Over NYPD Blue‘s 12 seasons, only Dennis Franz has seen everything — from the first bare butt to the last popped perp. Playing the ever-bristling, Job-like Andy Sipowicz, he began as a second-stringer, but quickly became the revolutionary cop show’s irreplaceable — and four-time Emmy-winning — center. As the finale, the ABC series’ 260th episode, approaches (March 1, 10 p.m.), EW asked the 60-year-old Franz to reflect on his extraordinary life on the beat.
Assembling the Squad OCT. ’92—SEPT. ’93
I had a relationship with [cocreators Steven Bochco and David Milch] from being on Hill Street Blues and starring in its spin-off, Beverly Hills Buntz, and doing another series with Steven called Bay City Blues. When they called about NYPD Blue, I’d played — no lie — 27 cops and was looking for something other than a cop role. I was in my late 40s. I wasn’t a young guy anymore and time was running out, so I wanted to find some different directions to spread in. They said they were putting together a new series that would be somewhat like Hill Street, but a little more focused on the characters. I thought, Well, if I’m gonna do another cop show, I would most want to do it with the two of them.
It was about six months before a script was written. When I finally read it, my main problem with the character was, Who was going to give a damn about Sipowicz? He was a loose cannon, a womanizer, a drunk, a racist, an atheist. I got shot, like, five or six times in the first episode; who’s gonna care if I lived or died? Steven and David said, ”You will find a way to make this character redeemable.” I said, ”Well, thanks for the vote of confidence. But how am I gonna do that?” So my task was to make this basically unlikable man a tragic hero. This was going to be the rebuilding of his life. I later learned that it was not necessarily intended for Sipowicz to survive the first show. Fortunately Steven and David had second thoughts on that.
We were saying and doing things that hadn’t been on network television before. This was pre-Sopranos, pre-The Shield. Cable was not as big as it is, so for us to be able to say words like prick and a–hole, it was so freeing. I thought, Of course they’re gonna get cut out. Then when we saw the finished pilot, it was all in there! When we began the show, 57 affiliates didn’t air us, and I understood their reluctance. Rev. Donald Wildmon with the American Family Association launched a major protest against us. That poor guy, he really heightened the curiosity factor in those markets that were showing us. Consequently we got huge numbers [23 million viewers for the Sept. 21, 1993, premiere] and the show was of such high caliber that it wasn’t looked at as just sensationalism.
I thought it was hilarious that I was asked to sign a nudity agreement. I thought, ”This is a waste of paper.” But I was flattered. In the second season, I had to get naked in the shower with Sharon Lawrence. I said, ”Okay, I got an ass just like everybody else. It ain’t beautiful, but the majority of ours aren’t. I’m just Everyman here.” I loved the way they approached it. A little embarrassing to watch it with my daughter, but nevertheless it was one of the most memorable things on the show.