Dennis Franz From Battle to Hit Shows: This Actor Served in the Vietnam War

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By David Vergun

Actor Dennis Franz is best known for portraying a TV detective and starring in numerous blockbuster films in the 1970s through the 1990s.

Less known, is that Franz was a soldier who served in combat during the height of the Vietnam War. Franz was born in Maywood, Illinois, on Oct. 28, 1944.

His parents were German immigrants. Franz’s mother, Eleanor, was of Jewish descent and was a postal worker. His father, Franz Ferdinand Schlachta, was a postal worker, as well as a baker. Schlachta was of German and Polish descent.

During Franz’s high school years, he participated in baseball, football and swimming. He attended Wilbur Wright College and Southern Illinois University Carbondale, graduating from the latter in 1968 with a bachelor’s degree in speech and theater.

In 1968, he was drafted into the Army and served 11 months with two divisions in South Vietnam: the 82nd Airborne Division and the 101st Airborne Division.

Spotlight: Commemorating the Vietnam War

When Franz learned he was being sent to Vietnam, he said he had mixed feelings. He said he was curious about military life, but he was also scared of being killed or injured in the Vietnam War.

The year 1968 was the height of the Vietnam War. The Tet Offensive marked a major escalation and the largest military campaign of the war; it occurred during Franz’s service.

For a short time, he said he entertained thoughts of going AWOL. “I don’t think it was a serious thought in my head. I don’t think I would have been able to live with myself had I … done something like that. It was just a temporary temptation,” he said during a 1997 interview with Tom Snyder on “The Late Late Show.”

Franz said combat was a traumatic, life-changing experience, particularly losing close friends. He recalled being in multiple firefights and sometimes not knowing where the bullets were coming from.

“You just want to be out of the situation. And, involuntarily, your body just starts doing things that you don’t have control over, just out of fear and nerves and, you know, you just wish you could be any other place in the world except where you are at that moment. And the only way to get out of it is to shoot back and make somebody stop and let me get out of it,” he said.

“Having gone through it, having lived through it, it changed my outlook on life — having gone a young man — a boy, if you will — coming back a young man. It altered my life. It made me take things a lot more seriously. I was very frivolous and irresponsible up until the point that I went there, and it made me look at life a lot more seriously than before,” he said, adding that he would “not trade his wartime experience for anything.”

Spotlight: Value of Service

When Franz returned stateside, he said landing at the airport in the United States was the happiest day of his life. “I literally did one of the ‘bend over and kiss the ground’ things,” he said. “I thought, ‘I’m home. I’m safe, and I got through it.'”

However, “there was the feeling in this country that you guys who went over there and fought were morons for going over there.”

After the war, Franz gained fame as a television actor. He portrayed detective Sal Benedetto from 1982-1983 and, later, Lt. Norman Buntz in the TV series “Hill Street Blues.” Franz is best known for his role as New York City police detective Andy Sipowicz, in the TV series “NYPD Blue.”

Later, Franz would honor other veterans and their service and sacrifice.

In 1998, he chaired the Department of Veterans Affairs’ National Salute to Hospitalized Veterans. The program honors hospitalized veterans for their service and sacrifices and is held at VA medical centers, nursing homes and state veterans’ homes, many of which Franz visited.

In 2001, Franz received the Veteran of the Year award at the 7th annual American Veteran Awards in Beverly Hills, California.

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