Twenty-five years ago, audiences were captivated by a most arresting and original spin on a TV staple — the police drama. Steven Bochco, who was already well-known as one of television’s chief innovators and reinventors thanks to high-quality series like “Paris,” “L.A. Law” and “Doogie Howser, M.D.”, co-created “NYPD Blue.” This was his second reinvention of the genre (he was also responsible for “Hill Street Blues”), but in teaming up with David Milch the envelope was pushed even farther.
Not only would “NYPD Blue” pioneer a grittier, more frenetic storytelling style with the use of regularly jerky and very verite handheld camera, it would challenge long-established broadcast network limits regarding violence, nudity and four-letter words. Of course, the road for such a disruptive new approach would not be an easy one, with high drama playing out both among the opposition to the game-changing series and within its own ranks before it finally debuted on ABC on Sept. 21, 1993.
Here, three of “NYPD Blue’s” first-season standouts, Dennis Franz (Det. Andy Sipowicz), Gordon Clapp (Det. Greg Medavoy) and Amy Brenneman (Officer Janice Licalsi), recall the tumultuous journey to launch a TV upstart that would ultimately become an institution.
Before There was ‘Blue’
Along with a busy movie career that included frequent collaborations with filmmaker Brian de Palma, Franz was a familiar face guesting on television hits and had become part of Bochco’s recurring “repertory company,” having starred in the short-lived baseball drama “Bay City Blues” and played two different roles on “Hill Street Blues,” one of which was spun off to headline the one-season comedy “Beverly Hills Buntz.”
Clapp was a frequent presence in the early and mid-career films of director John Sayles and a regular in the Canadian series “Mr. Vickers” starring Don Adams. Making his way in Hollywood, he continued to land guest shots on sitcoms, dramas and TV-movies, including Bochco series, including the divorce attorney drama “Civil Wars” and the ill- fated musical police drama “Cop Rock.”
Meanwhile, Harvard grad Brenneman’s career was just getting started, with toe-dips into TV roles in L.A. while passionately pursuing classical and boundary-pushing theater roles in New York.
Dennis Franz: I got a call from Steven and David talking about a new cop show that they were thinking about doing, similar in style to “Hill Street Blues,” but more focused and more centered on a fewer number of characters, and more introspective. They didn’t have a script. Nobody else was cast. They were still putting it together. It was just an idea formulating in their head. They wanted to see if I was available so I was flattered that they were coming to me first. At that point, I had played 27 cops. I was thinking, ” Oh Christ, I do not want to play another cop.” I told them – and this was probably one of the only, good, smart decisions I’ve made in my lifetime — I said, “If I’m going to play Cop No. 28, it’s going to be with you guys.”
Gordon Clapp: I came in for a guest role and I ended up staying for 12 years. I was, barely, a member of Bochco Rep…They were looking for people to fill out the squad, so I auditioned. There was a guy who was a hostage negotiator, and it was about a seven-page scene, it was very intense. And then there was this other guy, Medavoy. I look at it, and I thought “Okay, I want to put all my eggs in the Medavoy basket,” because he has a desk in the squad room, and maybe I could come back and sit at that desk a couple of times if this works out.
Amy Brenneman: I had worked out in LA a little bit, but I was back in New York playing “St. Joan” at Yale Rep. And my agents in LA were like, “You’re insane — you can’t do a play! It’s pilot season.” And I was like “But it’s St. Joan! I have to play St. Joan! [Casting director] Alexa Fogel, who had been an early champion of mine, said “There’s this one, and if you can come in…” I was actually brought in to play Sherry Stringfield’s part, and I totally loused up the lines — and didn’t really care, because I just was sort of sassy that way, And I famously turned to David Milch, completely joking, and said, “You know, if I’m gonna play this, really, you’re gonna have to change these lines. I can’t get them.” I meant it as a total joke, and of course they were like, “That’s our girl: she’s the one that should kill people in the pilot.”
Finding Their Roles
Franz: When [Steven and David] were describing him, he was racist, he’s a womanizer, alcoholic, homophobic, he was a loose cannon, he didn’t believe in God, religion, foul mouthed. I said, “Well, who the hell is going to care about this guy?” Their response was “Well, you will make that happen.” I said, “Well, thanks for the confidence. I appreciate that, but how?” They said, “It’s in your nature.” I kind of realized this is a guy at one time probably was a good provider and a good husband and father. I know he’s always been a good cop. Things probably were all going right in his life, but then something went wrong and he started this downhill slide. I’m formulating this in my head thinking that, “Okay, we’re catching him at the very bottom of his slide. Hopefully this is going to be an uphill battle for him from this point on.”
Clapp: [In the audition] I decided to throw a little spin in, so I said everything twice, basically – I did this kind of stuttering. And then I read the hostage scene, which was endless, and as I was leaving the room, David Milch said “I like that you said everything twice.” Two or three weeks went by and my agents said “They want to book you on a role on ‘NYPD Blue,’ and it’s potentially recurring.” I went in and I thought, “Am I supposed to do this stutter or what?” I was standing there at the craft service table, and a producer came up to me and said “Oh, you’re the guy that stutters, right?” So I said, “Oh, I guess I am.”
Controversy Couldn’t Keep Them Down
Once Bochco and Milch’s long-simmering plan to shatter many of the norms of broadcast network television — including the use of profanity, partial nudity and realistic violence, as well as central characters on the police force who were far more flawed that TV cop tradition had allowed — went public, an outcry began: religious groups and family organizations were calling for boycotts, and 57 of ABC’s 225 affiliates, mostly in smaller markets, pre-empted the first episode.
Brenneman: Steven just was a visionary, and he knew that things like cable and streaming were coming. And if you’re playing characters that use language and are rough, you need to include that, so it never felt gratuitous. What was a little, “Who knows how this is gonna go?” was that nudity clause, and I had people in the play that were like, “Don’t go. These guys are sleazeballs.” And I’m like, “No, they did ‘Hill Street Blues.’” Also, I didn’t know everything about network TV, but I knew they can’t show it. We’re not doing an R-rated movie. There’s “Silk Stalkings” and softcore porn people, and there’s Steven Bochco.
Franz: Many of the network affiliates were backing off. They didn’t want to have anything to do with this. I mean, this was like the fall of Western civilization as you knew it! It was just going to be a disaster that was going to turn television around — which, I’m happy to say, it did have an impact on TV, for better or for worse. It did create a certain curiosity. It was condemned in so many cities. They refused to show it.
Clapp: None of us were sure what was going to happen with the series. Steven was pushing the edge of the envelope, and a lot of stations were boycotting, so we really didn’t know what was going to happen. We just didn’t know how long the network was gonna stay with it, or if they were gonna be pressured.
Franz: Steven had such an interesting slant on the whole thing. He said, “This publicity is helping us. It’s really creating a lot of interest and a lot of curiosity about this thing that nobody’s ever seen. Nobody’s even seen the pilot before, and yet everybody is afraid of it.”
Clapp: But then, that first episode. And the first time we all heard the music at the beginning, it was electrifying. I just remember coming to work the next day, and everybody was just blown away by it.
Franz: As the show became more accepted and popular, people realized that this was adult intelligent viewing and not just meant to be all about nudity and cuss words. There was a lot of substance, and a lot adult, thought-provoking topics that we covered.
Can They Show that on Broadcast TV?
The most-headline grabbing aspect of the series in its earliest exposure was, of course, its depiction of nudity and sex, which would ultimately make the screen in measured style, with bare butts and glimpses of side-boob. Brenneman and star David Caruso were among the first to break the nude barrier, but soon enough nearly every central character appeared in the buff — to the actors’ delight and chagrin.
Brenneman: It was intense and odd and intimate and fantastic. We shot for like a day and a half, which is a really long time for a love scene, and we shot every which way. Greg Hoblit was directing, who was such a sage and wise and sane presence, so I never felt exploited. I felt absolutely honored, and like I was contributing to a scene. We hadn’t been on the air yet, so it was all an unknown in terms of what we’d be able to show, so we shot a ton of stuff that never saw the light of day — although I’m convinced it’s on Swedish television.
Franz: About every week Caruso had a butt shot. We were on the streets of New York filming, and cars would drive by and they’d see us there and they’d yell, “Yo, Sipowicz, when they going to show your ass?” They said, “You know what? Let’s give it to them.” So they wrote this thing with Sharon Lawrence and myself in the shower. I thought it was a hoot. I got a big kick out of it. I remember watching it at home with one of our daughters. When that scene came on, she slugged me in the head with a pillow, “Dad! How could you do that?”
Brenneman: The body makeup person would come in and cover up the zits that you had on your butt and do whatever. But at one point they were covering up painting over my nipples with skin tone. And I was like, “What is that?” And they were like, “Well, we’re not allowed to show nipples.” And I was like, “I get that, but people have nipples. They’re gonna know that my nipples are supposed to be there, so I’m just gonna look strange.”
Franz: I remember when they told me I was going to do [a nude scene] I thought, “I gotta get in shape. I gotta stop eating these donuts and I got to start doing push-ups and I got to get my body in shape.” As time got closer and closer and I thought, “I haven’t done any of that. This is what I got, and this is what you’re going to get.”
Clapp: [My first sex scene] was more to do with the impulsiveness of that scene, and then the aftermath of suddenly [as Medavoy] talking to my kids on the phone and realizing that I couldn’t take this step yet, and then coming to her and telling [Gail O’Grady] that I couldn’t come back to her apartment with her that night, that I had to go home.
Brenneman: I was coming from my theater ensemble, so I feel like we got naked on stage all the time — that was not a big deal to me at all. And our theater company really loved sort of normative-pushing-boundary stuff. That’s what attracted me to the part. … I think that somehow the fact that I’ve gone to an Ivy League school and dropped trou on TV made me an interesting item, like, “Oh, she’s not a snob — she’s gonna get naked.” But also I am what you call a pro-sex feminist, so as long as I felt trust and I was on top of it, it’s like, “Yeah, let’s show some authentic sexuality. That sounds great.”
Franz: We started out as a normal show with scripts and directors and everybody having their proper jobs. As time went on, the scripts became last minute — last minute pages. Then it turned into just getting a page or two. Then it turned into not having scripts and coming on the set not knowing who’s going to be working that day. Not knowing what anybody’s going to do or say. It wasn’t improvisational, but it was improvisational on David Milch’s part. He came in and sat on the floor, and we had our script supervisor sit next to him and jot down the dialogue that he was coming up with– that he was making up as he sat there for the day’s work. Then he would kind of tell us how he wanted it to be blocked. You come in and listen to him create this dialogue and create these situations, and his dialogue was not easy dialogue to memorize. He didn’t put words in your mouth that were “A-B-C-D.” They were “A-Z-X-M” — they were all over the place. The thought processes were crazy. It was hard to memorize this stuff on the spot [but] the results were always pretty wonderful. … The most memorable thing that I’ve ever been through in my life, just wonderful to see all this creativity come out of one man. Man, he pulled off miracle after miracle.
Brenneman: He made you better. He made you reach for something…There was this one moment where he completely won me over, where I was saying, like, “I don’t understand X, Y or Z.” And he nodded like a rabbi, and he goes, “Right. You know about the Brothers Karamazov?” I thought, “I love you — this is the right job for me.” So from that moment on, all of the cliches of like, “Oh, New York is where the artists are, and LA is where the sellouts are,” and “Theater’s complex and TV’s dumb.” It’s like bulls—; these are the most complex characters I’ve ever come across, and up there with the greats on stage.
Clapp: What became evident was this was a unique voice, and the world of that precinct was something that we’d never really seen, even on “Hill Street.” The syntax, the rhetoric, all the terms, a lot of which came from [former New York police detective] Bill Clark, who was an advisor, and then work-horsed his way all the way up to executive producer, and you could see that emerge early on. I’d really never spoken that language anywhere else.
Franz: Bill Clark was invaluable to that show. He made sure that everything that was done was done with respect to the work that is done by the men and women in law enforcement. Everything was done with that in mind, even when it seemed like we were being heavy-handed or out of line. Ethically, it was showing respect. That was always uppermost in our minds.
Second Season Cast Change
Caruso, ostensibly originally the series lead as Det. John Kelly, proved a mercurial presence during the show’s first season. However, uncomfortable with his newfound fame, Milch’s creative quirks and even Franz’s increasing popularity and screen time as Sipowicz, Caruso exited the show by the fourth episode of the sophomore year.
Franz: The first time we met, he was a nice guy and we got along well. He is a nice guy — off screen, he’s a wonderful guy. His work habits and ethics were different then anything I’d ever dealt with. He was hard to deal with, but that energy we tried to use within the working together. I won’t say love/hate, but there was a love/dislike relationship between us. That created some tension, but when we started working together, whatever tension that was there we put into a love relationship on camera and the admiration of each other.
Clapp: I actually had worked with David before, and he really threw himself into his work and he didn’t trust anybody, really. He thought that he had to do it himself. And we’d all worked with people who created that kind of tension on a set, but sometimes it worked. It certainly worked with me — I loved working with David, I really did. We had a couple of scenes together that I just thought were some of the best stuff I’d ever done up to that point.
Franz: We just needed to be understanding of David’s way of working. He had his own way, as all actors do, of giving his best performance and his best work. It was more intense than other actors that I had worked with up to that point. So understanding that, I just had to realize, “OK this is what you need. I’ll do my best to give it to you. I’ll hang in there as long as you need to hang in there to get what you feel satisfied with. … That’s the way we worked. Then afterwards we’d come out and we’d chat and it would be okay.
Brenneman: I will tell you: part of why I fell in love with my husband 25 years ago is that Brad Silberling came on to [direct] the sixth episode and just knew how to handle a set where there’s complicated tensions, and he knew how to honor different points of view. And David relaxed when Brad came on set, because he’s a straight-talker and obviously really talented. And I thought, “I like that guy and he’s gonna be the father of my children.”
Clapp: Caruso’s departure wasn’t a total surprise, but I just never thought he’d go through with it. He had talked to me about it — “If things don’t work out, I’m not coming back” — [and] I said, “Are you out of your mind? This is what you waited for.” But he was off doing a feature, he got the offer of another feature, and he just said, “I can do two pages a day for four months and make the same money that I’m making doing eight pages a day for nine months, so why am I sticking around?” I said, “‘Because it’s a wonderful role, and it’s great work! And you don’t have to leave yet. Please!”
Leaving a Legacy
Along with breaking TV taboos, “NYPD Blue” would ultimately pave the way for the great TV antiheroes to come — the Tony Sopranos, Walter Whites and Don Drapers owe more than a little to Andy Sipowicz. The series would last a dozen seasons and endure a steady influx of cast members, including Bochco regular Jimmy Smits; provide star-making platforms for performers including Kim Delaney, Charlotte Ross, Henry Simmons and Garcelle Beauvais; and upgrade the images of young actors like Rick Schroeder and Mark-Paul Gosselar. It would be the last significantly popular and enduring series in the storied career of Bochco, who died of leukemia earlier this year.
“NYPD Blue” would also take home 20 total Emmy trophies out of 84 nominations. Brenneman would be nominated twice before her character was written out — she would go on to appear in feature films like Michael Mann’s “Heat’ and headline series including “Judging Amy” and “Private Practice.” Clapp, the only actor other than Franz to appear in all 12 seasons, would win the Emmy for supporting drama actor in 1998, and go on to a career that includes a Tony-nominated performance in a Broadway revival of “Glengarry Glen Ross.” Franz collected a plethora of acting trophies, including four Emmys out of eight consecutive nominations, but his post-series life took a different turn.
Brenneman: [I admired] Steven’s fearlessness, his brashness — never dominating, but just knowing very clearly, artistically, what was correct, and really not caring if the networks supported him or not. Having a godfather like him — as a female, I remember when I was putting together “Judging Amy” I had some of that brashness. I didn’t deserve it, but I kind of knew, ‘If you’re gonna be a leader, you gotta take the hits and know what the project is.’ So the fact that Steven had shown me that and I had observed that at an earlier stage was really important.
Clapp: Certainly, it changed my life, and it changed my career. I was not able to maintain my marriage, and that was really hard going through that. Certainly my lifestyle changed, but I’d been able to hold on to a lot of what I made, because I was careful. I didn’t go crazy once the money started coming in. And in terms of career, yeah, there was recognition. I was getting offered roles, I didn’t have to audition anymore…but once a few years went by after the series, I was right back out there auditioning with everybody else. And because I’d had so much time in front of the camera, I I missed the stage. And so I’ve really spent more time on the stage in the last ten years than in front of a camera — and I really love theater.
Franz: [When the show ended] I talked to my agents and I said, “I really need one year to myself. I would like to be selfish with time with my family and our travels and doing things and be irresponsible for one year.” That year went by in 10 minutes. I said, “I think I need a little more time.” It took me about four more months, and I said, “You know what? I’m done. I think the fire’s burned out. I’m forever thankful and grateful for this wonderful opportunity that we were given, and it’s not many people can have these kinds of opportunities. That’s a nice thought for me to end this thing with.”
I said, “I’ll keep the door open just a crack for that one special thing.” But as the years spun on, the lazier and the more irresponsible I’ve gotten, and the dimmer that flame has gotten. I’ve had to say no to just about everything that’s been offered. Not just about — everything that’s been offered. They haven’t been able to feel like I could give it my best. So I rest on my laurels.