Although Esai Morales survived the shocking NYPD Blue season finale in which his character was gunned down, Lt. Tony Rodriguez still may not be long for the 15th precinct. "I can't say that I'll be on the show for the whole season," the actor tells TV Guide Online. "I have a deal at ABC to do my own series — drama, dramedy, whatever."

Even if this does turn out to be the 41-year-old heartthrob's final year as a regular on the beat, it isn't likely to be his last visit to to the set. A la alumna Kim Delaney (who returns for a weeks-long story arc in episode five), he notes, "I hope that if I leave, it's in a way that I can come back." (Memo to Mr. Bochco: No body bags, please.)

As it is, Morales is surprised that he has been so warmly embraced by NYPD aficionados. "I was nervous [at first], because I'm almost antithetically different [from most of the cast] — I'm not that tall and I'm Puerto Rican," he notes. "But I think not being flashy [or] self-indulgent, and kind of reflecting the focus off of me and back onto Dennis Franz and the rest of the guys, did a lot for me."

We'll say. The master thespian's subtle approach to the ensemble gig has made his on-screen counterpart the first Blue jefe that we really feel obliged to salute. He himself is a fan of his alter ego, too. "Rodriguez has a lot of class," he points out. "Not rich class, but spiritual class. And there aren't enough of us like that [on TV] with my background. So for me, it's a very important thing [that we're doing]."

No argument here. However, what interests more viewers, we suspect, is whether, before he ships out, Morales will play a love scene that's as hot as co-star Mark-Paul Gosselaar's. "If I was in really good shape, why not?" he muses. "[Gosselaar]'s got the buns for it, though, I tell you! But I could still get there." — Additional reporting by Lisa Chambers