pain he’d be in, while a higher-up at the hospital, Dr. Swan, pushed for riskier surgery — ultimately, Carreras accused, because he didn’t want a fatality mucking up his department’s statistics.
“[Milch’s] dad was a doctor also, so there’s this plethora of information about the health care system,” says Smits. “There are all these little touches of doctors trying to move a patient from one area to another … they don’t want the loss to be on their docket. It was brilliant, because it was what the audience related to. They watched a police show and got insights, over the years, to the dynamics that happen in law enforcement. And [this] was an insight into another profession that has the same kind of dynamics.”
Smits also credits “Milchian brilliance” for how “Hearts and Souls” made Simone’s personal physical trauma so palpable.
“There’s a little scene where Simone is asking for water, and Diane goes to get this glass of water for him,” Smits says. “Before she even gets it to his mouth, he thanks her, and says his thirst was quenched. But it’s because the infection is in his brain at this point. You hear about these situations where people get a second wind just before they leave. All the scientific reasons, the electrical impulses, what it is to go on the other side, people seeing the light … is that all just because of the electrical synapses?"
"Or, one would hope, that maybe it really is like that, that you get to see all the people that have meant so much to you in your life, or the ones you never got to see, like the child that you lost. All those things, we hope and pray that it is like that, and Milch touched on all of that. And that, to me, is how a piece of work — and I’m going to be so bold as to say art — stands the test of time.”
Barclay, who shows the episode when he teaches directing classes, says it’s always the final act of the episode that still gets him. “Part of it is, there's so much love between the cast and Jimmy that really spills into the characters. When [Sipowicz] says goodbye to him, I always lose it. I'm sort of a wreck until the last tear comes out of his eye, and then I have to have a moment of quiet.”
As for filming the episode, both star and director recall it was an emotional time. “It was very difficult to get though on set,” says Barclay, who calls Smits one of the few actors he would want to be in the cast of any show he works on. “We had a room where we kept the actors. They were watching a lot of what was happening on the camera. We had to have them a little bit away from the actual scene just to keep the reality of the hospital going. We did just a couple of takes when they came in the room, to keep them from crying.”
Says Smits, “['Hearts and Souls'] was really a forthright discussion about, how do you deal with the loss of a particular character for an audience and for a group of people that you work with when there’s been a real bond? And how do you do it in a delicate way? I mean, there were moments when I would joke with Paris and Mark Tinker, who directed a lot of those episodes, like, ‘Hey, we’re kinda dragging this out, this is taking six episodes.’ But Milch didn’t want to be melodramatic. Looking back at it again now, it really was this brilliant build-up."
“And just like there was at the end of the series, there was a transition after this episode,” Smits continues. “One episode, [Bobby] is gone. The next one, Ricky was starting to work right away, and there were residual effects on the other characters … just like how the show ended after 12 seasons, with Sipowicz moving on to another role as a squad leader, and the dynamics he had to deal with taking on this new job, that he was a person who always bucked the system, and now he had to become part of it. Milch always stays on the tracks.”
With Smits and Barclay reunited on “Sons of Anarchy,” they continue to make great TV drama — and drama that, pointing back to Clay’s death, still manages to surprise viewers, even if those surprises are tougher to pull off in the “virtual watercooler” world, Barclay says.
“With Clay’s death, we did a lot of things to protect it. We didn't shoot his death on location. We built the set and did it on our stages so that we could keep it quiet,” he says. “We had to police the sides, limit the extras, and remind the crew how important it was. It takes a lot more effort nowadays to do it. We didn't want people to expect that it was going to happen in this episode. We wanted that to be a little bit of a thrill.”
And a warning for “SoA” fans about the final two episodes of the season: Smits says viewers may see a different side of his Nero Padilla, who continues to be pulled into various illegal activities via his association with SAMCRO.
Barclay, who directed the season’s penultimate episode of “SoA,” Dec. 3’s “You Are My Sunshine,” says that filming it involved one of the saddest days he’s ever had on a set.
“Unfortunately, it's going to make some people happy and most people very, very sad,” he says. “It's going to be surprising and chilling and emotional, in not quite the same way as Jimmy Smits [in 'Hearts and Souls'], but very similar. With ‘Sons of Anarchy,’ there are so many characters that people love, that they are attached to, that almost anyone who goes at this point has a following. We will definitely be getting a lot of Twitter commentary about the final two episodes.”
The “Hearts and Souls” episode of “NYPD Blue” — named one of TV Guide’s 100 Greatest Episodes of All Time — is available on Amazon Instant Video.“Sons of Anarchy” airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on FX.