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One last season of "Blue'

As NYPD Blue enters its 12th season tonight, Dennis Franz and his alter ego, Andy Sipowicz, are beginning the long goodbye.

"I really vacillate between how I'd like Sipowicz to leave the show, how I'd like to see this show end," Franz said this summer. "I'm starting not to be as opposed as I was to losing that character. There was a time when I would never say that."

Meaning?

"Die," he said flatly. "If it were done appropriately. . . . Because I don't see us coming back for an NYPD Blue movie of the week."

Well, if death to Sipowicz is ever going to happen, this would be the year.

The suits have spoken, and 20 episodes from now, most likely on March 1, Blue will end its run on ABC.

NYPD Blue represented some of the best television ever, largely because of the mind meld that occurred between Franz and the show's co-creator, David Milch, a partnership that turned Sipowicz into one of the medium's most memorable characters.

Born in controversy over its strong language and occasional flashes of nudity, Blue ultimately made its mark for its willingness to rush in on topics, particularly race, where other dramas feared to tread.

Henry Simmons, who plays the 15th Squad's only black detective, Baldwin Jones, vividly recalls his first meeting with Franz.

"I was ready to meet an individual that was just mean . . . who didn't really have much tolerance for people of color," Simmons said.

"Dennis was the last one to get on the set" that day.

"I was going to tell him, "Look, I'm not going to take any crap,' you know? And he walks in, and he's the nicest guy in the world."

That he and Sipowicz are the same person is a misconception that occurs constantly, Franz said, smiling.

"It's a decision I made early on, when we began the show, and I was having people stop me on the street or wherever and people would kind of want to challenge the toughness of Sipowicz. And I thought, "Boy, I can pretend always to be Sipowicz, or I can say to hell with it and just be Dennis.' . . . It's too hard to be "on' all the time," he said.

It was probably that attitude that helped carry Franz, the show's one original cast member _ Gordon Clapp, who plays Detective Greg Medavoy, wasn't introduced until the third episode _ through Blue's many offscreen dramas.

First came the era of David Caruso.

Caruso, who played Sipowicz's first partner, John Kelly, a character intended to be just a bit more prominent than Andy, left the show early in the second season to pursue a movie career that never took off. (He landed safely years later on CSI: Miami.)

Though Caruso's replacement, Jimmy Smits, proved to be a good fit as Detective Bobby Simone ("My heart wept when Jimmy left," Franz said), the cast still had the other David to contend with.

Milch, who left the show in 2000 and went on to create CBS's short-lived Big Apple and HBO's Deadwood, remains a touchstone even for cast members who never worked for him. He is revered for his writing and remembered for his highly idiosyncratic approach to it, which in the latter years sometimes involved feeding actors their lines for the first time moments before they were to speak them.

"We worked like that for at least five years; we never had scripts. It was just kind of improvised on the spot," Franz said.

Doing it nine months a year, however, was "baffling and completely exhausting," he said.

In tonight's season premiere, the 15th Squad gets yet another new boss, Lt. Thomas Bale (Currie Graham), a transfer from internal affairs who's in Sipowicz's face almost immediately, setting up a conflict that Franz hopes "could cause the friction necessary to end the series."

Because going out easy just wouldn't be NYPD Blue's way.

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