- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 11, 2001

An incurable romantic, Dennis Franz has a special place in his big, warm heart for April Fool's Day. April 1 is the day he met Joanie Zeck, and April 1 is the day he married her 13 years later.

They met at Reuben's, a bar in California's San Fernando Valley, just as Mr. Franz was gaining a measure of fame as Lt. Norman Buntz (1985-87) on "Hill Street Blues." He was out knocking back a few drinks with a couple of buddies; Miss Zeck, a recent divorcee, was having a night out with several girlfriends.

"I was hanging around trying to look cool when I noticed some guy pestering Joanie about dancing with him," says the burly and balding Mr. Franz, 56, an international television star known, since 1993, as Detective Andy Sipowicz on "NYPD Blue" (Tuesdays 10 to 11 p.m. WJLA Channel 7).

"Joanie didn't like the guy, and when the guy wouldn't leave her alone, she asked me to dance. I was the nearest available guy. We started something then."

Mr. Franz, the most unaffected performer in Hollywood despite his four Emmys for best actor in a series ("NYPD Blue"), discovered the true meaning of serendipity that fateful evening.

"After a year or two, we realized that things were fine and [we] didn't necessarily need to get married right away," he recalls. "We put it on the back burner and went about our lives very happily, living a married life, raising her two daughters. We just never did it on paper."

Their relationship almost didn't survive his 40th birthday party, however, Mr. Franz recalls as he sits in his comfortably cluttered trailer. It's decorated with dozens of snapshots and sits next to Sound Stage 9, where the last episode of "M*A*S*H" was shot in 1983, at the 20th Century Fox Studios. Despite Mr. Franz's dire warnings that he would not appreciate a surprise party, Miss Zeck tossed one for him with about 100 invited guests.

"We almost broke up that night… . I just don't like being surprised," Mr. Franz says, smoothing out his trademark mustache. "I gave Joanie a look with daggers flying, and I couldn't wait for the last person to leave so I could have it out with her. Fortunately, I came to my senses later that night, and we made it to my 50th birthday with no problems at all."

There were no surprises on Oct. 28, 1994, when 250 friends and family members from the far reaches of the country gathered at a large restaurant in the Valley.

"It was a really great night with absolutely everybody I cared about all around me," Mr. Franz recalls, smiling. "I started reflecting on our lives and came to the conclusion that this would be a wonderful time to propose. I knew I'd hate myself if I missed the opportunity.

"When I got to the microphone to thank everybody, I asked Joanie to join me for a moment," he continues. "Our friends got the idea of what was about to happen before Joanie did and started screaming and yelling. When I asked her, 'Will you marry me?' it didn't quite sink in at first. It was so jarring, so far out of her mind. It was only when people started jumping up on the tables that she understood what was happening and stammered, 'Ah, yes. Sure.' "

Mr. Franz says it was the smartest move he ever made.

"We had a wonderful relationship, but marriage made it even better," he explains. "What makes it all work for us is respect and compromise on a daily basis. And over the years, we have taken the time to know each other. I get great joy from making her happy, and she feels the same. That's the key ingredient making each other happy."

Professionally, nothing makes him happier than spending up to 15 hours a day on the "NYPD Blue" set during its eighth enormously successful season. There are plans to stir things up at the station house this year, and Sipowicz finally is back on the dating scene after several years on the bench.

The new thorn in his side is Valerie Haywood (Garcelle Beauvais), a tough and beautiful black assistant district attorney who cut her teeth in the Brooklyn Narcotics Division.

"There will be tension between them because Andy doesn't trust anybody who isn't an Anglo-Saxon Protestant," Mr. Franz says.

A new stable of writers led by executive producer and co-creator Steven Bochco has Mr. Franz revved up and ready for 22 new episodes.

"After all these years of doing the same character in the same show, I've never been bored," he muses, "though I get a bit more excited about some scripts than others. This is the quality level you aim for in a long-running show; for me, it's a comfort level."

There is a very good chance that Mr. Franz, contracted for 10 seasons, will be back on the podium picking up yet another Emmy as he did in 1993-94, 1995-96, 1996-97 and 1998-99 in the near future.

"I'm still happy to be in the mix, but the front-runners have to be James Gandolfini in 'The Sopranos' and Martin Sheen in 'West Wing.' They're terrific actors in wonderful shows," he says.

So far, Mr. Franz says, he has been "flabbergasted" with every Emmy win (in addition to Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild awards and assorted other honors) and never prepared an acceptance speech ("which accounts for my terrible acceptance speeches").

The first Emmy really blew him away, he says, as "NYPD" co-star David Caruso (Detective John Kelly) was the hottest thing on television and the big favorite in critics' polls.

"It was something like an out-of-body experience when I heard my name announced," he says, shaking his head. "My career splashed before my eyes, and I kept thinking, 'This isn't supposed to happen to you; it's supposed to happen to other people.' But I got caught up in the moment. When they opened the envelope and prepared to announce the winner, I could feel the tension build in the room. And I wanted it as badly as anybody else."

After the Emmy, the Chicago-born son of an American homemaker and a German immigrant baker quickly made the rounds at glitzy parties in swank Beverly Hills expense-account restaurants paid for by networks, studios and producers then headed for St. Nick's, a funky neighborhood saloon in West Hollywood owned by a good friend.

Mr. Franz and Miss Zeck were joined by their daughters, Christa and Tricia, now 26 and 24, and actress Amy Brenneman and her family.

"The regular bar patrons seemed a little surprised when we stepped out of a limousine wearing tuxedos and formal gowns and me clutching an Emmy statuette," he says with a laugh. "But my friend made a big deal out of it, whipping up french fries, chicken wings and other greasy food for us. Since then, we've made St. Nick's an Emmy tradition."

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