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Simmons nets ‘Spartacus’ role

Henry Simmons, best known for his role on "NYPD Blue," will play a gladiator slave in a remake of the classic "Spartacus."
/ Source: The Associated Press

Best known as Detective Baldwin Jones on ABC’s “NYPD Blue,” Henry Simmons exchanges his badge and gun for a net and spear to play gladiator slave Draba in USA Network’s version of “Spartacus.”

“Henry is extremely believable. He was the big surprise to me how well he melted into that old world,” says Robert Dornhelm, who directed this adaptation of Howard Fast’s novel about a slave revolution against the Roman empire.

“Draba ignites the revolution by his sacrifice,” Dornhelm explains. “Being able to kill Spartacus but deciding not to — knowing that it means his own death — is the ultimate spark.”

The title role of the revolutionary leader is played by Goran Visnjic, born in Croatia, not too far distant from Thrace, birthplace of the real Spartacus.

“Goran has that sad, suffering expression, quite useful for a man who has idealism on his side ... but knows it’s a no-win situation,” says Dornhelm, whose four-hour miniseries airs Sunday and Monday (8 p.m. ET).

Visnjic is most familiar to audiences wearing a white coat and stethoscope as Dr. Luka Kovac on NBC’s medical drama “ER.” Here he wears far less and carries a sword and shield.

“I wish I had the sword. He had the easier time,” laughs Simmons, who adds it was difficult learning to throw his net without getting it tangled around himself rather than Visnjic.

After rehearsing their climactic fight sequence, Simmons discovered “there is a certain rhythm, a dance to it. It became so much fun after a while. It was like I was a child in makeup and play gear.”

He was less at ease with his costume. When he first joined “NYPD Blue” in 2000, the actor was called on to take “more than my shirt off” in love scenes. But those sequences were brief and filmed “in some kind of security on a closed set.” On “Spartacus,” he was “out there in this skimpy outfit fighting in front of hundreds of people.”

Production not as melodramatic as classic film?Shot in Bulgaria, the lavishly produced miniseries features throngs of extras and co-stars Rhona Mitra as Spartacus’ love interest, Varinia, and the late Alan Bates — in his final role — as the world-weary and wise Roman senator Agrippa.

Stanley Kubrick first brought “Spartacus” to the screen in 1960, with Kirk Douglas in the title role. But Dornhelm says his production is more “in the spirit” of author Fast than Kubrick’s “quite melodramatic” interpretation.

“It hits the nerve ... of greed, exploiting your fellow neighbor in order to have a nicer house or whatever,” says Dornhelm, whose TV movie credits include “Rudy: The Rudy Giuliani Story,” “RFK,” and “Anne Frank: The Whole Story.”

In Kubrick’s movie, Woody Strode played Draba. Simmons didn’t watch that film, but read extracts from Fast’s book and histories of slaves and gladiators in the Roman era.

He says Draba is someone “with a strong spiritual belief, yet someone weary of life who had lost hope of ever seeing his family again and was ready to lay down his life for a cause.”

He also tried to “my character a tremendous amount of dignity and hold to that sense of pride — although I am a slave, I am someone who will be respected.”

Simmons, 33, thinks his love of acting stems from classic films starring actors such as James Stewart and Gary Cooper that his father encouraged him to watch as a child.

And he recalls acting in a school play about the founding fathers: “I think I was Thomas Jefferson or someone like that, but I was so nervous I just froze and the kid playing George Washington had to whisper my lines to me.”