by Michael Malone
THE NYPD’S 9TH PRECINCT SITS on a nondescript block in Manhattan's East Village. To the common observer, it's pretty much like any other Gotham cop shop, though the 9th has a few claims to fame. It made headlines in 1988, when police were caught on video using excessive force on the homeless to break up the Tompkins Square Park riots, and then ten years later, when Stone Temple Pilots frontman Scott Weiland was brought in after buying heroin. Neither story really made news outside of New York, but that's not to say the 9th doesn't register a blip on the national radar screen.
Or TV screen, anyway. You see, the 9th becomes the 15th every Tuesday night when America tunes into "NYPD Blue," as Detective Andy Sipowicz, a snarling, bloodthirsty bull-dog in a rurnpled shortsleeve dress shirt, delivers his no-nonsense brand of justice to the drug dealers, child molesters, and homicidal maniacs collectively known in precinct parlance as "skells. "
"I'm a nice guy in real life," insists Dennis Franz from his trailer in Century City, Los Angeles, where most of "NYPD Blue" is filmed. He's taking a lunchtime breather during the shooting of the current season's 14th episode, on a workday that will last 16 hours. "To tell the honest truth, I think I'm an OK person. I got a lot of friends."
Spend a little time with Franz, and it's not hard to see why. The polar opposite of Sipowicz, Franz is affable and earnest, cultured and engaging, heartfelt and, for lack of a better word, nice. The consummate Everyman, a tireless worker; it's apparent that Franz would make a fine friend, a good neighbor.
How dreadfully disappointing. You want him to bark at you the way Sipowicz would to a skell he's trying to coerce a confession from. You want him to seethe, to rage the way he did when Andy Jr., Sipowicz's only son, was murdered. You want him to bore through you with those piercing eyes. In an odd way, you want that bastard to reach across the table and smack you on the ear, like you see him do in that dank interrogating room upstairs. You want to squeal in pain as your swollen ear rings mercilessly.
But it's not happening.
Franz doesn't get upset when you rhyme his last name with cans, instead of bronze. "People have a hard time saying Frahhhnz," he says. Dennis Franz certainly doesn't look like a guy whose name requires a frilly European pronunciation; you get the feeling the only time he even utters the word 'fancy' is when Sipowicz addresses his boss and adversary, Lt. Arthur Fancy. And that trademark Chicago accent just wasn't made to say Frahhhnz - the Windy City patois offers up that 'a' sound as often as, well, as often as the Cubs win the pennant.
In actuality, Franz is Dennis's middle name, and the first name of his father, a German immigrant. Though unfailingly mispronounced, 'Franz' is less difficult to say than his given surname. "'Schlachta' was never easy for people to hear, say or spell," says Dennis.
And Franz isn't bothered about forever being Sipowicz in the minds of American viewers, no matter how broad his subsequent spectrum of roles may be. "I consider myself fortunate that I've been able to find a character that people have responded to," says Franz in his measured, articulate, actorly way. "If I always have that attached to my name, that's not the worst thing in the world for a guy who wants to act for a living."
Damn, Franz is even cool when asked about his expansive derriere, which has been bared both on television and in movies. A former high school football player, the stocky 54-year-old looks like ... umm, a former high school football player. Franz was taken to task by the late night television circuit following his posterior's initial unveiling (Leno: "This is your ass. This is your ass on Twinkies."), but it's something he talks of with characteristic bonhomie. Will it make a cameo in the near future? "Not if you're lucky," jokes Franz.