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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."

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.

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.

Franz, however, did cop an Emmy for Lead Actor in a Dramatic Series. Both he and David Caruso, who played Detective John Kelly, the red-haired cop for whom each case seemed to present a fresh existential crisis, could have taken the award. When Franz won, Caruso congratulated him.

Which leads to the controversy of controversies that has surrounded the show in its second year. "The first season was a battle, trying to get people in some cities to have the permission to be able to watch the show and judge for themselves," Franz recalls. "The show was having to defend itself for our use of certain language. And that was a big topic. Not that we seem to have won those battles, but this is a year of contentment after all the discontent."

Well, almost. After Caruso demanded a reported $100,000 per episode--triple his salary--and unusual scheduling arrangements, Bochco let him go. "Whether it was money, ego or personality clashes, the bottom line is still that when 'NYPD' lost Caruso, it lost its soul," said Jeff Jarvis of TV Guide. "He gave 'NYPD' its tension: sexual, moral, dramatic." Since Caruso's departure, actor Jimmy Smits ("L.A. Law") has come on board "NYPD" for its second season as Detective Bobby Simone, which invites inevi-table comparisons.

"It's the most natural thing for people who watch the show to compare," Franz says. "I think they're both great, and they both handle their characters--there are distinct differences between the two characters. Caruso's character was one of a weary sort, always trying to do the right thing. That caused great angst within himself. He was always battling good versus evil. And the Bobby Simone character is also an upstanding character with much integrity."

Despite the post-mortem sentiments of fans and scribes, the show is flourishing, consistently placing in the top 10 shows of the week. Although wildly different than Caruso's character in manner, Jimmy Smits' character is effective and is developing more and more each week. The ratings reveal that millions of fans have stayed with the show to give Smits a chance; they are being rewarded, as the show's writers begin to unravel his enigmatic character.

"From what we've seen of him so far, he isn't battling as many demons as were presented in the Kelly character," says Franz. "That's not to say it's not going to happen, because I'm sure it is. There's something going on in his past, but we don't know about his past yet. There have been a few episodes that have ended where I really longed to know what happened to Bobby Simone before he came to this point. I assume that the audience is asking the same question. What kind of man is this, where is he coming from and will that open up as time goes on?"

"NYPD" is a show that always seems to make its own press. Whether it's the little "viewer discretion" warning at the beginning of each episode or the parade of naked bottoms, the production always rates high on the titillation meter. One example was Sipowicz's first skirmish with Sylvia Costas. She comes at him with a Latin phrase common in legalese, saying "ipso facto..." Sipowicz grabs his crotch and shoots back, "Ipso facto this, bitch." Before long, Franz suggested to writers that it would be novel for two people from such different levels on the food chain to get together. The writers began developing the relationship.

Then came the now-infamous scene in which Sipowicz's ass made its grand debut. While he showers, his girlfriend enters and begins to wash him. "I usually wash myself down there," he says, not quite protesting. "It's getting clean down there," he says, as she continues. While her tush was a sight worth beholding--perhaps even freeze-framing on your 19-inch--Sipowicz's ass became the butt of late-night TV shows. "I did it as a joke," Franz says with a smile. "I know what I look like. I wanted to show I'm Everyman."

Jay Leno went to town on him. "Did we need to see Dennis Franz's ass just before Thanksgiving?" Leno wondered during one monologue. "I had only a 20-inch screen and couldn't see it all," Leno continued. On another show Leno cracked, "Franz was actually doing a public service announcement: 'This is your ass, and this is your ass on Twinkies.' " No one got a bigger kick out of it than Franz. "He had a ball at my expense," he says.

Franz was invited onto Leno's show. "I brought Twinkies onto the show. I was going to throw them at him, but gave them to the audience instead." But a truce was not called; Leno wasn't finished. Referring to the New York City cop, Carol Shaya, getting fired for baring it all in Playboy, Leno said, "What kind of country is it when a beauty in her 20s is fired for going around topless, and Franz is 50 and allowed to go bottomless?" Now Leno leaves messages on Franz's machine such as, "More ass jokes coming!"

Franz has taken the kidding well. And why shouldn't he? He and the show are riding a frothy wave. "I've got a good job," he says. "I want to stay five years. I expect it'll be five years."

And it just keeps getting better. First came the TV miniseries "Texas Justice," when Franz got to play a loud and unorthodox Texas attorney, Richard "Racehorse" Haynes. "I also got to have hair in that part," he says with a laugh. And now he has been signed on for the upcoming film version of David Mamet's drama, American Buffalo, in which he will play a lead role opposite Dustin Hoffman. The movie began filming after "NYPD" wrapped its final episode of the season on May 2. And then there is his new marriage.

He and Zeck were married April 1 in Carmel, California, with about 100 guests in attendance. They told the press it was to be in Santa Barbara to avoid the hassles, Zeck explains. Franz proposed to Zeck at his 50th birthday party last October. All of the 175 guests--and Zeck herself--were surprised. "I said yes, and it was very emotional," she recalls. "A lot of people were crying that day."

Zeck is the president of RCA Consulting, a gift and promotions firm. Thus, both of them keep long hours. When time allows, they go to films together--sometimes five in a row in multiplex theaters--and regularly attend swap meets. "A swap meet is like a flea market where people basically bring their own junk to sell and they buy other people's junk," Franz explains, "though now they've gotten more sophisticated." He and Zeck have filled their Bel Air home with antiques bought at the meets. But one thing not tolerated in the home is cigar smoking. "I don't mind cigars," Zeck insists, "but they make the house smell afterwards."

So, Franz gets together with cigar buddies such as actors Dennis Farina, Joe Pantoliano (whom he calls "Joey Pants") and Joe Mantegna. Mantegna recalls "dabbling" in cigars with Franz almost 25 years ago: "At that time we smoked stuff that was crooked and flavored," he recalls. In July, Pantoliano opened Havana, an upscale cigar club in Beverly Hills, with Farina, Franz and Mantegna as charter members. The foursome also smoke at Gus' Back Room on Ventura Boulevard.

Farina, Franz and Mantegna are depicted (with Michael Jordan) in a mural painted along Chicago's Northwest Expressway. The mural, which is on three sides of a warehouse owned by Bigsby and Kruthers, a local clothier, shows the Chicago threesome in suits and smoking cigars. The display is so prominent that when Franz recently attended a golf tournament, former Bears' coach Mike Ditka came up to him and said the mural was "the greatest thing you ever did."

The threesome probably won't be smoking flavored tiparillos anymore. Franz likes Arturo Fuentes, Ashtons and Dunhills. "Some of the Cubans I find almost a little too strong for me," he says. But Franz, like other cigar smokers, is feeling the pressure from antismoking laws. "The restrictions have become so heavy on cigar smokers. But there are some people who just refuse to acknowledge any kind of restrictions and just go ahead and smoke regardless."

As for Franz, "I have to acknowledge the restrictions set by my bride. Joanie is a reformed smoker. When time permits, I sit out on the patio or somewhere outside the house and enjoy a cigar out there. I also go to occasional smokers with Joey Pantoliano, Joe Mantegna and Michael Nouri, just to mention a few who get together on a regular basis to enjoy a good cigar. Unfortunately, my job takes me in and out of the set so much that I can't sit down and thoroughly enjoy the cigar."

Upon hearing that President Clinton is a closet cigar smoker, Franz quips, "Really? He smokes? Maybe we can invite him to one of our smokers." He smiles, and that moon-faced grin lights up his face.

All is good, very good, for Dennis Franz.

Kenneth Shouler, a freelance writer based in White Plains, New York, is a frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado.

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