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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

The lead-in for the TV police drama "NYPD Blue" flashes scenes of subway trains and Manhattan skylines, blue New York police cars and Chinatown celebrations. In reality, the show is shot in a 20th Century Fox studio, on a palm-tree-lined corridor called Pico Street in Century City. The filming is on Stage 9, smack in the middle of geologically and meteorologically challenged Los Angeles. Adjacent to the studio sit the actors' trailers.

Inside trailer No. 2 sits Dennis Franz, better known to the man in the street as Detective Andy Sipowicz, the character he plays. He rests on a couch, waiting to be called to film a scene for the 19th of the season's 22 episodes for "NYPD Blue." He leans back, a Churchill in his large hand. He sports the slacks and the bargain short-sleeved shirt that have become Sipowicz's trademark apparel on the show. "I always liked the smell of a smoke-filled room," he says, measuring each word as one would expect of an actor. "I think it's a good smell."

Whereas some actors are notoriously difficult to deal with, Franz is accessible. He doesn't have an ego that would plug the Grand Canyon. "An actor," Marlon Brando once said, "is a guy who, if you ain't talking about him, ain't listenin'."

Again, not Franz. He offers the most careful, deliberated answers to even the most incidental questions. He cares about each response, cares to get the wording right. He talks at length about high school, about the theater department at Southern Illinois University, about his time in Vietnam, about his role on "NYPD Blue" and about his recent marriage. A production person pops her head into the trailer. "Scene 27 Baker is now no longer at the end of the day," she tells Franz. "Your scene is thelast scene of the day."

Bingo. Franz is now free for several hours of conversation. The time is needed, for executive producer and co-creator Steven Bochco does not allow writers on the set, reasoning that they distract the crew from the laborious task at hand. Gaining access to a war meeting at the Pentagon would be easier than getting a tape recorder and pad on the set of "NYPD Blue."

So the set for this award-winning police drama with a distinctly New York feel is whatever set you can envision from this nondescript row of trailers that looks like a Winnebago Wonderland. Here, in a kind of twilight realm, actors act and rest, talking about the O.J. trial whenever time allows or whenever it comes up--which it always does in Los Angeles. Despite the geographical disparity between the impetuous and populated streets of New York and the left coast "Happyland" known as Hollywood, the show is an obvious success.

Franz couldn't be more affable. Down-to-earth and self-effacing, loquacious and friendly, he describes his life before and after the show without affectation. And he's got a lot on his mind besides this lot of studios. He and his bride, Joanie Zeck, planned an April Fools' Day wedding--no hidden jokes--because they met on that day 13 years ago. And the unrelenting pace of the show has him putting in 12-, 15-, even 18-hour days. Thus, this homey trailer adjacent to the set is not a luxury, but a necessity. On one wall hangs a photo of his bride, another of himself and buddies Dennis Farina and Joe Mantegna smoking cigars, and another of his three-legged dog, Bigelow. A copy of the acclaimed film Hoop Dreams sits near his television.

He still needs to find time to practice tomorrow's lines. He's not the complaining type, however. Franz's life has afforded him a wealth of experiences--jubilant and routine and depressing--and the wisdom that accompanies them.

Los Angeles is a far cry from Franz's childhood home in the Chicago suburbs. He was born on October 28, 1944, in Maywood, Illinois, the son of a baker who had to find another line of work when he developed an allergy to flour. His parents ended up working in the postal service. "My father was a quiet role model for me," says Franz. "We have a saying: 'You get too soon old, and too late smart,' " he says, using a humorous German accent. "After many years, I have understood more and more the significance of that phrase and how accurate it was.

"I respected my father always. He was a quiet disciplinarian. He was self-taught and well-read, but he didn't have a formal education," Franz adds. "I always respected his ethics and the way he would treat other people. I think I learned very good things from him. He lived for the family; that was his priority in life. Very seldom did he set a bad example for me."


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