"Law & Order" executive producer Dick Wolf said he was growing a bit concerned a few months ago. He was looking toward another season of the show without changing any of the primary cast members.

His concerns were alleviated, however, when Carey Lowell asked out of the series so that she could spend more time with her young child."I am a firm believer now that the `Law & Order' audience, in a sense, looks forward to these cast changes," Wolf said. "I would have been a little worried. I mean, I was going to change somebody this year because it would have been the third year with no cast changes. And then you get into a situation where it becomes much more traumatic."

Wolf hadn't originally planned to go through so many actors, a process that began when George Dzundza asked out after the first season and was replaced by Paul Sorvino - who was later replaced by Jerry Orbach.

And Michael Moriarty was replaced by Sam Waterston. And Chris Noth was replaced by Benjamin Bratt. And Dann Florek was replaced by S. Epatha Merkerson. And Richard Brooks was replaced by Jill Hennessy, who was replaced by Carrie Lowell, who is now being replaced by Angie Harmon.

And Harmon has a somewhat unusual resume for an actress taking a lead role on one of television's most-respected dramas. A former model, she got her start when David Hasselhoff cast her on the since-canceled syndicated series "Baywatch Nights."

"I was actually spotted on a plane by Mr. Hasselhoff," Harmon said. "And he was wonderful enough to give me 44 episodes of acting lessons on `Baywatch Nights.' "

Sort of on-the-job training, as it were.

"You walk into something, you don't know anything about it," she said. "You walk out 44 episodes later knowing how to hit your mark and stay out of someone's light. They talk and you don't, then you talk and they don't. And, basically, diving into your character as much as possible and knowing that there's so much to learn. This isn't exactly an occupation where you ever stop learning."

Harmon said that becoming an actress had been a goal while she was modeling, but she didn't expect it to work out the way it did.

"It's something that I always wanted to do," Harmon said. "I never wanted to walk into it without taking any lessons or anything. You don't want to shoot yourself in the foot the first shot out of the gate. But that's the way it happened and I'd be an idiot to pass up on the opportunity.

"And, apparently, I'm doing something right."

"She sure is," Wolf said.

Harmon does have some experience other than "Baywatch Nights." She co-starred in the little-seen ABC crime drama "C-16" last season and acquitted herself rather well.

"This woman is a terrific actress," Wolf insisted. "We saw about 85 people during the casting process. She won hands down."

And he cautioned against taking her lightly simply because she spent two years on a show with "Baywatch" in the title.

"Jill (Hennessy) had not done anything before we found her. Carey (Lowell) was dismissed as a Bond girl (she appeared in "License to Kill"), and I never heard complaints from people after she went on the show," Wolf said. "I think that people are really going to be very impressed, not only by the character that has been created but by Angie's ability to do it."

That character - Abbie Carmichael - will be decidedly different than the one played by Lowell. A native of Dallas, Carmichael moved from the Dallas district attorney's office to the New York district attorney's office three years before her first appearance on "Law & Order." She has been prosecuting criminal cases involving narcotics and she has a 95 percent conviction rate.

This new character will have "a big office" and she "is not there to be a protege."

Whereas Jack McCoy's (Wat-ers-ton) has previously worked beside junior partners, Carmichael will be on more of an equal footing with him.

"Because she's been in narcotics for three years, she definitely has an edge to her," Wolf said. "I mean, she's used to dealing with drug dealers - not the highest quality of people - and she's used to putting them away. . . . She's not used to working with a team. She's used to working on her own and getting the job done.

"And Jack, of course, is used to working with the team and it's a team effort, so I think there's definitely a little conflict there. And you would also think, knowing Jack's background and his reputation, there's definitely going to be some conflict there.

"Jack's not so pleased with the assignment."

Whether any sort of a personal relationship will develop between the two characters remains to be seen.

"Well, you never know what happens over the course of nine months of working together. Or, hopefully, five years of working together," Wolf said.

Actually, fans of the show can expect to see less about the personal lives of all the characters this coming season than they did last season.

"There is going to be a de-emphasis - not a de-emphasis, but the tiniest of mid-course corrections - this season in terms of getting back to the core stories and not delving quite as much into the personal lives of the characters," Wolf said.

"We specialized in giving people information in eye-dropper-full doses. I think last year we got more into soup spoons, and we're going to go back to the eye-dropper."