Originally created 09/22/03

Dennis Franz returns as 'NYPD Blue' begins its 11th season

NEW YORK -- A decade after he first hit the streets, Detective Andy Sipowicz remains tough, tormented and, for millions of "NYPD Blue" fans, irresistible.

Meanwhile, Dennis Franz remains happy bringing Sipowicz to life as the ABC cop drama starts its new season Tuesday at 10 p.m. EDT.

"I just know a good thing when I get it," Franz explains. "And this is a very good thing."

It's been awhile since Sept. 21, 1993, when "NYPD Blue" arrived to critical raves along with ranting from pressure groups that branded the show "soft-core porn."

It's been a long haul since that first episode, when, in a character-defining moment, Sipowicz angrily confronted a female prosecutor played by Sharon Lawrence, grabbing his crotch and insulting her in terms surely never before uttered on a network TV drama.

Later on, Assistant District Attorney Sylvia Costas became Sipowicz's girlfriend, then his wife. Then she died in his arms from a gunman's stray bullet in a courthouse corridor. Such turbulence has triggered Sipowicz's ups and downs.

Franz, an actor whose greatest prior success had been a supporting role on "Hill Street Blues," knew to keep his expectations in check during the early days of "NYPD Blue." After its third episode aired and the series won a full-season order, "I thought, 'All right! I got a solid year's work out of this thing!"'

Now, with 10 solid years' work under his belt, Franz is the sole charter member still in the ensemble that also began with Amy Brenneman, James McDaniel, Sherry Stringfield and Nicholas Turturro. (Gordon Clapp, who continues as Medavoy, had only a recurring role at the 15th Precinct the first season.)

Franz insists he wasn't too worried by David Caruso's rude exit after Season One, especially with Jimmy Smits filling the gap.

He saw Smits' departure four years later as a greater loss. But that hurdle, too, was finessed with the addition of Rick Schroder, who stayed 2 1/2 seasons.

The current ranks include Garcelle Beauvais-Nilon, Bill Brochtrup, Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Esai Morales, Jacqueline Obradors, Charlotte Ross and Henry Simmons - "from top to bottom, the strongest cast we've ever had," Franz declares.

New blood, he says, has "created new energy in the makeup of Sipowicz, and I like that. With the new relationships, I certainly find new dimensions to his character."

Chatting with a reporter recently, Franz, just back to work from his summer hiatus, has come to Manhattan with several co-stars (and his wife, Joanie) for a week's location shooting before production resumes in Los Angeles. The New York scenes filmed during this visit will be inserted into the season's first half-dozen episodes, Franz explains.

One scene, scheduled to be shot later that day on the steps of the federal courthouse, is a tender exchange between Sipowicz and his fiancee, Detective Connie McDowell (Ross). It will appear as the final moments of the season premiere.

"You learn to do these location scenes generically, so that they will fit wherever they're put," Franz says. "You have to understand: I'm going into this blind. We haven't gotten scripts yet. I don't even know what the first script is about.

"But there was a time when we did not have the luxury of scripts, period," he recalls with a chuckle. "It was all in the mind of one individual, and that was David Milch (with Steven Bochco, a series co-creator who left three years ago).

"He would come in every day and improvise scenes, creating the storyline as we were all gathered around him. Then our job was to act out those scenes with a vague understanding of where they were coming from and leading to. That was tough."

Not that Franz is complaining. "On Tuesday nights when I saw the episodes put together, it was extremely satisfying," he says. Besides, he isn't one to whine.

The Chicago area native, who turns 59 next month, attributes his work ethic to his Midwest background and his parents' example.

"My father was a German immigrant, a baker who over time developed an allergy to flour, then got a job in a factory," Franz says.

Like father, like son. It just feels natural for Franz to arise each morning and report for work. He hopes his work will remain "NYPD Blue" through this, its 11th season, and beyond.

"I still love the show, and I see no reason to go elsewhere at this point," he says, and gamely adds, "This next year is going to be interesting: 'Law & Order: SVU' is in our time slot, opposite us. They're attacking! We'll see who wins."

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