One of the ways I’m beguiling my time in my golden years is watching old episodes of NYPD Blue. I enjoyed the show when it first aired, like millions of other viewers, and now, many years later, I am deeply impressed by the quality of the writing, the cinematography, the score, and, above all, the acting.

Gail O'Grady as Donna Abandondo
Gail O’Grady as Donna Abandondo

The characters all go way over the top, but this is New York! My favorite is Gail O’ Grady as Donna Abandando, a luscious blonde with colorful sweaters who’s a big Rangers fan and likes to go ice skating. Greg Medavoy (Gordon Clapp) and James Martinez (Nicholas Turturro) are both beautifully rendered characters who quickly become good friends.

In the first season the chemistry between John Kelly, played by David Caruso, and Andy Sipowicz, played by Dennis Franz, was nothing short of amazing, and when Caruso left the show, it was a big question whether Jimmy Smits, as Sipowicz’s new partner, Bobby Simone, could capture the same spirit. I thought at the time that he was a little too much of a glamour puss.

But Smits, as Bobby Simone, did a great job, gunning down the punk cops who killed Andy’s son and romancing Diane Russell (Kim Delaney) another 15th Squad detective. My one little beef was he took a bit too long to die, like three episodes.

Likewise when Smits left the show, it was a big question whether Ricky Schroeder, as Sipowicz’s new partner Danny Sorenson, could keep the chemistry alive. Schroeder answered that definitively on his first appearance, and the show barreled on.

That was partly because of great characters like Diane Russell, Lieutenant Fancy (James McDaniel) and John (Gay John) Irvin (Bill Brochtrup), but it was mostly because of the subplots devised by Daivid Milch and Steve Bochco and especially Bill Clark, who was a NYPD detective for 25 years.

Dennis Franz and Jimmy Smits
Dennis Franz and Jimmy Smits

Nowadays, in Hollywood, the pimp has to be a white woman and the killer has to be either the businessman, the preacher, or the senator. On NYPD Blue the perps were distributed more evenly – black, white, gay, straight, male, female – and there was no mistaking the authenticity of the plots.

That’s why, even in the later seasons, when Delaney, and Clapp, and Turturro, and Brochtrup and McDaniel were gone, the series was still riveting. Compelling as these 15th Squad characters were, the series was still carried along by the skels and scumbags and nutjobs that provided a showcase for countless New York actors.

And, of course, Andy Sipowicz. The question of the day is why millions of people all over this country cared about a racist, alchoholic, homophobic cop who was shot to pieces in the first episode. And the answer is that Dennis Franz made them care. 

Dennis Franz as Andy Sipowicz
Dennis Franz as Andy Sipowicz

Sipowicz was a great cop. When the little girl was missing, he found her. When the sadistic killer was about to go free, he made him confess, even when his own life was a shambles and the only thing he could control was his fish tank.

Sipowicz’s efforts to quit drinking and take control of his life engrossed America and if he walked into a bar we all gave a collective gasp.

In truth, Andy Sipowicz is the hope of America – a former racist who has changed his views, a former alcoholic who not longer drinks, a former homophobe who asks Gay John to babysit his son, and still a first-rate cop who takes killers and rapists off the streets.

Together with David Milch, Steven Bochco, and Bill Kelly, Dennis Franz created one of the most important characters in television history.