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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 2)

After his tour in Vietnam, Franz joined the Organic Theater Company, writing original material for and touring with the cast. One production was Bleacher Bums, which Franz helped write. "We did play after play, and after we'd finish one, we'd talk about what we were going to do next. One of my friends from that time was Joe Mantegna. Joe lived near Wrigley Field, and we were all big Cubs fans. Joe suggested doing a play about Cubs fans and the mentality of Cubs fans," says Franz. What he means is the mentality of living with losing, year in and year out. The Cubs last won a World Series in 1908. "The play was about accepting the Cubs for what they are and loving them regardless, knowing that we will probably never see a World Series in our lifetime."

The play went on to become one of the longest-running plays in Chicago history, and though everyone expected its impact to be regional, they were surprised when it caught on in Los Angeles. "Joe remounted it out here at a theater just around the corner from the studio--it ran for over 11 years," Franz remarks.

Soon, Franz broke into film, securing roles in Robert Altman's A Wedding and Brian De Palma's The Fury, both in 1978. After moving to Los Angeles at the behest of these directors, Franz got a spot opposite Bruce Willis in the 1990 megahit Die Hard 2: Die Harder. He played Captain Carmine Lorenzo, a territorial horse's ass and cop wanna-be who--while head of Dulles Airport security in Washington, D.C.--is getting in Willis' way. Although the movie was a box-office smash, because of the nature of the role it didn't open up any new vistas for Franz. "That was Bruce Willis' vehicle," he says. But Lorenzo displayed enough piss and vinegar and his conflict with Willis' character was one of the dramatic highlights of the film. Another meaty role was in 1989 with his hero Gene Hackman in The Package.

But before his more recent films, Franz had made inroads into television. Producer Steven Bochco created "The Bay City Blues," the story of a minor league baseball team. Franz had the starring role, alongside Michael Nouri, Sharon Stone and Bernie Casey. Though the show ended after just 13 episodes in late 1983, Franz was asked back for "Hill Street Blues," another Bochco production. And it was because of his connection to "Hill Street" that he copped the role for "NYPD Blue."

"Steven Bochco and [co-creator and executive producer] David Milch called me about six months prior to the actual shooting," Franz recalls. "They asked me if I'd like to do another cop show." At first, Franz was not elated. "I had already had my fill of cop shows," he explains. "But they described it as a gritty cop show. Soon I agreed. It was just me at first, and then they signed James McDaniel" (who plays Arthur Fancy, the lieutenant who doesn't suffer fools gladly). Little by little it came together.

"I had no idea it was going to be this big," he marvels. "I thought that all of my TV shows would be successful. You can never tell. The timing was right, the controversy, the quality of the show. And the writers are the stars of the show," Franz says.

"I knew 'NYPD' was a good piece of work," he continues. "I'm twice-blessed to be in two successful shows like this. When we go to New York, it's like a feeding frenzy, like the Beatles in the '60s." That last remark is hyperbolic--thousands haven't shown up at airports and crowded hotel sidewalks to squeal when the cast of "NYPD Blue" hits the New York City streets. But, says Franz, "Cops pull us over to the side of the road, yelling 'Hey Sipowicz, take a picture.' "

But while the public glory is palpable, so is the private work. "If you know how shots are established to get the look of the show, we have to repeat the same thing over and over with different angles and shots. Scenes are physically and emotionally exhausting. The camera goes from side to side, wide, zoom, tight. You repeat the work over and over again. This is not uncommon. At the start of each scene there are questions the actors bring up about the logic of the scene; we question a lot. A lot of times Milch is rewriting for us, reworking new dialogue on the spot. It is exhausting but rewarding--we're tired at the end of the show, but it's a good tired. You can hold your head up because you're proud."

Week in and week out, it all seems to work. The show is an odd mélange of police cases and relationships among the characters, often running counterpoint to one another. While Sipowicz and Sylvia Costas are romantically on the rise, heading toward an unlikely marriage of opposites, the fumbling, anguished and allergy-ridden Detective Greg Medavoy (Gordon Clapp) is losing his way pursuing the alluring blonde precinct secretary, Donna Abandando, played with intelligence and self-assurance by Gail O'Grady. The writing and directing are so damned good, so consistently good, that even ordinary episodes shine. The gloom of the station house, the stark reality of the interview room, the looks of tension, the understated comportment of these streetwise cops--it all adds up to a heady mix. The whole ends up being much greater than the sum of the parts.

It was thus utterly baffling to many observers that last year's Emmy for Best Drama would go to "Picket Fences," a pleasant, but not great, production. Indeed, if there was ever a doubt that New York-style shows like "NYPD Blue" are at a disadvantage among California award voters, last year's selection seems to eliminate all doubt.


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