Why Is Dan Travanti Suffering Those 'hill Street Blues'? He's Beaten Booze but Not the Nielsens

updated 04/20/1981 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/20/1981 AT 01:00 AM EST

Without alcohol, he says, "Everything improves"

As the Fort Apache-type police captain of NBC's Hill Street Blues, Daniel J. Travanti has to cope with TV's most plausibly gritty cops, criminals and creepos every week. But the roughest Saturday nightsticking he absorbs is from that pantywaist Mr. Roarke and his tiny sidekick over on ABC's Fantasy Island. In fact, the mugging by the Nielsen families has been so severe that Hill Street Blues survived its first 13 episodes only through the faith of the reviewers and network president Fred Silverman. Almost nobody else tuned in to what is arguably the strongest new series in years.

"The critics wrote us a love letter, and I went around gushing about the show like a jerk," admits Travanti, who plays the hard-nosed Capt. Frank Furillo. Yet whether or not the series is renewed, it is already a triumph for Travanti, 41, a recovered alcoholic who is used to long odds. Another surer survivor from the series than, say, President Silverman himself is Travanti's sultry co-star Veronica Hamel, who plays the public defender who is Furillo's pistol-hot secret lover. Does off-camera practice make bluperfect? "We like each other a lot," Travanti says guardedly, "but I wouldn't say it's a romance." Hamel, who is divorcing actor Michael Irving, says of Daniel, "We enjoy each other socially as well as on the set." Whatever their relationship, Travanti, a lifelong bachelor, insists there is no future in it. "I enjoy living on my own," he says, "and I've made up my mind never to have children."

For years Travanti's closest family has been a circle of friends, all recovered alcoholics, with whom he meets four times weekly. "There isn't a day goes by when one of my sober friends isn't in touch," says Travanti, who once sloshed down nearly a bottle of vodka a day. Of those liquid but shallow times, he now says, "I'd think I was great, just great. Then I'd think, 'Oh, no, I'm awful.' I was an egomaniac with an inferiority complex."

The inevitable crack-up came in 1973 in Indianapolis on tour with Sada Thompson in Twigs. "One night I stepped onstage and just began to shake—it was like a grade-B movie. Sada's nearsighted and carried on playing. Finally I turned to the audience, said, 'Sorry, folks,' walked off—and burst into tears." He did manage to get through the next 60 days of the tour on Valium before friends coaxed him into a support group for drinkers. "At first I was furious," he says. "But then I surrendered."

Travanti seldom had given in as a kid in Kenosha, Wis., where he was the youngest of five children. His Italian immigrant parents (his father was an auto worker and his mother a housewife) "brought me up to be special, and in some ways I was," he says. A straight-A student and high school football star ("11 yards per carry senior year," he claims), Travanti made Phi Beta Kappa at the University of Wisconsin and won a fellowship to Yale Drama School. "I was deeply insecure, and that was when I started drinking," he says. After dropping out in 1963, he got his first job as a walk-on in a Brooklyn play. Then came bit parts in soaps and series like Route 66 and Kojak. "The work was never terrific," Dan remembers, "and I just drank more and more."

After finally beating the bottle he started afresh, winning his master's degree at Loyola Marymount University in L.A. By 1979 he was back where he began—in a soap. "I hated it," recalls Travanti of his General Hospital role as Spence Andrews. "But I behaved. I'd grown up."

Now almost oppressively healthy, Travanti follows a Marine-like regimen of jogging, cycling and weight lifting. Home is a modest cottage in an un-trendy inland section of L.A.'s Venice, but he's using some of his six-figure Hill Street swag to move into plusher digs on a Santa Monica bluff. That's one sign of the hard-won promontory Travanti has scaled. As is the confidence that allowed him to make commercials for Almadén wine. "Ironic, isn't it?" he asks. "I can still smell drinks across the room. Margaritas make me salivate. But sobriety is the keystone of who I am now."

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