Culture & Criticism From the Far Distant Realms
Excepting The Sopranos, NYPD Blue is the best thing on television today. These DVDs capture the complete first and second seasons, as we re-immerse ourselves in the initial story lines that helped to build the series into the Emmy-winning machine it is has become. Pound for pound, Blue is simply the best network drama to emerge since Bochco’s other tour-de-force, Hill Street Blues (As “cop” dramas go, Blue ranks on par with Gunsmoke: Andy Sipowicz this updated version of quintessential American lawman Matt Dillon, while New York City provides the perfect example of what the roaring old West has morphed into). If you’re only going to own a few DVDs, and if you enjoy gritty urban dramas, then these are the disks for you: The writing, direction and ensemble acting remain unparalleled.
In the realm of network television, Dennis Franz is as good as it gets — an actor with wide range and a true sensitivity to his craft who can take dead words on a printed page and paint them into a perfect living face.
What has made Franz so good is that he’s one of those rare men who totes his demons with him to the stage and then acts them out of his skin. Like all great thespians — like DeNiro’s Travis Bickle and Paul Newman’s Hud – Franz is part and parcel the blood of his characters. Beyond mere characterizations, pieces of Sipowicz are intertwined with the day-to-day Dennis Franz: unable to disjoin these two separate faces, Franz allows them to blend, thus creating the unforgettable.
A four time Emmy-award winner for his work on ABC’s NYPD Blue, Franz began his acting career in the early 1970s. After returning to the states from a tour of duty in Vietnam, Franz formed a traveling dinner theater in Chicago, focusing on performing the classics. His work on the stage brought high reviews, enabling him to cross paths with hall of fame directors like Robert Altman and Brian DePalma.
After securing spots in Altman’s A Wedding and DePalma’s The Fury, Franz moved to Los Angeles. In LA, Franz’s career became the typical up and down ride, but he literally found himself as both an artist and a person when he hooked up with Steven Bochco and landed a role in Hill Street Blues as Sal Benedetto. Benedetto — a true television bad boy–allowed Franz to show Bochco and the rest of America the breadth of his immense talent. After Benedetto’s character was killed off, Bochco brought Franz back to the Hill Street series as Lt. Norman Buntz — the very archetype of NYPD’s Sipowicz. And once Bochco gave birth to his NYPD vision, Franz was a natural to carry the series.
And so we have Andy Sipowicz: lead cop in the borough’s 15th precinct. A former drunk and whore chaser who found the light at rock bottom. His character’s emergence – so beautifully chronicled in the boxed set DVDS of the first two seasons of NYPD Blue (Fox Home Entertainment) – is one of television’s remarkable journeys. How could we ever imagine that we could come to like the guy whose face was cast in a perpetual scowl? How could we ever imagine that we’d end up caring about a character whose rage spilled through his skin with every breath he drew?
The answer to these questions came in the fact that Steven Bochco and his cadre of writers allowed Franz some space to be himself and let the character of Andy Sipowicz evolve in relation to the rest of the ensemble. For Franz, it’s all about voice and presence and expression and the way that people move. The most remarkable thing about watching NYPD is in falling into the cadence and the movement of Andy Sipowicz (like in season one when he’s draped over the bar sucking down shots; draped over his glass, breathing into the whisky, drawing his very life from the scent of the alcohol).
Above all else, Andy Sipowicz is real: he moves and thinks and grimaces the way that people on the street in these hidden rooms of America move. Franz has captured our imaginations and our curiosity because some of Sipowicz is us. And like all great actors do, Franz invites each of us to see ourselves in his mirror.
This interview with Franz took place in September 2003, during a break in shooting at the set of NYPD Blue.
Well, the series has ever-changing story lines. Also, the cast changes have provided the opportunity to go in different directions. Personally, I’m interested in seeing how Sipowicz is going to grow. NYPD is a decade old. And alot of growth takes place in a decade. Sipowicz is a different person now than when he started out. And I’m interested in that and how he faces different situations and confronts change. (pause) I don’t equate my life with Andy’s though — my life is much more quiet, really it is. (laughing)
I know Vietnam had an immeasurable impact on my growth as a man. I went into the service out of college. Frankly, I was extremely frivolous, I didn’t take much seriously, which was part of my attraction to acting I guess — I loved the creative process without having to be chained to a corporation or that corporate lifestyle. But when I came back from the service, I was a changed man. I left a boy, and came home a man. It was a rude wake up call. It was my wake up call to adulthood and I instantly became thankful for what I had in my life. I had a maturity after I returned — I stepped over a threshold into young manhood and it gave me a valid life experience to base my characters on. For example, in college you might be asked to play Willie Lowman, but you don’t have any life experience. So you pretend. But after Vietnam, I didn’t have to pretend anymore. I was able to relate my own personal experience, drawing on my own past.
Well, my first experience into “copdom” was a play called “Cops” that was written by Terry Curtis Fox and David Mamet. Fox brought the play to the Organic Theater Company in Chicago and I played one of the cops. That was my first step into playing a police officer. And I researched the role by observing real Chicago cops, researching their mannerisms, their habits, what they did. That was my beginning in developing characters based on police work and my impressions of police officers. After being in another series called “Chicago Story” that was ultimately canceled, I met Steven Bochco and he let me read for a role in “Hill Street Blues.” Bochco made it easy, and I read for the Sal Benedetto part. Benedetto was the culmination of quite a few cop roles I’d done up to that point, the culmination of all my research and the cops I’d seen.
I actually knew David from my Chicago days when we were kicking around the Chicago theater scene. However, David became known for his writing and pursued that instead of acting. I remember the first reading that was done of his “American Buffalo” in our little theater company. The language was jarring. It got your attention fast. It was far out riveting stuff and it became the hallmark of all of David’s work. I had a crack at doing the film [adaptation of “Buffalo”] after Al Pacino didn’t pursue the project. I have to say “American Buffalo” was one of the more difficult scripts I’ve ever had to do. It was a challenge to do it properly, and Dustin Hoffman [who played “Teach” in the movie] was of the same mind. So I knew I wasn’t nuts. (laughs) It’s a tough piece. People tend to pay so much reverence to Mamet’s writing style that you can over-think it. I tried to simplify it like Joe Mantegna does. And it came out beautifully. (long pause) I remember Dustin actually placed a call to Mamet [in the course of filming] trying to get every detail of his character correct. He had called Mamet to find out what kind of car his character drove. And David said “Teach” [Hoffman’s character in the film] doesn’t drive.” And Dustin kept saying, “but there are all of these references to ‘the fuckin’ car’…. ‘go get the fuckin’ car Teach.’” Finally, Mamet said, “A Pontiac.” (laughing)
Well, there comes a time in life where you have to recognize yourself for who you really are and what you look like. You have to see the reality. You have to acknowledge it; and once you accept and acknowledge yourself, you’re able to move on to your art. Personally, I’d rather be remembered for my acting than my looks.
Well, you must look at the —
Franz begins to laugh heartily:
No, I have a mirror in my house I know what I look like. I really do… (laughing)
As I was saying, you have to go back and look at the history of movies, there have been a string of guys like me, like Gandolfini — guys like Rod Steiger and Jackie Gleason. Personally, my heroes are the Hackmans and the Duvalls — those guys aren’t matinee idols, but they put out classic work, the kind of work I will pay my 20 dollars to see. You just can’t do anything about the way you look. But you can do things about your performance. If your interior is interesting then the exterior will become acceptable, if not attractive. (laughs, and then returns to the question):
I’ve always simply gotten by on the strength of my work.
Well, I read the script and was the first guy hired. I was hired six months before the rest of the cast. I went into NYPD Blue on good faith, based on my respect for Bochco and David Milch. Even though I was tired of playing cops I couldn’t pass it up. Six months later I was thrilled with the rest of the cast, especially with David Caruso — I remembered his work from “Hill Street Blues,” and he was just a terrific actor. Plus the scripts were wonderful. NYPD was the sixth series I had been involved in, and at that point, I knew when things were good and when they were bad. But I also knew being good didn’t necessarily dictate success. At the time I was unable to gauge if it was going to last as a series. I didn’t know if it would catch on with the public. It was so different — it had nudity and different language. It was jarring to the audience. But after we started experiencing success with the first three episodes, we realized we’d be around for awhile. And that’s when I really sank my teeth into it. It was the dream I’d been waiting for: finally being able to explore these characters with Bochco and David Milch. Milch is just a genius the way he sinks himself into his characters. And after I received the Emmy after that first season, I was hooked. I had no choice – I had to stay with it.