His 'Animal' Behavior on Hill Street Blues Puts Bruce Weitz on Top of the Heap

updated 09/26/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/26/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

To get the part, Bruce Weitz decided to get into character. He knew that Grant Tinker, then president of MTM, didn't see him as Mick Belker, the ferocious, nose-biting undercover cop on Hill Street Blues, so Bruce grew a mustache, perfected an animal growl and went for his audition. "I started the scene in the hallway," he recalls, "yelling until all the executives came out of their offices and went into the audition room." Then Weitz proceeded to leap onto the table in front of a startled Tinker, and Belker was born.

Not only did Bruce get the part, he has also gotten three Emmy nominations for his contribution to NBC's hit series. Ironically, his competition for best supporting actor in a dramatic series at the Emmy ceremony on Sunday, Sept. 25, includes two other Hill Street regulars, Michael Conrad and Joe Spano. "I'd like to win, of course, but I don't think it's very important in the long run to anybody," says Weitz, 40. "We all congratulated each other, and we haven't spoken of it since."

It was camaraderie that got Weitz into Hill Street in the first place. The show's co-creator and executive producer, Steven Bochco, was an old college chum who recommended Weitz. "Bruce has a real canine dimension that I thought should be revealed to the universe," jokes Bochco. "We felt that he would take the character and give it dimension and humanity." Says Weitz of his TV alter ego, "He has values he won't compromise. That's very appealing."

In fact, Bruce contends that differences abound between himself and his character. "I'm a softie," he says. "I put on a rough exterior, but I'm easily moved." He describes Belker as "an impacted person" who has trouble articulating his thoughts. "I don't have that problem," says Bruce. Their backgrounds are quite different, too. "He's a street person by geography, and I was born of Connecticut country."

The son of a liquor store owner and a housewife in Norwalk, Conn., Bruce made his acting debut in a school play, Solomon, Sheba and the Bee. On one memorable occasion as a child, he did display some of Mick's mischief: At 7, Bruce chopped down a neighbor's storage barn. "I must have been angry that day," he says simply. "The cops came to the door, and my mother thought she'd given birth to 'the bad seed.' "

Childhood frustrations were familiar to him. His father had to live in Florida four months a year due to a sinus condition. "It was tough because there were certain things I didn't want to talk to my mother about." Bruce also grew into an overweight adolescent, carrying 190 pounds on his 5'8" frame. Fortunately, a high-school English teacher saw his potential as well as his rebellion and guided him into acting. Weitz went to Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie-Mellon University) in Pittsburgh, where he encountered Bochco, who was studying playwriting. Recalls Bochco, "Bruce was a 1,100-pound bull when I met him." An instructor suggested that Weitz would have to lose 40 pounds to enter the drama program. "He told me in front of 90 people, which actually was great," Bruce says. "There's something self-indulgent about not liking who you are. It gives you reasons not to be nice."

After graduation from Carnegie in 1966, Weitz was drafted into the Army ("I told the induction officer I was gay and a junkie, but they heard that one every day"). He served only three weeks, however, before receiving a "Section 8" discharge for being "unable to adjust," he says. For two years in Spain he helped a friend run a restaurant in a remote village before returning to America and acting in 1969. When he forsook the New York stage for Los Angeles "to make money" in 1977, he decided to look up his college friend Bochco, which led to a contract with NBC and eventually his hit series.

Twice married and divorced, Weitz is "not going out with anyone in particular," he says. "I do a lot of things, but not with a lot of people." His first marriage lasted only two years, and Weitz refuses to discuss the relationship, because of a promise extracted by his ex-wife. His second marriage, to actress Cecilia Hart, who is now married to actor James Earl Jones, ended in 1980 after seven years. "I think I did a disservice to the two women I married. I don't enjoy giving up time to be with someone, and I'm not looking to marry again. But I leave myself open to a day when it will work."

The popularity of Hill Street Blues has brought a certain stability to Weitz's life. He recently moved into a two-bedroom house in the Hollywood Hills. "I'm richer in many ways, not only financially, since Hill Street," says Weitz. "The series is an actor's dream and I have a sense now of who I am in the business." But success hasn't brought Weitz everything he'd like. Says he, "I still haven't gotten one inch taller."

From Our Partners