March 3, 2002, Sunday

ARTS AND LEISURE DESK

TELEVISION/RADIO; Exercising a Genius for Shaking Loose the Truth

By STEVE VINEBERG (NYT) 1165 words

NO television cop show has ever put forth a hero as unorthodox as Vincent D'Onofrio's Detective Bobby Goren, the main character on NBC's ''Law and Order: Criminal Intent.'' Goren is Sherlock Holmes, but with the spirit of a precocious little boy. He's a show-off, and he's a nerd on a mission, fascinated by even the most banal details of police procedure.

And we feel his missionary zeal, especially when he's made a promise to a victim's parents to snag a killer, or when he sees the bad guy as a traitor to the cause -- a seedy politician, a Fed corrupted by power. That's when his Italian-Catholic side -- he's described himself as a lapsed altar boy -- surfaces.

What really turns him on, though, is the chance to rattle suspects and shake loose their secrets. He's a genius at it: by the hour's end, those hidden truths come flying at him like paper clips at a magnet. Mr. D'Onofrio is happy to detail Goren's full repertory of interrogation tactics. ''He manipulates suspects, mirrors them, confuses them, intimidates them, throws them off, changes their thought patterns,'' he said by telephone during a recent break in shooting. ''He pauses situations so he can return to zero; he catches them out in a lie.''

Mr. D'Onofrio has his own battery of eccentric behaviors to shape Bobby's constantly varying modes of attack. He hunches his shoulders, sinking his head into his neck and then inching it out again like a tortoise emerging from his shell. Hovering over a seated target, he cranes his head down at a 45-degree angle from his body, as if he were dropping out of the sky, and swings menacingly close. His walk is lumbering yet somehow seductive, as if he's bearing a heavy weight and stepping on eggshells at the same time.

Probing for information from a street person, he emulates the man's manic style, a role switch reminiscent of a scene Paul Newman played in the movie ''Fort Apache, the Bronx.'' Goren meets the dubious testimony of suspects with exaggerated interest, or double takes that ricochet off pauses in the dialogue, or plain grinning astonishment. He's constantly straddling the line between sincerity and irony. Mr. D'Onofrio's line readings have weird caesuras in them, as if he were gulping air or searching for the next word, though he isn't really doing either; he's scrambling the rhythm of Goren's questions so that the person on the other end of the interrogation never has a chance to adjust to his style.

Mr. D'Onofrio, who trained with Sonia Moore at the American Stanislavsky Theater and Sharon Chatten of the Actors Studio, comes to ''Criminal Intent,'' the latest in Dick Wolf's ''Law and Order'' shows, from a decade and a half in movies. Filmgoers may draw a blank on his name, but they've probably seen him -- in ''Full Metal Jacket,'' as the maddened recruit; in ''Mystic Pizza,'' as the swaggering fisherman who swears off sex with Lili Taylor until she agrees to marry him; or in ''Men in Black,'' as the alien with the oddly mannered growl (Mr. D'Onofrio identifies it as a cross between George C. Scott and John Huston) whose walk, in the ill-fitting human body he's assumed, is a vaudeville parody of Frankenstein's monster's.

Mr. D'Onofrio's most remarkable work on the big screen has gone largely unseen: as the pulp writer Robert E. Howard in ''The Whole Wide World,'' as Abbie Hoffman in ''Steal This Movie'' and opposite Marisa Tomei in last year's ''Happy Accidents.'' He's a performer of great physical and emotional range. Before ''Criminal Intent,'' he made his biggest splash on television in an Emmy nominated guest spot on ''Homicide'' as a commuter caught under a subway car, and even there, restricted as he was by his character's situation and by the staginess of the drama (which was like a particularly effective version of a live television play from the 1950's), he managed to be inventive with whatever parts of his body were free -- his arms, mostly.

''Criminal Intent'' (Sundays at 9 p.m.) is one of this season's most pleasurable surprises -- a more cerebral version of ''Law and Order'' in which the psychology of the perpetrator and the modus operandi of the detective are given equal attention. And on it, Mr. D'Onofrio takes the kind of command you associate more with a great stage performer than with a television series regular. ''It's theatrical in the real sense,'' he said. ''They're giving me completely free rein to take the character where I want to take it.''

Mr. D'Onofrio said that René Balcer, the co-creator of ''Law and Order'' who has written most of the ''Criminal Intent'' scripts, ''gives me opportunities to take what he's written and move it somewhere else.'' ''We're improvising without changing a word of the text,'' he continued. ''It's a blast, an absolute blast. And the other actors come on set to play because they know I'm up for it.'' He was referring to Kathryn Erbe, who plays his partner, Detective Eames -- as Mr. D'Onofrio sees her, the Watson to his Holmes -- as well as to Jamey Sheridan (the police captain, whose responses to Goren veer from skepticism to admiration) and the gifted Courtney Vance (an assistant district attorney). He was referring, too, to the impressive roster of guest stars. Jake Weber, Adam Trese, Eric Thal, Griffin Dunne and Michael Gross have all made strong impressions as criminals whose intent has been dramatized by Mr. Balcer and the other writers.

One episode, about a murder among the members of a wealthy, poisonous family, featured four splendid performers -- George Martin, David Aaron Baker, Laila Robins and the Québécois actor Lothaire Bluteau. Mr. D'Onofrio's match of wits with Ms. Robins, who plays one of the suspects, was especially memorable -- a sweet little actors' flirtation. ''The most fun you can possibly have as an actor,'' Mr. D'Onofrio said, ''is to walk that line between what's real and what's interesting.'' It's not surprising to learn that his acting heroes are Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers. ''I like actors who take a different road, whose careers are off the beaten path,'' he said. ''Guinness had amazing integrity and the nerve to do things no one else dared to do in movies. That's why I like being a character actor. It's a fantastic job to have; you get to fine-tune your chops all the time. It's the main reason I never fancied myself as a leading man, because you lose so much freedom immediately.''

Perhaps what makes ''Criminal Intent'' so ticklishly unconventional is that Mr. D'Onofrio gets to have it both ways. He's the character actor as leading man.

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company