Family & Companions
Two decades of playing cops in films and on television prepared actor Dennis Franz for the role of his lifetime - that of troubled Detective Andy Sipowicz on "NYPD Blue" (ABC, 1993-2005). It took an actor of Franz's talent and presence to find the sympathetic elements beneath Sipowicz's bristling hide, and Franz brought them out in every single episode of the benchmark series, earning four Emmys in the process. Prior to his success on "Blue," Franz was a veteran of the Chicago theater scene and a character actor specializing in cops and heels, most notably on "Hill Street Blues" (NBC, 1981-1987) as Lt. Norman Buntz. But "NYPD Blue" provided his finest hours, and ensured Franz a place in television history as one of the medium's most complicated lawmen.
The son of German immigrants who worked for the postal service, Dennis Franz Schlachta was born in Chicago, IL on Oct. 22, 1944. Though he was a bonafide sports nut who played on the baseball, football and swim teams at Proviso East High School in Maywood, IL, he discovered a new passion - acting - in the 11th grade. His impetus to audition for a part in a production of "The Crucible" was his girlfriend at the time, who was also trying out for a role. Franz landed the part - the girlfriend did not - and his future was set in stone. Franz attended Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, where he majored in speech and theater. After graduation, he was drafted into the U.S. Army, which shipped him to Vietnam for 11 months with the 82nd Airborne Division. The experience was a difficult one for Franz, and he struggled with depression in the years following his discharge. Eventually, he made his way back to acting via Chicago's acclaimed Organic Theater, which he joined in 1972. There, he was nominated for two Joseph Jefferson Awards in 1976 and 1977, which acknowledged excellence in Windy City theater. In 1979, he appeared in a televised PBS production of the play "Bleacher Bums," which began life at the Organic Theater as a story conceived by actor Joe Mantegna. Franz, who also appeared in the original theater production, was among the credited writers for the play and its screenplay, along with future director Stuart Gordon of "Re-Animator" fame (1985). A 2002 version of the play was broadcast on Showtime.
Franz began auditioning for film and television during the 1970s, making his debut in Brian De Palma's "The Fury" in 1978. His burly frame and streetwise intensity made him a natural for figures on both side of the law, though policemen and detectives seemed to be his specialty. He was a flatfoot on the trail of Michael Caine's cross-dressing killer in De Palma's "Dresssed to Kill" (1980) and made his TV debut as a hard-working Chicago beat cop in "Chicago Story" (NBC, 1982). After meeting Robert Altman during an audition, Franz enjoyed several small parts in the director's late-1970s and early '80s output, including "A Wedding" (1978), "A Perfect Couple" (1979) and "Popeye" (1980). Other significant turns during this period were as the sleazy new manager of the Bates Motel in "Psycho II" (1983) and a short-tempered adult film director in De Palma's ultra-violent and controversial "Body Double" (1984).
After a short stint as the coach of a minor league baseball team on the sitcom "Bay City Blues" (NBC, 1983), Franz was cast as an unscrupulous detective on a new series by that show's producer, Steven Bochco. "Hill Street Blues" would bring Franz his widest audience to date, and through some fairly unconventional means. His character, Detective Sal Benedetto, was killed at the end of the series' third season, but Bochco was such a fan of the actor that he brought him back three seasons later in an entirely different role. Franz played Lt. Norman Buntz, a crude, sartorially challenged detective who made life miserable for the members of the series' unnamed precinct. At the time of his arrival, "Hill Street" was struggling to maintain its foothold in the ratings, and was in fact being considered for cancellation. Buntz's arrival brought a breath of not-exactly fresh air to the program, which facilitated a change in his character from unpleasant foil to anti-hero. The character was so popular that when Bochco brought the series to a close in 1987, Buntz got his own program, a broad comedy titled "Beverly Hills Buntz" (NBC, 1987-88) that sent him to Los Angeles as a private eye.
Franz bounced between features and television in the years that followed "Hill Street." He made a brief return to series work with "Nasty Boys" (NBC, 1990), a laughable action-drama about a special unit of the Las Vegas police department that wore ninja-like disguises as they solved crimes. More notable was a turn as a stubborn airport security chief who reluctantly teams with Bruce Willis in "Die Hard 2: Die Harder" (1990). All were surpassed in 1993 when he assumed the role that would define his acting career. At first blush, Andy Sipowicz was a wreck - a racist alcoholic with lingering trauma from his experience in Vietnam and an ex-wife and son who refused contact with him. But as "NYPD Blue" progressed, Sipowicz displayed a remarkable ability to grow as a person; he remained a tough and dedicated cop, but the relationships he forged with his partners John Kelly (David Caruso), Bobby Simone (Jimmy Smits) and Danny Sorenson (Rick Schroeder) helped him to drop his defenses, as did a romance with Assistant District Attorney Sylvia Costas (Sharon Lawrence). These changes also helped when Sipowicz was faced with a series of tragedies, including the deaths of Simone, Costas and his son. By the series' conclusion in 2005, he was a transformed man, a new father and squad commander of the 15th precinct. In every episode - Franz was the only regular cast member for "Blue's" entire network run - he found the humanity and the honor beneath Sipowicz's blue-collar roughness. The result was an astounding four Emmys for his work, as well as a Prism Award, two SAG Awards, and five Q Awards from the Viewers for Quality Television.
The challenges of leading "NYPD Blue" offered little time for Franz to work outside of the series, though he did manage to appear in a handful of small projects in between seasons. He appeared in the long-gestating film version of David Mamet's "American Buffalo" (1996) opposite Dustin Hoffman, and gave a moving, decidedly non-Sipowicz-like performance as a former angel that gave up his celestial body to become human in "City of Angels" (1998). He also turned up as an abusive heel who meets his maker via a bowl of poisoned black-eyed peas in the music video for the Dixie Chicks' 1998 single, "Goodbye Earl." The clip won Video of the Year awards from both the Academy of Country Music and the Country Music Association in 2000. After "Blue" left the air in 2005, Franz kept a low profile, citing a need for a long vacation and the opportunity to review new projects. He participated in several charity events, including a 1999 Revlon Run/Walk in Los Angeles, and served on the jury for the 2009 Santa Barbara International Film Festival.
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Drafted in the military after graduating from college; served an 11-month tour of duty in Vietnam
Feature debut, Robert Altman's "A Wedding"
First film with director Brian De Palma, "The Fury"
Debut as TV series regular, "Chicago Story" (NBC)
Began association with Steven Bochco with a two-episode guest spot on "Hill Street Blues" (NBC)
Cast as part of the ensemble in Bochco's short-lived (four episodes) baseball series, "Bay City Blues" (NBC)
Played a cop in the big-screen actioner "Die Hard 2: Die Harder"
Had cameo in Robert Altman's "The Player"
Starred as Andy Sipowicz in Bochco's controversial cop show, "NYPD Blue" (ABC), won four Emmy Awards (to date)
Acted in the film version of David Mamet's play "American Buffalo" opposite Dustin Hoffman
Had featured role as an angel who eschews his celestial life for the pleasure of living on earth in the romantic drama "City of Angels"
Received star on Hollywood Walk of Fame (February 19)
Lampooned his tough-guy image by giving a hilarious turn as an abusive husband-turned-rotting-corpse in the Dixie Chicks' music video "Goodbye, Earl"