A funny thing happened to viewers of NYPD Blue this year: After expanding their definition of male beauty to include redheaded rooster David Caruso, they stretched it even further to encompass Dennis Franz, a 50-year-old Everyguy with not too much hair on top and a few too many pounds around the middle who gives new meaning to the word hunk.
Surely no one could have foreseen this when Blue premiered in September 1993. Franz's Det. Andy Sipowicz was a broken-down drunkard, urging a DA who questioned his Constitution-bending tactics to ''Ipso this, you pissy little bitch!'' Ironically, the very same DA, Sylvia Costas (Sharon Lawrence), would become Sipowicz's love interest, and their tortured courtship has proven to be one of the show's most captivating story lines. ''I'm happy to say this relationship was my suggestion,'' says Franz. ''I'd played 28 cops in my career, and I'd never had a lady.''
He's not exaggerating. After Franz, the son of German-born postal workers, returned from Vietnam in 1970, he landed his first professional acting gig opposite Joe Mantegna in a Chicago theater production called Cops. For the next two decades, he was often typecast as crass, loveless law-enforcement officers, among them two different characters on Hill Street Blues (one got a short-lived spin-off, Beverly Hills Buntz) and a leading role as street-smart Tony Spampatta in the 1991 TV movie N.Y.P.D. Mounted (the title refers to horses, not the coupling seen on Blue). But it wasn't until Sipowicz started dating Costas that audiences got to see Franz's softer side and we're not talking about his posterior, which was unveiled in all its lumpy glory in a recent shower scene with Lawrence.
''The relationship has offered Sipowicz the opportunity to expose more of himself,'' says Franz, not intending to make a pun. ''He's tapping into sources he thought perhaps were dead. I don't know that he ever thought he was going to experience another romance.''
That's not the only kind of exposure that Blue has provided Franz. He justly beat out his costar to win this year's Emmy as Best Actor in a Drama Series. And with the dramatic departure of Caruso's Det. John Kelly earlier this season, Sipowicz has become the show's one truly indispensible character.
Meanwhile, millions of fans including Franz's female costars are responding to his burly allure. ''Dennis is an attractive man,'' says Lawrence. ''(Blue) has allowed Sipowicz to embody some of the things Dennis naturally does.'' And Heather Locklear, who filmed the soon-to-air ABC movie Texas Justice with Franz this summer, concurs: ''Just watching him on his show, I could see his appeal. But then working with him forget it. He has lots of appeal.''
Despite the hoopla, Franz remains humble. ''For lack of a better term, they've come up with this phrase sex symbol,'' he says. ''It's flattering, and it should happen to every bald, overweight guy.'' Ed Asner, eat your heart out.