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Goodfella

For Dennis Franz of TV's "NYPD Blue," life Is good.
Kenneth Shouler
From the Print Edition:
Linda Evangelista, Autumn 95

(continued from page 1)

Franz concedes that he had a terrific time as a kid. "I had a wonderful childhood, and it all centered around baseball. Baseball was my sport. I started out in the outfield, but I wanted to be part of the activity all the time, so I put on a few pounds and I became a catcher. That was my position, because I always loved being involved."

Growing up seven miles from Chicago, Franz's undying allegiance to the beloved "Cubbies" is understandable. "I grew up wanting to be like Ernie Banks," he says in his Chicago accent, recalling the Cubs Hall of Fame shortstop. "I was always imitating his hand movements on the bat," he says, demonstrating Banks' spiderlike digits fingering a bat handle.

Franz also began smoking as a teenager. "I remember a specific time when we were, oh gosh, sophomores. I was at a buddy's house with a couple of guys, and we were watching a football game on TV on a Sunday afternoon. His parents were not in the house, so we pulled out a box of cheap cigars. We were in the middle of stinking up the TV room when the doorbell rang. And this guy freaked--I said we were sophomores, but we were probably in grade school--and he runs to the front door and yells, 'Who's there?'

"It was his uncle. He shouts, 'Just wait a minute!' We started opening up the windows, trying to air out the house, tossing the cigars, running back and forth with ashtrays full of ashes. And we just about had it cleaned up when one of the guys with an ashtray bumped into someone else and all the ashes spilled out on the floor. So he's calling out, 'OK, wait a minute; I'll be right there.' And he gets out the vacuum cleaner, and he's running the vacuum cleaner, and his poor uncle is still standing there at the front door. Finally, he got it all cleaned up, and he yells, 'Just a second!' He opens the door, and his uncle steps in the door one foot and says, 'Jeez, who's been smoking? If you're going to smoke cigars, at least smoke good ones.' " Eventually, Franz would.

Franz was also active in football and swimming in high school, but the centerpiece was always baseball. "Babe Ruth was my first idol. I never saw him play, of course, but everything about him was bigger than life. He represented baseball. He represents the meaning of baseball, just as Jordan does basketball. The first book report I did in school was about the Babe Ruth story."

But in high school, Franz was drawn to another kind of performance. He got a lead role in Little Hiawatha, and was immediately hooked. "I loved getting in front of people. I loved not being myself and trying to understand this other person," he recalls. "I found it very comforting, and it was something that I immediately wanted to pursue, enough so that I left my other passions behind. This became a passion for me. Every time I went to a school, I would look at their auditoriums and their theater departments."

But acting in junior college and Southern Illinois University would soon give way to a tormenting, 11-month tour of duty in Vietnam. After his college graduation in 1968, a notice from the local draft board arrived. The day before Franz was to report, he enlisted in officer's school. In the Army he served with the 82nd and 101st Airborne divisions. "I was with two recon units--it was the loneliest, most depressing, frustrating time that I can ever imagine in my life," Franz says, his face sinking.

"Nine months I was in the field, two months in the rear. It was one of those experiences that you never want to experience again, but it was life-altering. It was a very maturing time for me. I came back a much different person than when I left, maybe much more serious. I was frivolous before I left. I left my youth over there. I left it behind," says Franz. Moments ago he was recalling some of the fun times of his youth. Now his face is forlorn; his voice, quiet.

"Fortunately, I was not physically hurt. Emotionally I was touched upon; I had seen many friends get wounded or lose their lives. They were temporary friends but all meaningful at the time. They were my only friends; that was my world. We developed those tight bonds. You don't have anyone--family, relatives, loved ones, girlfriends--you don't have any of that. So the buddies you make while you were there, that's your world. They become all-important to you, so when something happens to them it really hurts."

Just then, a knock comes at the trailer door. As if on cue, the friendly face of Sharon Lawrence pokes her head in. "Hi, Sharon," Franz says, smiling broadly at the woman who plays Sylvia Costas, the officious assistant district attorney whom Sipowicz plans to marry. "We're doing an interview with the cigar magazine," he says, holding up a copy of the publication. "He should go on the cover," she says, then rushes off to do a scene.


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