He’s balding and paunchy and has buns not even close to steel.
Dennis Franz, television’s unmade bed with a heart of gold, has become America’s most unlikely sex symbol.
There he is each Tuesday night playing Detective Andy Sipowicz on “NYPD Blue,” stealing the spotlight from his partner, Bobby Simone, played by square-jawed Latino loverboy Jimmy Smits.
Smits was supposed to be the beefcake replacement for David Caruso, who bared his toned-for-the-tube tush for a bit more than one season and then left the show.
But something happened over the show’s hiatus. The audience warmed up to Sipowicz, fell in love with his sweaty forehead, his nagging alcohol habit and his awkward discomfort with intimacy.
Women viewers began to see past the rumpled suits and the barrel chest and found a diamond in the rough. Make that a diamond in the gruff.
“Dennis is portraying a man who is a man. Not everyone looks like Tom Cruise. Most people have faults and don’t have perfect waistlines,” said Franz’s publicist, Cynthia Snyder, who concedes that her client was caught off-guard at becoming television’s newest heartthrob.
What makes Sipowicz, and therefore Franz, attractive is “his warmth and his vulnerability,” she said.
But why would stout, flawed and vulnerable be more appealing than tall, dark and handsome?
Perhaps television viewers have matured; maybe they’ve learned that love is not just about tight buns and white wine. Maybe they are looking for real people in real relationships, warts and all. That’s what Jack Curry, managing editor of TV Guide, thinks.
He said that the people who have made “NYPD Blue” a hit on ABC are the same ones who went wild for the fitness craze in the 1980s, and now are facing middle age, resistant waistlines and graying hair.
Sipowicz “does represent the baby boomer facing the inevitable,” Curry said. “He is our history in a way, the baby boomer carrying his history on his face and his body.”
Aerobicized models may prance around in all of their twentysomething tautness on “Melrose Place,” but on “NYPD Blue” the gritty reality of over-40 romance has grabbed fans by their love handles and kept them glued to the screen.
The lovefest came to a peak in November when Sipowicz let it all hang out during a love-in-the-shower scene with actress Sharon Lawrence, who plays Sipowicz’s girlfriend, prosecutor Sylvia Costas.
He was finally baptized into the brotherhood of little-screen hunks when the camera panned his fanny, in all its sun-starved radiance.
“We had lots of calls thanking us for giving him his day in the sun,” said Jamie Canning, the audience-information liaison for ABC.
Snyder said Franz began getting waves of love letters after the shower episode.
“A lot of marriage proposals and pictures,” she said. “He’s very flattered by it, and a little embarrassed.”
Off the set, Franz recently conquered his real-life fear of commitment, finally proposing marriage to the woman he has been living with for 12 years, Joanie Zeck.
He popped the question during a 50th birthday party that she organized for him at the Moonlight Tango Cafe in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley. He proposed to her as his friends were paying tribute to him.
For most of his acting career, Franz has been typecast as a brash cop, playing at least two dozen of them over the last 15 years.
In several recent interviews, Franz has said that he likes Sipowicz because he is a more complicated character than most - a flawed man trying to live a decent life in a flawed world.
“What people like, I think, is the wonderful combination of gruff and tough and incredibly vulnerable,” said Leah Rozen, associate editor at People magazine. “Sipowicz is trying so hard, you can see him sweat.”
Sipowicz’s flaws make him adorable, but Rozen said she doubts that a paunchy, flagrantly flawed woman could ever become a sex symbol.
“I mean here’s Mr. Dumpy and everyone loves him,” she said. “When are we going to see a woman who looks like that?”
And, who’s to say how long the audience’s infatuation with lowbrow love will last?
Probably just until Smits drops his pants.
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