For someone best known as a gangster and last seen in a series as a cop, Michael Imperioli is a mellow guy.
Tibetan prayer beads peek out from under his well-worn shirt, and he talks softly when not in character. His latest role is Detective Louis Fitch on ABC's Tuesday drama "Detroit 1-8-7."
Though Imperioli shot to fame in "The Sopranos" as Christopher, last season he was also a detective on ABC's remake of "Life on Mars."
"I get offered detectives," Imperioli says. "I guess they see me as a detective -- as long as they see me as something."
Cast mate James McDaniel has also played a detective; he was Lt. Arthur Fancy on "NYPD Blue" for seven seasons. On this, he's Sgt. Jesse Longford, and after a long career on the homicide squad, he's preparing to retire in Italy. Longford often talks in Italian, which McDaniel says he's learning phonetically.
"I'm starting to think like a cop," McDaniel says. "It really slips in there."
The title numbers refer to the police code for homicide. This procedural cop show is not only set in Detroit but shot there, and it relies on the cityscape.
"I was pushing for this to happen," McDaniel says of shooting the show in Detroit. "It's the most incredible backdrop."
McDaniel, who called Harlem home decades before it was trendy, says, "One of the things I want to do with this show is -- imagine I am saying to friends and everyone, 'I am going to Detroit to do a TV series,' and everyone says, 'I'm sorry.' So we want to show them."
Though the actors love that this is, as they say, the first national series shot in Detroit, even the Detroit Special Events and Film Office could not confirm that, and the office director says it might well be, but she didn't have documentation to prove it. Other shows, such as Martin Lawrence's "Martin" and "Home Improvement," were set in Detroit but filmed in Los Angeles except for exterior scenes. Some scenes of HBO's "Hung" are shot near Detroit, but in "Detroit 1-8-7" the city is very much a character, and the series shoots entirely there.
In the opening scene, the chief of homicide detectives is explaining to a documentary crew how the division works and how detectives log the status of cases in stages on a white board. "We may be the only assembly line left in Detroit," she says.
In the original pilot, a documentary crew is following the detectives, but ABC was remaking the pilot to lessen that as a plot point. The new episode was not ready at this writing. Regardless, the feeling that Detroit is important to this series comes through.
In another scene, detectives are looking for bullet casings on the side of a highway and keep finding the wrong shells. They use that gallows humor cops do when dealing with the seamier sides of life.
Yes, it's a city that's been hard-hit for years, but it's also a city where people still live and the detectives have to deal with the survivors and victims of those killed.
Natalie Martinez plays Ariana Sanchez, whom she describes as "a strong woman with a sense of priority about where she is from."
"I like Detroit," Martinez says. "I am excited to immerse myself in the underground music scene, and it has great museums."
"People take a lot of pride in the city," says Jon Michael Hill, who plays Fitch's incredibly green partner, Damon Washington.
The actors have hung out with working detectives to inform their characters.
"I got to hand out some subpoenas," Martinez says.
McDaniel points out how cops reflect the character of their city, with New York officers differing from those in Los Angeles, who are different from Detroit detectives.
Imperioli agrees but adds there are shared traits. "There's an attitude there," he says. "A certain pride, a certain bravado, a certain way of looking at the world. They've seen things most people would have to go to a mental institution after seeing."
The procedural has the usual -- murders and cops working hard to nab suspects. It also has more moments of humor than the average cop show.
When Sgt. Longford is driving around, he says, "I love this city. I have been a cop in Detroit so long when I started, half the suspects were white."
Fitch is quirky; he talks to Washington via cell phone -- even when standing next to him. Fitch is understandably irritated by Washington's cell phone going off way too often and his pregnant wife calling with false labor updates. When Washington gets sick at his first murder scene and adds so little to the investigation, Fitch wants him gone.
There's a fun scene where Sanchez offers to give Washington insight into Fitch. She offers to tell Washington everything she knows about his partner -- then she remains silent.
Michael Imperioli and Motor City take center stage in ABC's 'Detroit 1-8-7'
Michael Imperioli stars in "Detroit 1-8-7" Tuesdays on ABC.