A lot of people were surprised when former child star Rick Schroder was cast as "NYPD Blue's" newest detective. The kid from "The Champ" and "Silver Spoons," now 28 years old, will step into the shoes worn by Jimmy Smits and David Caruso.

But for Schroder, his new job is the end result of a plan he hatched two years ago and related to his manager and his agent."I said, `Can you guys help me find a one-hour drama? I want to go back to series television,' " Schroder said. "And I said preferably a cop show and preferably one that's already a hit. I swear to you, it's the truth."

As a matter of fact, the actor insists he turned down other work over the past couple of years to hold out for his dream job.

"I had some other opportunities that I didn't take because they weren't what I wanted," Schroder said. "And took some risks by turning things down, and I just kept my fingers crossed that something would come up."

What came up, of course, was Smits' decision to leave "NYPD Blue."

"There's only a handful of decent one-hour dramas," Schroder said. "I would've looked at any show, but when this once came around, man, it was too good to be true.

"I called up my people and I said, `You guys, you've got to throw my hat in the ring. You've got to get me in there.' And they did."

Which led to a meeting with executive producer Steven Bochco. Which led to a meeting with executive producer David Milch. Which led to an audition opposite series star Dennis Franz. Which led to Schroder getting the job.

Not only were the producers impressed by Schroder's audition, but so was multiple Emmy-winner Franz, whose character (Det. Andy Sipowicz) will be partnered with the new character.

"My immediate impression was an honesty I had gotten from him," Franz said. "There was this stripped, honest character there. I didn't see anybody pretending. I felt him talking to me. I felt him listening when I talked. And I also sensed a certain nice vulnerability about him that I liked. I felt we had something that clicked."

Bochco and Milch both said that they were looking to take the show in a new direction by creating a character decidedly different from the one played by Smits. (And, for that matter, from the one played by Caruso.)

"I think we both felt strongly that we didn't want to replace Jimmy," Bochco said. "And I think we've always had in the back of our minds that we would like to add a younger character to the show and this becomes an opportunity to do that."

As to exactly who this new character will be - and exactly when he will appear - that's still being worked out. Or, at least, the producers aren't ready to divulge many details. ("This may shock you, but we know a few more things than we're saying," Milch said.)

"I don't honestly know much about him," Schroder said. "I mean, he's late 20s. He's a homicide detective. He's obviously very ambitious and very intelligent to be where he is.

"That's just some assumptions I've made."

We do know the character has been working in narcotics - he has a "white shield" and will have just received his "gold shield."

We also don't know exactly how many episodes Smits will return for and whether his episodes will overlap with Schroder's, who is slated to come aboard in the sixth episode of the coming season.

"Those are all things we're still kind of trying to figure out for ourselves," Bochco said.

Schroder is aware that there's been some skepticism about his ability to pull off whatever the role turns out to be. And he sees his past as a child actor as sort of a mixed blessing.

"It's been a struggle," he said. "But all good things are a struggle, I think. When you come through the other side, you look back and the truth of the matter is, I wouldn't be sitting here today with Steven Bochco, David Milch and Dennis Franz if I hadn't had those struggles because that's what made me who I am today."

And he says that the reason he survived being a child star - when so many of his peers did not - is because acting wasn't the only important thing to him.

"I had a life outside of this. That was the biggest thing," he said. "I have a wife and three kids, and I have a ranch in Colorado. And I've got many other hobbies and interests besides this. This is just a part of my life."