Hill Street's Capt. Furillo: a good fit for Dan Travanti
New York — Don't tell two-time Emmy-winner Daniel J. Travanti that you like ''Hill Street Blues'' because ''it's so real.'' ''Despite the fact that people say that to me all the time, our shows are not real,'' insists the man who plays Capt. Frank Furillo in this most highly acclaimed, multiple Emmy Award-winning series (NBC, Thursdays, 10-11 p.m.), which recently returned to the air for its fourth season and immediately jumped into the winner's circle of most-watched series shows.
In a recent interview in New York he told me: ''To begin with, we are a fiction. But you must also realize we are a capsulized, condensed precinct in which more happens in one day than usually takes place in weeks or even months in other shows, or in real police precincts.
''Within that framework we present an amazingly complex set of circumstances, layers of stories, a complex fabric of emotions. It's the entire human comedy . . . a symphony of crescendos and wacky, surprising buffoonery. It's lilting and romantic.''
Travanti stops and grins at his own expansiveness. ''You may get the idea that I like the show. It's been a dream come true. If I could have conceived a television project for myself, if I'd had the gall, the talent, and the foresight, I would have given myself the Furillo role in 'Hill Street.' ''
Travanti has been acting, comparatively unnoticed, for many years, and ''Hill Street'' is his first smash hit. Now he can't stop talking about the show.
''There are no good guys or bad guys in 'Hill Street.' It all depends on the day, the climate, the situation, etc. There have been bad cops, screw-up cops, vicious cops, but there have also been conscientious, confused, terrified, disturbed, and hurt cops on our show. There have been citizens who appreciate police, but there have also been vicious citizens who attack cops, hate cops, resent cops - as well as cops who resent citizens. What we do on the show is cross all the lines, blur all the boundaries.''
This critic believes that ''Hill Street'' has achieved its unique status as both a mass and a cult favorite simultaneously because it is an exquisitely professional blend of two standard TV forms - the continuing drama (also known as soap opera) and the action-adventure police drama. Skillfully written, it utilizes a fast-shuffle technique that leaves the viewers wondering if they have missed the first few pages of exposition (they haven't; the dialogue simply starts in the midst of the story line).
Inserted in the script like almond nuggets in a chocolate bar are tiny morsels of psychological insight, moments of recognition which seem to viewers to be literate treasures mainly because most series TV is so utterly lacking in anything beyond obvious meaning. The superb ensemble acting, the slyly raucous humor, and the consistently on-target direction round out a circle of TV professionalism at its best, giving the viewer a gratifying and partly accurate illusion of originality and honesty in police action.
Although there have been objections to the show for being too violent and for sometimes condoning immoral behavior (in part concerning the involvement of Furillo with another character), Mr. Travanti denies that that is the case. ''I don't hear that much anymore. After all, violence is a normal part of police work. And Furillo has married the girl.''
Does Travanti identify with Frank Furillo, the character he plays on ''Hill Street Blues''?
''Yes. I'm a very old-fashioned guy. I think I'm hip, sophisticated, I've done it all. Nothing surprises me. But, like Furillo, in a relationship I'm as old-fashioned as can be. Maybe I can have fantasies and do titillating things on my own, but I'm dependable in relationships . . . when I have them.
''Furillo is sensitive, emotional, but controlled. Unlike most male TV heroes , he's bright and articulate. Although he works in a ghetto precinct, he's never out of line. He knows how to speak to gang members and how to speak to drunks in the gutter. He also knows how to talk to college professors, women. He can deal with frightened people, arrogant people, powerful people, and can get along with them without demeaning anybody, without being dishonest. He's what we call a man's man, without ever throwing his weight around, without ever needing to prove it.''
Is Travanti describing himself?
He looks the interviewer in the eye and manages not to blush. ''I can be tough,'' he says, evading a direct answer, ''but I'm also basically vulnerable. I have what has sometimes been a confusing combination of cerebral and visceral forces.''
Furillo is a divorced man, a controlled alcoholic. Travanti says he has never had a formal marriage. ''But I had a long relationship which I don't talk about.'' In interviews published elsewhere, he has discussed the fact that he, too, is a controlled alcoholic.
''Furillo and I are alike in that he's a man who at times may have warmth for anybody, but he's not apt to give himself to you easily, quickly. They wrote the alcoholism part of his character from me because I understand that complex set of disorders. He is the sort of person who has more time for impersonal love, which he gives readily, than for personal, intimate love.''
Suddenly he stops and realizes how personally revealing his words have become. ''We're talking about Furillo now, aren't we?''
Travanti admits that he loves all the attention he gets these days from fans and from fellow actors. ''After 20 years of acting, it feels as if I've been pushed through the barrier of anonymity to this brightly lit place where I can feel that I'm being fulfilled as an actor.''
A graduate of the University of Wisconsin in the 1960s, he received a master's degree in English from Loyola Marymount University (in Los Angeles) in 1978.
Where does he go from ''Hill Street'' and the two specials in which he has just appeared? He was widely acclaimed for ''Adam,'' a recent highly-rated NBC drama about missing children. And in an abrupt change of pace, he plays a villainous columnist who tries to destroy the career of another journalist in a Showtime pay-cable drama called ''A Case of Libel'' (tonight, Nov. 3, 6, 9, and 15, check local cable systems). Travanti's work in ''Case'' is ample proof that he is a fine actor who can play diverse roles.
''I had to wait two years for 'Adam' and 'A Case of Libel' to come along,'' he says. ''Everything else offered was so awful. The trick is to hold out and do nothing until the right things come along. The theater is inevitable for me, though. I'm from the theater. I want to be one of those actors who works in all the media.
''I'd like to do a feature film. A wonderful feature film that the world would see.''
Which actors does he admire most?
''Spencer Tracy, Marlon Brando, Dustin Hoffman, Peter O'Toole.
''But I'll tell you what else I should be doing. Words. I can deal with words. I played Petruchio in ''The Taming of the Shrew'' in a Shakespeare festival in San Diego in 1977. I've never wanted to play Hamlet, but I have always thought of Coriolanus and Mark Antony, because I really look like a Roman and I look good in a toga. My family is from east of Rome.
''But I'm not anxious to jump back on the Shakespearean stage. I want to be seen by more people. Selfishly.''
Does Travanti consider himself a happy man?
''Yes, I think I am a happy man. A melancholy person, but I'm basically a positive force. Believe me, I've thought about this.
''What's most important to me is that when I've left the room, people feel exhilarated.''
I accompanied him to the door, wished him well in future acting ventures, then walked back to my desk. Exhilarated.