Dennis Franz: The Man Behind Detective Sipowicz

by Liz Martinez DeFranco

On Tuesday nights, the New York City Police Department comes alive in households all across America. This month, NYPD Blue begins its eighth season on ABC. For seven years, we have watched the denizens of the NYPD come alive on our screens. We’ve watched them live and die, love and hate, crack cases, and get burned on them. But mostly what we’ve witnessed is the characters growing and changing.

The most visible example of a cop who’s come a long way is Detective Andy Sipowicz, played by veteran police actor Dennis Franz. He started out as a prejudiced alcoholic chain smoker who seemed more intent on destroying himself than on keeping the peace. Through the years, he has evolved into a prejudiced recovering alcoholic former smoker. But what keeps viewers tuning in to the show religiously is the fact that underneath the character’s distasteful surface is a regular guy who’s trying to get better—as a person, a father, a husband, a cop. Sometimes he does. And, like so many of us, sometimes he fails. His stumbles keep us hanging on for the ride, rooting for him to make it this time.

How Dennis Franz makes a likable character out of Sipowicz is a credit to the actor’s ability to reach inside and portray the detective as a real person, warts and all. “I draw on my experiences serving in Vietnam,” Franz explains. “I use my eleven months in reconnaissance units when I try to depict the seriousness of certain situations on the show.”

Of Franz’s two-year Army tour, almost a year was spent with the 82nd Airborne and the 101st Airborne units in Vietnam. Although he was not jump-qualified, Franz saw plenty of action in fire fights. Still, he says, he doesn’t confuse his police detective character with his role as an actor. “I do not fancy myself to be anything other than an actor portraying a police officer,” he says. “To think of my prop gun as being a real gun, and having to think about protecting myself and others—I don’t have the dedication and unselfishness that it takes,” he admits. “The real police: they are the heroes.”

Franz has had a lot of experience pretending to be a cop. He has played a police officer 28 times, including two stints on Hill Street Blues. His first acting role was as a LEO in a stage play called, fittingly enough, “Cops.” To get into the role, he and fellow actor Joe Mantegna hung out around real officers so they could better imitate them. “We frequented bars where policemen gathered and observed them,” he says. “One thing they seem to have in common is a sense of being in the center of things. They’re always aware of their surroundings—they always know who’s behind them, who just came in the room. That sense of awareness is what I try to bring to the role.”

It seems that he has been successful. With a slew of awards to his credit for his portrayal of Andy Sipowicz, Franz the actor gets accolades that mean a lot to him from the regular guy on the street. Often, that guy is wearing blue. “The response I get from the vast majority of police officers who stop me around the country and comment on the show is favorable.” He pauses to consider this for a moment. “I’m certain a lot of police officers don’t feel I do it properly, but they don’t stop me to complain,” he says, amused.

For Franz, who is a native of the Windy City, bringing the grit to the role requires an attitudinal shift. Part of the attitude is his accent. “I thicken up the accent the only way I know how, which is Chicago. I try to be more articulate than Sipowicz in real life,” he stresses.

Franz the actor is an articulate man and an accomplished thespian. In contrast, the rougher Andy Sipowicz has managed over the seasons to attract the interest of ADA Sylvia Costas, played by Sharon Lawrence. They start out at odds with each other in the first show, and he makes a rude gesture toward her to show his displeasure. From there, the fireworks have taken them on to a relationship, marriage and a child. Many critics have been doubtful about the authenticity of the relationship. Not only do cops and ADAs often butt heads in real life, but the Sipowicz and Costas couple has an unlikely “Fred and Wilma” quality, which Franz is quick to acknowledge.

“I can see the interest on Sipowicz’s part,” he says. “She’s a strong, understanding, nice woman who’s not too bad on the eyes. I’ve had a hard time trying to justify her attraction to Andy. But we made it work,” he adds.

However, once they married and had the baby, the writers lost interest in keeping the relationship alive. Sylvia Costas was killed last season so that actress Sharon Lawrence could go on to the television show “Ladies Man.” This coming season will hold a rekindling of the relationship between Sipowicz and his ex-wife, Katie. But it won’t be too easy for Franz’s character, he says. “I will try the singles scene. There will be some good dates and some bad ones. And through it all, Andy has to cope with being a father to his son.” He also has a relationship as a sort of surrogate father to Ricky Schroeder, who plays his new partner, succeeding Jimmy Smits.

All in all, this season’s episodes, which begin a couple of months later than the show’s usual November start, promise to hold a lot of drama in store for us. So next Tuesday night, don’t be surprised if there’s a sudden drop in the crime rate as televisions all over America are tuned in for the next episode of NYPD Blue. And while you’re munching popcorn and watching Sipowicz go through his latest crisis of character, you can have the satisfaction of knowing that—love him or hate him—the actor playing the role is behind you 100 percent.

“I want all the men and women who have this job in real life to know that I thank them for what they do. The feelings of respect and admiration for them is shared by the entire cast of NYPD Blue,” Franz says sincerely.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Liz Martinez DeFranco is the editor of the exciting new book “Cop Tales 2000” available at www.38SpecialPress.com. Liz is also a regular security columnist for “Security Technology and Design Magazine.”

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