Vive La Franz!

updated 07/11/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/11/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

MAYBE IT'S ALL THOSE HARD-BITTEN cops he has played—28, by his count—in such movies as Dressed to Kill and TV series like Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue. But the image of Dennis Franz, antiques and bric-a-brac collector, is a bit jarring. Hell, it's almost as if Andy Sipowicz, the dyspeptic, alcoholic, profane detective he portrays on NYPD Blue, were to take up needlepoint.

But there's Franz, 49, almost every weekend, staking out estate sales and flea markets all over L.A. and elsewhere in search of vintage Americana—nabbing a battered piano here, a washing machine with a hand-crank wringer there. "Once he sees something, that's it," says Joanie Zeck, 46, Franz's girlfriend of 12 years and co-collector, with whom he shares a five-bedroom, antiqued-to-the-max house in Bel Air, Calif. "Dennis suffers miserably when he passes something up. If he wasn't an actor, he'd be a decorator."

Others, of course, think that Franz would be a cop—and that includes the real NYPD blues who flock around him and his costar David Caruso (who plays Sipowicz's studly detective partner John Kelly) whenever the show goes to Manhattan to film exterior shots. The admiration is mutual. "I relate to police officers," says Franz, lounging in his kitchen. "I find them to be pretty insightful. And I feel very flattered when they take me into their confidence." Among the things they confide, he says, is how much they envy Sipowicz's often rough handling of suspects. "Their hands are tied, so they fantasize about the way he gels to do what they want to do," Franz says. "I think in our society we've become way too lenient on the bad guys, and Sipowicz also feels that way."

It was Sipowicz's in-your-face bluntness, as much as Kelly's cool, that helped make NYPD the top-rated new drama of last season. Franz has even got letters from women urging him to do a nude scene, à la Caruso. "Oh, yeah, I'm the ultimate sex god," he says, bemused. "If anybody wants to see this butt, they're welcome to it."

That's about as far as he goes in the swagger department. "Dennis is a tough guy, but like all genuinely tough guys, he doesn't have to act tough," says NYPD executive producer Steven Bochco. "In all the years I've known him, I've never seen him raise his voice." Actor Joe Mantegna, an old friend and fellow cigar fancier, pronounces him, "a big teddy bear."

The tough-lender combination has served Franz well since his childhood days in Maywood, Ill., a Chicago suburb. The youngest of three children of German immigrants Franz and Eleanor Schlachta, both postal workers, Dennis stood out in high school as much for his amiable personality as for his 6', 180-lb. frame. Nicknamed the Peacekeeper, he mediated disputes between rival cliques he calls the social climbers and the greasers.

The Peacekeeper's dream was to catch for the Chicago Cubs—until one day he tagged along with his girlfriend to an audition for a high school play. He got a part, she didn't—which marked the beginning of another dream. It didn't get serious until, after graduating from Southern Illinois University in 1968, Franz spent 11 months as an Army grunt in Vietnam. "I saw too many good men who didn't particularly want to be there but were doing what they thought was expected of them," he says. "Mentally, I had to make adjustments when I got back."

For a while, Franz brooded. But in 1972 he rediscovered acting. After joining Chicago's Organic Theater and adopting his stage name, Franz began to flourish playing cops and other burly characters. In 1978 he moved to Los Angeles at the urging of Brian De Palma and Robert Altman, who had directed him in small parts in The Fury and A Wedding. His big break came on TV'' in 1982, when Bochco cast him in Hill Street Blues as a bad cop named Sal Benedetto. Though Sal was killed off, Franz would later return as the shifty—but not so bad—Lt. Norman Buntz. A 1988 spinoff, Beverly Hills Buntz, died unmourned by critics. But Franz was the first actor Bochco had in mind for NYPD Blue.

It was not a cop Joanie Zeck spotted across a crowded Hollywood nightclub in 1982, but, she says, a nice guy with eyes "so gentle they gave him away." Zeck asked Franz to dance. "And we've been dancing ever since," he says. They don't have wedding plans, but, says Zeck, have been "pretty much married" ever since she moved in with Franz a decade ago, bringing along her two daughters from her first marriage, Tricia, now 20 and a student at the University of Arizona, and Krista, 18, a high school senior. On Tuesday nights Franz herds Joanie and Krista to the TV to watch NYPD Blue. "Unlike Sipowicz, Dennis doesn't swear," says Joanie. "Never."

It may be a matter of self-preservation. "When I spout dirty words on TV, she gives me a slug in the arm," Franz marvels. "God forbid I should ever have to drop my pants!"

MICHAEL A. LIPTON
CRAIG TOMASHOFF and JOHNNY DODD in Los Angeles

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