Posted: August 22, 2013
Since the mid-90s, I’ve rated the TV show NYPD Blue as one of the best. TV show have come and gone, and although some were good, very few managed to threaten its position among the top three, all categories included. Actors came and went in the show but Dennis Franz was always there as the sometimes grumpy and a bit special but always good-hearted Andy Sipowicz. A few days ago I got the honor to interview Dennis and it was pretty big for me, having been a fan for so long. We talked for a little over 20 minutes and I was immediately struck by how humble and different from his character Andy he was. Those of you who watched the show will surely notice this when you read the interview. Oh, and there's a spoiler in it for those of you who have not seen the entire show were Dennis talks about how the show ends and if you don’t want to know that before you see the show you should skip that part of the interview (I have marked it for you). OK, here we go ...
When I call Dennis, he is at his summer home in northern Idaho. He explains that he and his wife bought the house several years ago and there is always a lot of family and friends visiting. Much of his time now a day are occupied by spending time with his family and traveling. In fact, today he isn’t doing any kind of acting at all.
He tell me that during the ninth season of NYPD Blue it all began to feel like work to him. When he started playing Andy, he couldn’t get enough of it. It was a lot of work but he loved every second of it. But after nine seasons it started to feel more like a job than a passion, and although he still liked the scripts he felt that he needed a break. He told Steven Bochco (the show’s creator) this when they had their annual meeting to prepare for a new season and Steven asked how long he wanted to continue with the show. Dennis replied that he could see himself continuing for 12 seasons but that was all and they agreed that would be the plan. As it then turned out the show ran for 12 seasons and that was it.
When he was finished with NYPD Blue Dennis looked forward to some time off. He said to his agent, "I need a year off now" and the year passed in about 10 minutes. He then decided to take another year "... and after that I was pretty lazy and enjoyed to doing nothing, hanging out with my wife, my daughters, with my three grandchildren and traveling." So today he spends his time with family, traveling and playing golf and he has no plans at all to do anything else. For a time he didn’t give up acting completely and held the door open for a return if the right script came along. The door is now virtually closed, and although I hear what he says, I cannot help thinking and hoping that if the right projects emerge he’ll return to acting. Because he has offers but so far none that he couldn’t resist.
I ask if he still gets recognized as Andy Sipowicz and he does. "It's incredible. We started working on the show in 1993, 20 years ago, and that is a very long time ago. I'm still surprised that people remember and recognize me." He continues," It's not like the shows glory days when we could hardly go out but there are still people who when they see me says "Hey, aren’t you ... "and it's always very flattering. It shows that the show has a lot of impact on a lot of people. "
I tell Dennis that seasons 5 - 12 has finally been released on DVD (at least in the UK), something he did not know. In the US only the first four seasons has been released so he’s happy that the show is now out for people to watch. "It was an interesting series that was ran for 12 years. And you can certainly see that it has its highs and lows like any show that airs over such a long time, but I'm glad it's out there now. "
Of course, I wonder how Dennis got the part of Andy Sipowicz, and it turns out that it all started when he met Steven Bochco a few years earlier. "I was introduced to Steven Bochco when I had a role in the show Chicago Story years and years ago. It was a show about cops, lawyers and doctors. When the show ended one of the directors was set to direct an episode of Hill Street Blues and there was a part of a corrupt vice cop that he thought I would be right for so he brought me in for a reading. When I walked into this office there was a guy sitting behind a desk, his hair starting to turn white and he’s tossing a football up in the air and then he throws me the football. I caught it and tossed it back to him and it turned out to be Steven Bochco. It was a great way to beat the tension.” He was cast as the corrupt Sal Benedetto for a few episodes before the character died and was written out of the show. But Steven and Dennis liked each other so Dennis got a new role in the show Bay City Blues, which was canceled after only one season. Again, he was without a job when Steven approached him about returning to Hill Street Blues. This time as a different character, Norman Buntz, also he a cop. So Dennis played him for the last two seasons before the show was canceled.
"A couple of years later they [Steven Bochco and David Milch] called, and by this point I had played like 28 cops and I was tired of playing cops and was looking for something else. I wanted a different type of role. They said “we’re doing another police show and this one will have a smaller cast but be more intense focused then Hill street Blues, would you be interested?” and I thought Oh, God I really don’t want to play another cop but if I pass up this opportunity I think I will regret it because I admired them so much and I respect their work so much. So I thought it over and said; yes count me in."
Dennis was the first to be cast in the show and it took almost a year to find actors for the other roles. David Caruso played Andy's first partner John and he was actually a last minute choice. They tried to get other actors but they were not available. "David was great in that year he was with the show, but he only did one season." Something that few people know is that from the beginning the plan was to let Andy die in the very first episode. They wanted to shock the audience but in the end decided that they needed him. This was a good decision because if they hadn’t both main characters would have been gone after the first season. Now they had Andy but who should they pair him with? Luckily, Jimmy Smits, who was actually one of the actors they wanted when they originally casted the show was available. He became Andy's new partner Bobby Simone and a new relationship developed between them and the plot focused more on Andy and his life than it had previously.
When Jimmy also left the show in the sixth season Andy became its main character, which from the beginning was never the plan. By then it was a natural move though as the interest in Andy grew among viewers. As a proof of this Dennis has won no less than four Emmys for his role as Andy and is in fact the only actor that has gotten that many for the same character. "Yes, that's right, but this year, Bryan Cranston from Breaking Bad is nominated and he has three for the same character. So if he wins he and I will be tie for the most Emmys for the same character in a drama."
Before the start of the twelfth and last season everyone knew that this was the last season. Dennis and Steven had some discussions about it but were in complete agreement that this was it. Steven let everyone involved know this in time and when the season was promoted it was so as the last season of NYPD Blue. Dennis mentions that it was very satisfying to get the chance to finish the show on their own terms and not be canceled in the middle of a season which is often the case with TV shows now. "Yes, it was nice to end it on top and avoid feeling like you're dragging around a dead horse and shoving it down people’s throats. And ABC had been very helpful to us throughout the entire run of the show. They stayed with us because they knew the quality of the show was there from the beginning but they did take a lot of heat because we used profanity and a lot of nudity in the show. In those days it was very controversial to have such a foul language and nudity in a TV show that didn’t air on a cable TV. “Today, it's no worse than some children's programs but at the time it was bad." Many local ABC stations refused to air the show because of this, which meant that not everyone could see it. When the show's popularity grew many changed their minds though and started to air it. "Many were afraid of something they had not even seen."
- SPOILER ABOUT THE SHOWS ENDING -
The only problem was to come up with the right ending for the show. "Now it was up to the writers to come up with a good ending which is always difficult when it comes to a series that had been running for many years. There are some classic endings like M * A * S * H and Seinfeld. The Sopranos I thought was classic and I love that ending.” He continues, "David Milch and Steven Bochco thought the best way to end this show was to open up a new door and give an indication to how live was going to continue as always in the world of NYPD Blue, people are moving into different positions as Sipowicz did by going into the lieutenants office and sitting in that chair for the first time and just kind of coming full circle. If you’re telling the story about Sipowicz we went from the very bottom of his downfall where we began the series, by all rights he should have died in that first episode, to the rebuilding of that character from the inside out... Maybe not from the inside out because I think that at the core of Andy Sipowicz there always had to be, more than anything, a good cop, a good human being, a man who know what was right and wrong but sometime fell victim to his own temptations and would go of in different directions that he couldn’t control. But he know he was wrong when he was doing wrong but he always stood up for the person who was in the right. It was a nice evolution that kind of ended out giving him a bit of optimism at the end thinking; well this guy made it. He is one of the survivors and he’s going to be OK."
- END SPOILER -
With that, I thank Dennis for his time. It was great to hear that he was doing well but a bit sad that he probably won’t return to acting. But who knows, he might change his mind. Maybe that script he can’t refuse will show up eventually...
"Very few of us say FREEKIN instead of fucking you know. We say what we mean."
- Dennis Franz on the fact that people wanted to censor NYPD Blue when it first aired because of its foul language and nudity.