A self-described “big mouth,” Emmy Award-winning Daniel J. Travanti loves talking about his new ABC series “Missing Persons,” in which he plays Lt. Ray McAuliffe, the quirky, compassionate head of the Chicago Police Department’s missing persons bureau.
But he’s sick and tired of discussing his seven-year stint as Capt. Frank Furillo on the much-honored NBC series “Hill Street Blues.” So tired of it, in fact, he won’t mention the series or Furillo by name.
The actor began his professional career in New York 30 years ago. Over three decades, he’s appeared in 60 TV series, two daytime dramas, three features and countless plays. Among his acclaimed TV films are “A Case of Libel,” “Murrow” and “Adam.” This fall, Travanti will star in two new TV movies, NBC’s “Someone’s Watching,” airing Oct. 4, and ABC’s upcoming “My Name Is Kate.”
The 53-year-old Travanti talked “800 miles per hour” about his new project and his career choices over lunch with Times Staff Writer Susan King.
What prompted you to return to series TV?
I tried for six years to do good material. I thought maybe I would get a crack at better material. What does that consist of?: Extremely fine scripts, masterpieces if possible, in feature films, television and in the theater. Well, after six years I found out, as everybody said, there is very little out.
I did a few things--"Les Liaisons Dangereuses” in London for 15 weeks. It was a big hit. I did “I Never Sang for My Father,” which was done in that stupid theater (the Ahmanson), which was too bad. When we were in the small theaters, people liked us a lot. But when we were in the big theaters, they couldn’t get us. The play in Cleveland was worth doing, “Only Kidding,” where I played a fast-talking, nasty comic.
Meantime, I keep trying to pay my big bills by doing television. Nobody offers me anything in features ever, and don’t please, I am going to stop you right now, don’t dare ask me why. Ask them . I don’t do the hiring. After awhile, the handwriting became very clear. If I was going to continue to survive as an actor, I had to open up a door I had slammed really hard. I hadn’t even allowed agents to discuss a S-E-R-I-E-S . Finally, I said, you may be surprised to hear what I have to say. I am willing to discuss a S-E-R-I-E-S . The phone didn’t ring off the hook, but six months later when I had forgotten about it, the phone rang. They sent over the script. I said, “Oh, why not?” That’s all. Didn’t know anybody. Didn’t care who they were. Had no interest whatsoever. I just saw a good script. Didn’t know (executive producer) Gary Sherman.
Didn’t you meet with him before you signed the deal to do the show?
They negotiated the deal, which took a month or so. I saw no one. Finally, I said the day is coming when I will meet these people. Once it was all done, I went to meet Gary Sherman and (producer) Johanna Persons and liked them instantly. All I did really was pick a good script, which is all really in the end matters to me. Of course, we want the circumstances to be delightful, we want the people to be intelligent and perceptive and talented and professional. I demand all of the above because I am. So we all got together and Gary said, “I am finding the most wonderful people in Chicago and you will be happy.”
Do you have any regrets about your career choices since “Hill Street”?
I’ve been stubborn. I don’t know if I have been right. I don’t even care if I tell you if I am right or wrong. I am just saying I don’t know if I was right or wrong because it didn’t get me very far. It didn’t get me great scripts. Maybe I don’t deserve them, maybe other people don’t think I am capable. When I say that to people with whom I work, they scream and say, “Of course you are out of your mind.” My friends say, “Dan, you don’t say enough that you turn down a lot of things.” That’s right, I keep forgetting. I could have made a lot more money. I didn’t regret it. I think of all the ones I said “no” to and not one do I regret. I just began to regret not making more money. And I said, “You know what? I am getting tired, I am getting beaten to a pulp. So I have to give in.” So I have given in.
All I know is I will be doing something good in Chicago, which is 60 miles south of my family in Wisconsin. I hope it gives me enough money so I can quit and only work when I please. It’s my ticket out.
In the case of “Missing Persons,” did you spend time with your real-life counterpart?
Yes, this fellow turned out to be a big fan and I will get to know him better. He gave us an orientation. They have always been very nice to me in Chicago. I feel a kinship with the Midwest. I don’t think I do until I get back there, and then I realize I am from Wisconsin. I went to the University of Wisconsin. I do feel a familiarity, imagined or not.
You feel good about doing “Missing Persons,” don’t you?
All conditions seem extremely good, perfect in fact. Perfect doesn’t scare me. Anticipate the most, anticipate everything. Do you know the formula? If you anticipate all the best and you don’t get it, you have half anticipation of all the best. If you anticipate all the best and get it, you have it all. If you anticipate the worst and don’t get it, you have half the worst. If you anticipate the worst and get the worst, you really have been screwed. So anticipate the best, the worst that can happen is you get half. So I expect everything.
“Missing Persons” airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. on ABC; repeats of “Hill Street Blues” air weeknights at 10 p.m. on KDOC and Sundays at 6 p.m. on KTTY.