12 years later, the precinct doors are closing

Published: Tuesday, March 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, February 28, 2005 at 11:16 p.m.
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David Caruso, left, and Dennis Franz played partners at New York City's 15th Precinct, in 1993, the first season of ABC's police drama "NYPD Blue." Caruso departed in the second season; Franz starred for the entire run of the series, which ends its 12-year run tonight.

A dozen years after it roared in like a lion, "NYPD Blue" is ready to leave out (almost) like a lamb.
It has become respected and honored. Its finale, airing at 10 tonight on ABC after a 9 p.m. retrospective, isn't likely to stun.
"We're not blowing up buildings, and we're not killing anybody off," says Steven Bochco, the producer.
This finale will be subtle, says star Dennis Franz. That subtlety is a huge jump from the "NYPD Blue" of 1993.
Hot off "Hill Street Blues" and "L.A. Law," Bochco claimed he was creating "R-rated television" with "NYPD Blue." A G-rated world recoiled, and some ABC stations refused to air the show.
"It was a storm," Bochco says. "The only way for us to survive past three, four weeks was if we jumped out and were perceived as a hit."
That's what happened. "NYPD Blue" finished its first season at No. 18 in the Nielsen ratings. It peaked (at No. 7) in its second season and spent seven years in the top 20.
The Emmy awards came quickly. By its second season, "NYPD Blue" was named best drama. In four of its first six seasons Franz was named best lead actor in a drama.
Both parts were surprises:
The "R-rated" talk had been mostly hype. There was some rear-view nudity, plus explicit violence, gore and language, but that was just the surface. "Under all those bells and whistles, there was a really first-rate drama with compelling characters," Bochco says.
And first among those was Franz's character, Andy Sipowicz. At first, Franz says, the lead was the button-down John Kelly (David Caruso), with Sipowicz in support. "The show shifted gears . . . we started to share more."
Bochco downplays that change. Personal factors clouded things, however.
One was the animosity surrounding Caruso, who was replaced by Jimmy Smits in the second season. "David . . . just desperately didn't want to be here and created such a hostile environment," Bochco says.
The other was the fondness for Franz who had been in Bochco's "Bay City Blues," and "Hill Street Blues." He was also in "Beverly Hills Buntz."
On the surface, Franz is a tough and beefy guy, a former Airborne soldier in Vietnam. Beneath that are hints of gentleness.
Franz is a former mailman who has spent recent decades surrounded by females - his wife Joanie and her two daughters. He even has a fondness for children's programming.
"I've always liked them - the cartoons, the Saturday-morning shows, everything," he says.
Some people were surprised by the casting of Sipowicz's fourth and last police partner (after Caruso, Smits and Rick Schroder). The newcomer, Mark-Paul Gosselaar, was known for a Saturday-morning comedy. Franz says he told him: "Let me get this out of the way. I'm a closet 'Saved By the Bell' fan."
Gosselaar says he liked the guy instantly. "He says hello to everyone and welcomes you to the set. I've been there four years, and there's not a day that goes by that he hasn't given us a handshake."
That macho-gentle nature became part of Sipowicz. Franz recalled his first reactions:
"I said, 'He's a womanizer, he's a loose cannon, he's a drunk, he's an atheist . . . who's going to care whether he lives or dies?'
"And I got the vote of confidence from Steven, saying, 'You will find a way to make him likable.' "
He did. Others say "Sipowicz was sort of the unwieldy older brother . . . we kind of had to tiptoe around," says Gordon Clapp, who plays Greg Medavoy.
"If you look back at great characters in TV history, I think he'll go down as one of them," says Steve McPherson, the ABC president.
Bochco says "this character, however flawed, had a huge heart and was a real hero."
He survived the deaths of a wife, a son and two police partners. He softened slowly, says Bill Brochtrup, who plays John Irvin. "It's been an evolution in real time."
The change was slow and subtle, Bochco says. "We were patient." The show had lots of time. It is leaving now only because its costs are high and its ratings are average. Like Sipowicz, it's a semi-gentle lamb with the past of a raging lion.

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