Vive La Franz (Translation: “Long Live Dennis Franz”)!

This is quite true (ask my high school buddies, they’ll back it up): I liked actor Dennis Franz so much as a teenager that for several years I kept a picture of him in my wallet. Mark me well: I have never carried a picture of any loved one or family member. But Dennis Franz made the cut.

Yes, I liked him a great deal, but naturally I was being ironic. I was essentially making self-deprecating fun at how MUCH I liked him. The wild thing is, this was PRIOR to his critically-acclaimed, award-winning work as Detective Andy Sipowics on NYPD Blue (1993-2005). This was a decade BEFORE that. Franz had already knocked my socks off with his bravura, show-stopping turn as foul-mouthed cynical Detective Marino in Brian de Palma’s 1980 Dressed to Kill. (His Wiki entry says he first gained attention for his part in Body Double. Nonsense! He sure garnered MY notice four years earlier in Dressed to Kill). Granted, Marino was a showboaty role, and the lines he got to speak were still a bit shocking back then. “Who were you fucking?” he asks streetwalker Nancy Allen, provoking gasps from the audience. It gave Franz the opportunity to make a big impression. But Franz had a way of making language, even mundane language, work for him. He USED it. I’ve always cherished his line reading of “Alright, Miss, uh…Miss Blake“, insinuating, as though the name “Blake” itself were somehow suspect, not just the idea of someone using it for an alias. THEN, not long after, he played two separate roles on one of my favorite shows at the time, Hill Street Blues, first a recurring role as Detective Benedetto (1984), and then a regular one as Lt. Buntz (1985-87). No one ever seemed to notice that Buntz looked and talked just like Benedetto. And then there was the short-lived, ill-conceived spin-off Beverly Hills Buntz, which was too much of a good thing (1987-88).

“Buntz” is actually much closer to “Franz” as a moniker, and that’s good, because the actor (real name Dennis Franz Schlatta) is of German-American stock from (in case you missed it) greater Chicago. This above all is what I relished (and relish) about Franz, beyond the truth of his acting. He EMBODIES a regional type, and I’m not sure if anyone had previously covered that pocket of the country in the way that he does. In the vaudeville tradition, there had been actors prized for playing hillbillies, New England Yankees, New Yorkers, and every conceivable ethnic type (not always respectfully). But Franz now kind of owned Chicago shtick. Again, this was a decade before the “Da Bears” sketches on SNL. I absolutely love this accent, and though I am very good at accents, this one continues to elude my Eastern sensibility. The WAY Franz says things beguiles and teases and taunts me as an actor. I try to imitate him and I can NOT do it. All I can do is admire his music.

At any rate, over the years I caught up with other vintage Dennis Franz work: the De Palma movies The Fury (1978) and Blow Out (1981), in addition to the ones already named; the Robert Altman movies A Wedding (1978), A Perfect Couple (1979), and Popeye (1980); Blake Edwards A Fine Mess (1986); oddments like Psycho II (1983) and Runaway Train (1985); and perhaps his greatest chance to shine, opposite Dustin Hoffman in David Mamet’s American Buffalo (1996), directed by Michael Corrente. And, believe it or not, only this year have I begun to catch up with NYPD Blue, which is taking my enthusiasm for the actor to a whole new level, as the long running crime drama offered countless opportunities for Franz to show off every color in his pallette. He always rose to the occasion and then some. I’ve never seen him hit a bum note.

Dennis Franz has been retired since 2005. I no longer carry a picture of him in my wallet, but if he comes out of retirement to take a role, I’m considering putting it back.