Born to Be Blue : Dennis Franz has spent his career playing cops. So, how did he turn an overweight detective into the (sexy) role of a lifetime?

<i> Sean Mitchell is an occasional contributor to Calendar</i>

ABC flew Dennis Franz to the Super Bowl this year. Jimmy Smits went too, but Jimmy Smits is not a character actor. Franz, meanwhile, has become, in the space of a season and a half on “NYPD Blue,” a hero to character actors everywhere: the gnarly guy who was so fascinating he became a leading man.

In September when he walked off with the Emmy Award for best actor in a dramatic series, Franz one-upped his co-star and fellow nominee David Caruso, whose redheaded rush to sex stardom on the Tuesday night hit cop show was capped by his equally precipitous exit for a movie career just as the second season was about to begin.

Franz’s Emmy, for his role as the sarcastic, whiskey-schooled detective Andy Sipowicz, was a victory for the ordinary-looking guys of America, but to some who have followed his work on other Steven Bochco shows going back a dozen years, the award was a long time coming--the recognition by television insiders of a gifted actor who finally got the role he was born to play.

All the hype Caruso attracted the first season initially obscured Franz’s hefty contribution to the watchability of “NYPD Blue,” but with Caruso gone, there has been little doubt that Franz has stepped up and carried the show on Andy Sipowicz’s world-weary shoulders while the public waited to see if the Smits character could replace Caruso’s.


“It’s been difficult, it’s been good, it’s been easy, it’s been hard,” Franz says about the heavy lifting that has gone on in “NYPD Blue’s” second season. “When you consider the transition that we had to make--the departure of one major character and the introduction of another, the whole story line for the entire season had to be shifted all around. The writers really had to scramble for the first half-dozen or so episodes, and I think they did an amazing job for us to have sustained the popularity we have under those circumstances.”

It is a few days before the Super Bowl and Franz is enjoying a rare day off at his Bel-Air home just across the 405 from the new hillside Getty Museum, whose unfinished monumentality looms clearly into view from his pool. He has just come down the stairs dressed in jeans and a sweater and carrying a pair of white sneakers. In profile, the sweep of his strong nose and balding forehead makes him look as aerodynamically designed as an eagle.

“One of the reasons we bought this house was that you could look up at that hillside and feel like you were out in the country,” he says ruefully, though not as ruefully as Andy Sipowicz would have said it. Sipowicz would have found more colorful language to describe the Getty Trust.

Sipowicz--apparently the symbiotic creation of Franz, who plays him, and producer-writer David Milch, who largely writes him--has talked his way gloriously, profanely to center stage in American television, even capturing the attention of viewers who previously didn’t find cops on TV all that interesting.


Divorced, lonely, a recovering alcoholic with a distant son, Sipowicz is a guy who’s got more than his share of personal problems and seems to be getting through life one hour at a time. Yet his limitless supply of inflammatory irony, political incorrectness and black humor makes him hugely entertaining all the same. He is the 28th cop Franz has played in films, on stage and on TV but the one, of course, who has made all the difference.

But precisely because this would be the 28th cop on his resume, Franz was reluctant to take the role. Two years ago, he had just done a pilot for a series called “NYPD Mounted,” about guess what.

“I told myself I was going to try to find another vehicle,” he says. “It was time not to play any more cop roles. But because it was Milch and because it was Steven Bochco, I wanted to work with them again. I just loved my experience on ‘Hill Street.’ ”

Franz played two different cops on “Hill Street Blues"--manic, crooked Sal Benedetto, who eventually killed himself, and later excitable detective Norman Buntz, who punched out the police commissioner, got fired and relocated to California as a private detective for the failed 1987-88 NBC spinoff “Beverly Hills Buntz.” In between, he was cast in the short-lived Bochco series about minor league baseball, “Bay City Blues,” in which he distinguished himself as Angelo Carbone, the team’s wily pitching coach (another role he might have been born to play).


Milch worked on all these shows, and when he and Bochco hatched the idea for “NYPD Blue,” their first casting decision was to try to include Franz again.

“I called Dennis before there was a script, before there was Sipowicz,” Bochco says. “I just wanted Dennis in the show.”

The character that Caruso played--laconic, do-the-right-thing detective John Kelly--was always intended to be the center of the series, Bochco says, but Sipowicz was invented as his sidekick, in effect to be the second lead.

“I knew it was second billing,” Franz says. “It was clear and I never questioned the fact. And yet what I think happened is that the character turned into such an interesting character the first couple of episodes, the relationship (between Sipowicz and Kelly) became very important to the overall impact of the show, and it became appealing for them to write for the two characters, and then by the end of the season they realized this is a show about two characters instead of one.”


Which is remarkable when you consider that in the original pilot Sipowicz was intended to be killed.

“We originally wrote that he died at the end of the first episode,” Milch says. “And Kelly was going to be partnered with Martinez (Nicholas Turturro). But as I was writing the character, and thinking of Dennis in my mind’s eye, I went back to Steven and said, ‘We’re nuts if we lose this.’ ”

If Sipowicz’s rising profile during the season had anything to do with Caruso’s disenchantment and decision to leave, no one is saying.

“I don’t know what was going on in David’s mind,” Franz says, looking back to last summer. “It’s just a guess on my behalf: During the first hiatus he had done a movie and he saw the possibility of more movies in the future. Plus the method of working in television, the types of hours you have to put in, changing scripts. We do an enormous amount of work over the course of a season, as opposed to doing one story over months in a feature film. It doesn’t suit everybody, and I don’t think it suited him.”


Franz, on the other hand, finds himself, at the age of 50, settled comfortably in television after years of working in the theater and in small roles in feature films (“Die Hard 2,” “The Package,” “Blow Out”). “I did it in reverse: I went from stage to film to TV. Most people go from TV into film.”

Part of the appeal of TV for him is working in the house that Bochco built and specifically working with Milch, who was executive producer of “Beverly Hills Buntz” and is executive producer, with Bochco, of “NYPD Blue.”

“David Milch has been able to express a lot of his feelings through characters that I portray,” Franz says. “I recognize that. He recognizes that. I’m able to deliver his thought processes through his words.

“The phraseology might seem odd to other people, but you read it and you understand it exactly,” he says, meaning himself. “It’s a joy.”


The two men do not see much of each other away from the show. “We’re both private people,” Milch says. “The intimacy we share is shared through our work.”

Milch recalls: “The first character we collaborated on was Benedetto, who was certainly not intended to have anything like the dimension and proportion that he wound up having. And he wound up having it because Dennis brought him so specifically and vividly alive.

“Dennis might say exactly the words that I write, but the fact is that the way he performs them gives them dimension and texture beyond anything I can put on the page. In that sense he’s a contributor and collaborator every time he opens his yap.”

But Franz also makes story suggestions. It was his idea, for example, to have Sipowicz become romantically involved with comely Assistant Dist. Atty. Sylvia Kostas (Sharon Lawrence). The episode last fall in which the two were seen showering together provided another of “NYPD Blue’s” famous R-rated moments.


He describes it in the most self-deprecating way: “They’re not supposed to be together, which makes up I think the most interesting relationships--when you have a beauty and the beast or whatever type of matchup, from different walks of life, different classes. Whenever I see an attractive person with a not-so-attractive person, I really find it interesting and I have admiration for the attractive person for having found something nice in the not-so-attractive person. I feel that way about Julia Roberts and Lyle Lovett. That’s the epitome of it.”

Peter Jurasik, who played Sid (the Snitch) Thurston opposite Franz in “Hill Street Blues” and “Beverly Hills Buntz,” tries to put his friend’s career in perspective:.

“Dennis is a character actor like I am, and the lifeblood of character actors is to move around and do different parts. But Dennis has gotten nailed down playing cops. And being handed one cop after the next, he’s found a way to grow within that genre. That’s really impressive. And difficult to do.”

As you talk to Franz and ask him the sort of questions a reporter asks, looking into those dark eyes with the cynical glare, you half-expect him to spit back the kind of withering rejoinder Sipowicz would not be able to resist in such a situation. But it doesn’t take long to realize the cynical glare belongs to Sipowicz and not to the man seated in front of you. Franz, by all accounts, is one of the nicer guys to reach the higher elevations of a business where ego is oxygen.


He evidently had a happy childhood, which is nice to know but hard to figure. He has played so many sour and surly sorts with such conviction, one assumes him to be drawing at least partially from a bank of remembered grievances. He says quite the contrary, although after college at Southern Illinois University he did go to Vietnam and saw some things in combat he would rather not remember at all. He also says that his favorite television programs include “The Frugal Gourmet” and “Martha Stewart’s Living.”

“I’m fascinated when I see how they re-create food with the overhead camera,” he says. “I see the colors in the pan and how they talk so lovingly about these different types of foods. I think they’re beautiful; I wish I could make that.”

Franz grew up in a working-class suburb of Chicago, Maywood, the son of German immigrants. His father was a baker and later a postal worker.

“I had nothing but a wonderful, carefree childhood,” he says. “I have great memories of growing up. I had a very normal family, no problems in my family. It was a small family, a couple of aunts and uncles. But we were all close. I had a good relationship with my parents.”


He started acting in high school after accompanying a girlfriend to an audition for a play and noticing that “the boys were being kind of quiet and meek.”

“What Dennis does have down,” observes Bochco, “is that he is the quintessential working-class man, and he brings that to all his characters. He has a tremendous work ethic. And he doesn’t take himself too seriously. He doesn’t think that what he does entitles him to special privileges in the world.

“It’s because he is such a good guy that it’s fun to write that dark side of Sipowicz. Because you know when he plays it, it’s going to be infused with a fundamental decency.”

Says Jurasik, now a regular on the science-fiction series “Babylon 5": “As a person, in my opinion--he might kill me to hear this--Dennis is a relatively simple guy. He’s a typical Chicago guy: simple, straightforward, happy. Compared to New York and California, Chicago is kind of a happy place.”


When not in character as one of New York’s finest, Franz still lets the sound of Chicago fill his voice, stretching the word has into he-ahs and shortening didn’t into dint .

“I will always think of Chicago as my home,” he says, “and of myself as a Chicagoan. Whenever I go there, I feel like I never left. I feel more comfortable there than I do any other place on Earth.”

He came of age in the lively Chicago theater scene of the ‘70s that also produced future film and television actors Joe Mantegna, Meshach Taylor and George Wendt, all friends of his. He toured Europe twice with Chicago’s rambunctious Organic Theater Company doing plays with titles like “Bloody Bess,” in which there was a lot of sword fighting and swinging from ropes.

The Organic created shows through group writing efforts, and Franz was one of those who collaborated on the hit comedy “Bleacher Bums,” about the fate of being a Chicago Cubs fan, which later ran at the 99-seat Burbage Theater in Los Angeles (with many different casts) for 11 years.


“Creatively that was one of the most exciting periods of my life, the Organic years. But my father had a hard time understanding what I was doing,” Franz recalls. “It wasn’t until he began seeing me on the screen and on television in small roles that he actually thought I was becoming successful.”

When director Brian De Palma went to Chicago to make “The Fury,” his 1978 film with Kirk Douglas and John Cassavetes, Franz got cast in a small role of, yes, a cop. He would later appear for De Palma in “Dressed to Kill” (1980), as another cop, and in the notorious “Body Double” (1984), in which he was essentially cast as De Palma himself, the director of the horror movie within the movie.

It was encouragement from De Palma and also Robert Altman, who gave Franz a small part in “A Wedding,” made in Chicago, that persuaded him to finally head for Hollywood in September, 1978.

His first TV job was in “Chicago Story.” When a director from that 1982 series was hired to direct a two-part episode of “Hill Street Blues” introducing the grimy Sal Benedetto, Franz got called in for the audition that would point the way to his future.


By the time he was working in films and television, he had absorbed his most important acting lesson, he says.

“In the theater I had always done everything big. I thought that was the goal: to be bombastic and theatrical. Somewhere along the line, someone--I can’t remember who it was--told me to stop acting with a capital ‘A,’ not to perform, not to be big, not to entertain, just to be. And to hear yourself and listen to other people when they’re talking. That was probably the most important thing I ever learned.”

The home of “NYPD Blue’s” 15th Precinct is inside the aircraft hangar-size Stage 9 at 20th Century Fox studios. There are a dozen mobile-home dressing rooms parked outside. Franz’s trailer happens to be one of those closest to the stage door.

The walls of the trailer are lined with snapshots that describe his life. Here are pictures of his two 95-pound dogs, Gallagher and Bigelow, that he picked up as pound puppies (one of them has three legs); there is Franz in a tuxedo on Emmy night holding his bronze statuette; there he is with Chicago acting buddies Mantegna and Dennis Farina, all smoking cigars in an ad for a Chicago menswear store; there he is in a white Elvis jumpsuit and King wig, mustacheless, for a role in Bochco’s “Civil Wars,” as a guy who thought he was you-know-who. There are pictures of Joan Zeck, who has been Franz’s live-in companion for nearly 13 years, and of her two college-age daughters, Tricia and Krista. Franz and Zeck met at a bar on Lankershim near Universal Studios back in 1982 and plan to finally get married this year.


There is a knock at the door of the trailer, and Franz says, loudly, “Yeah?” A production assistant sticks his head in the door and hands over a sealed gray script-sized envelope. “Thanks,” Franz says. “Hot off the presses.” He weighs the script in his hands. “Literally,” he says, passing the envelope over to his visitor for inspection. It is still warm from the heat of the copy machine.

“I can see things a little more clearly now,” he says. “When you’re younger and striving, you look at people that are in the position I’m in now and you look with such want and desire and think, ‘Oh, Lord, what must that feel like?’ And then when you get there at this age I’m able to accept it and put it in perspective and enjoy the good things about it. But I also see the difficulties. I’ve been Miss America for a year now, and I’m too old to be Miss America. If you had told me that at age 50 I’d be dropping my pants on national television and showing my butt, I’d have said you were nuts.”

It has been quite a year--the ratings, the Emmy, the amazing disappearing act of David Caruso. Franz did two TV movies during his summer break, and the second, a two-part true-crime soap opera called “Texas Justice,” will be seen on ABC tonight and Monday. He has been cast against type (to say the least) as glamorous Houston attorney Richard (Racehorse) Haynes, defending Ft. Worth millionaire T. Cullen Davis (Peter Strauss) against charges he attempted to murder his wife (Heather Locklear).

Meanwhile, the suddenly rebuilt story line of “NYPD Blue” stretches out before him. For now, Sipowicz has become “a more accepting, comfortable kind of character,” in Franz’s own words. More than likely this will not last, not if the show hopes to rediscover the kind of chemistry that made the Sipowicz-Kelly relationship so intriguing.


“Smits is a pleasure to work with,” Franz says. “He’s a very concentrated actor, a very supportive actor, everything you could want in a workmate. He just happens to be a gentleman also. It makes it joyous to come to work every day.”

Does he think he’ll ever talk to David Caruso again? There is a significant pause before Franz finally says: “If our paths would cross, of course we’ll share words. I’m not on terms of a friendly basis with him, but we’re not upset or angry with each other.”

There is another knock at the door. He is wanted on the set.

“It’s been a phenomenon this year, for which I’m truly appreciative. But I think I’ve earned it. It just took time for me to come together with the characters that I do and the way I look. Sometimes it happens at a younger age. Some actors might be at the height of their careers when they’re young. When they get older, they just get too old. There’s two lines that somehow have to find each other, and if they ever do, at whatever age it occurs, that’s when you’re at your peak. Well, I guess my lines are crossing now."*


* “NYPD Blue” airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on ABC (Channels 7, 3, 10 and 42). “Texas Justice” airs tonight and Monday at 9 p.m., also on ABC.