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PopEntertainment.com > Feature Interviews - Actors > Feature Interviews A to E > George Dzundza

 

George Dzundza

 

By Jay S. Jacobs

 

Copyright 2003 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: February 26, 2003.

 

You know the face.  It is a tough-but-fair mug that has dissolved selflessly into well over seventy roles in a film and television career that has lasted about thirty years.

 

You know the characters.  He was Gus Moran, the good–hearted but protective partner of Michael Douglas' self-destructive cop in Basic Instinct.  He was Cully, the violent redneck trucker out to catch his cheating wife in Salem’s Lot.   Then there was Sgt. Max Greevey, the first veteran detective on the TV series Law & Order.  He also played Hal Griffith, the experienced teacher who helped Michelle Pfeiffer reach her students in Dangerous Minds.  There was also the boat chief in Crimson Tide.  What about Leo Lemke, Demi Moore’s husband and the titular meat-carver in The Butcher’s Wife.  He portrayed Reg Duffy, Robert DeNiro’s partner in City By The Sea.  He also played John, the bartender who serves his childhood buddies after they return from Viet Nam in The Deer Hunter.  He even did the voice for editor-in-chief Perry White in the Superman animated series.  Currently he is Grizz, a good-but-flawed priest  in the acclaimed new dramatic series Hack.  Grizz acts as a moral compass for his best friend, a disgraced former cop who lost his badge, but can’t stop himself from helping people in need.

 

You know the face.  You know the characters.  You may not know the name.

 

George Dzundza wouldn’t have it any other way.  He’s an actor.  He has no interest in being a movie star.

 

“Throughout the course of my life, I’ve been blessed to work with extremely talented people,” Dzundza says.  “I just am grateful for every opportunity to go to work.  I don’t really focus on celebrity status.”

 

Dzundza originally took up acting for roughly the same reason that all men make any life-changing decision… because it was the wish of a beautiful woman.

 

“I was a freshman in college,” Dzundza recalls.  “I was in the orientation line, getting my stuff, when a girl walked up to me and said ‘YOU have to come and audition for the play!  If you don’t, I’m going to talk to your professors and have you flunked out of school.’  I looked at her and I said, oh my God, here’s this gorgeous creature who’s probably having these romantic flings with professors and she’s going to screw up my entire education.  I better go audition.  It turns out she was the president of the Stagers Society.  I auditioned and got a part in the play.  Then, I fell in love with it.

 

“I got even with her, though.  She came in with her boyfriend one time to a theatrical restaurant that was jam-packed, and I did that thing Albert Finney does…” he laughs.  “I stood up and I said ‘THAT WOMAN HAS RUINED MY LIFE!’  Everybody looked at her.  She was all embarrassed.  But, she’s responsible.  It’s all her fault.”

 

Working his way through theater, soon Dzundza was getting guest starring roles on TV series such as Starsky & Hutch, Kung Fu, The Waltons and The Streets of San FranciscoThen, he graduated to playing significant parts in a series of films and TV movies like the ones mentioned above, as well as Streamers, Skokie, The Lost Honor of Kathryn Beck, Best Defense, No Mercy, One Police Plaza, No Way Out, Instinct, Above Suspicion… The list goes on and on.

 

“It is great,” Dzundza says.  "To expand and become so many different people… it’s one of the pleasures of being able [to act]…  Your experience is just fabulous.  I feel blessed.”

 

Dzundza’s first experience in a TV series was in the short-lived early 80s sitcom Open All Night, where he starred as the owner of a 24-hour convenience store.  He didn’t return to series television until 1990, but he did it with a bang.  He was the principal actor in a new police series Law & Order.  Dzundza played a no-nonsense veteran cop who was showing the ropes to a younger, less-experienced partner, played by Chris Noth.

 

Dzundza decided to leave the show after just one season (the first of many such cast turnovers on the long-lived series.)  There were many reasons for the decision… from the amount of work on the series to the fact that he was being offered big movie roles.  He doesn’t regret his choice at all, nor is he surprised that the show has become such a venerable success.

 

“I absolutely did [sense it would be a big hit].  I felt that it was a plot-driven show... There was a lot of interplay between Chris and I...  As the season went on, I saw that the stories were becoming more Dragnet-like.  I said no, this is not for me.  This is not what I signed on to do.  And, I had to take care of my family, frankly, as well.”

 

He briefly returned to series TV in 1998’s “Must See TV” sitcom Jesse, in which he played Christina Applegate’s father.  But the show was ill-conceived and it was a bad fit for Dzundza, so he left at the end of first season.  Now, finally, he has found a quality TV show in which he feels completely at home.

 

Hack is the story of Mike Olshansky (David Morse), a former Philadelphia policeman who gets caught skimming some money from one of his busts.  He is thrown off the force, and thrown out of his house by his wife (Donna Murphy).  To make ends meet, he takes a job as a cab driver.  Despite his imperfections, the only life Olshansky has ever known was to protect and serve, and he finds himself drawn into the problems of his fares.  Soon he is helping a Midwest father find his runaway daughter and protecting a beautiful executive (Jennifer Esposito) who is being harassed by a stalker.   Olshansky also tries to help an old girlfriend (Bebe Neuwirth) find her schizophrenic sister (Martha Plimpton).   Another duty he takes on is delivering a final message from a homeless man (John Heard) to his estranged twin brother.  Soon he gains a reputation as an avenging angel in the streets.

 

Olshansky is aided by his former partner, Marcellus Washington (Andre Braugher)… partly because they are still friends, but mostly because Marcellus feels guilty that Olshansky did not rat him out for also taking some of the money.

 

Dzundza plays Father Tom “Grizz” Grzelak, Olshansky’s oldest friend and priest.  Like Olshansky, Grizz is a flawed but basically good man.  He is a priest and a righteous person, yet he will recognize he has mortal weaknesses like drinking and gambling.  Grizz also has a girlfriend from his past (Lindsey Crouse).  When she shows up looking for advice, he realizes he may not have even become a priest if that relationship had turned out differently.  These contradictions are what fascinate Dzundza about the character.

 

“I think that it’s extremely human,” he explains.  “None of us are saints.  The writers are writing human beings, and they’re writing about the human condition and how difficult it is to function in that condition.  I think it’s one of the charms of the show, the idea of redemption and working towards becoming better people, for everybody involved.”

 

Of course, Dzundza draws on some personal experiences in creating the character of Grizz.  “Well, certainly I’m flawed,” he says.  “So, we have that in common.  I think we’re different in that Grizz is probably a better guy than I am.  I have the human frailties that most of us have.”

 

One extraordinary thing about Hack is the level of acting skill displayed on a weekly basis.  This is a cast that is well known for their attention to craft.  Beyond Dzundza’s long career, there is Morse.  Morse is still probably best known for playing Dr. Jack “Boomer” Morrison in the acclaimed long-lived hospital drama St. Elsewhere.  He has also appeared in a long line of films like The Green Mile, Proof of Life, The Rock and The Crossing Guard.  Andre Braugher was regularly called the best actor on television during his tenure as Detective Frank Pembleton on the astonishing crime drama Homicide: Life on the Street.

 

“David [Morse] is a very good actor,” Dzundza agrees.  “And he’s fun to play with.  Everybody involved with the show are serious adults.  Everybody comes prepared for work.  It is a set that is not into ego.  We just try to do the best work possible and present that for our audience.”

 

An interesting thing about the structure of Hack is that, like The Fugitive, although it has recurring characters and ongoing plotlines, the guest stars determine the main thrust of most episodes.  This helps to keep the show fresh and branch out into all sorts of directions that a self-contained series never gets to look at.

 

“Each new story development gives the familiar characters a chance to express their understanding about the human condition,” Dzundza says.  “We did an episode not too long ago where we dealt with capitol punishment.  And I thought in an extremely creative way.”

 

In the episode, Gary Cole plays the older brother of a convicted cop killer (Chad Lowe) due to be executed.  As retribution for Olshansky’s part in getting his brother arrested, he decides to kidnap the former cop.  Cole wants to force him to experience the same things his brother is going through on his last day, to be finished off by the planned execution of Olshansky.

 

“Here he was, all of the sudden coming off of one position,” Dzundza continues, “and having to go through some of the inhumanity of what happens to a person that’s about to be executed.  I thought that it brought it home in a very creative way.  Not just for the main character, but for all of us.  I was particularly moved by the acting, [which] was just sensational.

 

“We did another one, where Nick Mancuso came in and played a cop who was after bad cops and it turns into an emotional situation…”  When the internal affairs officer’s son is killed as an innocent bystander in a store hold up, the officer has to balance his strongly held belief in the letter of the law with his urge for vengeance.

 

Dzundza recalls a discussion he once had with William J. Caunitz, a former police officer who wrote the book, One Police Plaza.  “We were sitting in Montreal, and he said to me, ‘the line between a normal person and a criminal is so razor-thin that you don’t even know when you walk across it.  And once you cross that line, you can never come back to the other side.’  Certainly, I’ve experienced that to be true.”  This dichotomy… this blurry border between good and evil… is what makes the series Hack so intriguing.

 

Hack is the first TV series to be filmed completely in Philadelphia.  (Other recent Philadelphia-based series like Philly and American Dreams film some exterior footage in the city, but are mostly done on soundstages in California.)  This decision was made as an incentive to win over Morse to return to series TV.  Morse has commuted to Hollywood from his home in the area for over a decade.  But the city has become a character in the series too… a complicated, sometimes beautiful, sometimes horrific, always alluring force that mirrors the good and evil which occurs on its streets.  Dzundza wasn’t too familiar with the city before being cast as Grizz, but now he is entranced.

 

“I’ve shot all over the world,” Dzundza says.  “I love Philadelphia.  I was shocked at what a great city this is.  For me, it is the cat’s pajamas.  I love everything about it.  I love where I live.  I love the people.  I have been met with such kindness and affection here.  Everywhere I go, I am continually becoming more and more aware of what a wonderful place this is.  I just hope not too many people find out about it.  It’ll get so overcrowded we won’t be able to be here.”

 

Like his earlier work in Law & Order and films, much of Hack is filmed on location in the streets and buildings of Philadelphia… a situation which Dzundza finds stimulating, and sometimes a little bit daunting.

 

“It is more difficult to work on the streets and it is also very exciting to be there…  I find sometimes that it makes you prepare a little harder.  If you know you’re going to be outside, you have to be a little bit more in tune, so that you don’t get distracted by what’s going on and focus better.  It’s really more of an issue for David than it is for me.  I don’t have to work as many days.  He’s constantly out there.  To his credit, he’s always so well prepared.  It is one of the great joys to be a supporting actor with a star that has such a great work ethic.  It is just a pleasure.”

 

Dzundza has done screenwriting on his own and he recognizes the hard work and dedication necessary for it.  Because of that and the respect he has for Hack’s creators and writers, he doesn’t feel comfortable even contemplating potential storylines for Grizz.  “I don’t want to put out into the atmosphere any kind of point of view that isn’t one of service,” Dzundza explains.  “I’m here to serve.  I was trained as an actor to see the writer as the ultimate creator... and that primarily what actors do is interpret.   [We] are more craftsmen.  Artistic craftsmen, granted, but craftsmen…  What they’re setting up, so far, has been right on the money.  They’re moving at a pace that allows people to want more.  I think that they’re doing a good job.  I’ve got no complaints.  I’m just ready to go wherever they send me.”  He laughs.  “I feel like a nuclear missile.  Point me in that direction, I’ll go.”

 

And in the end, Dzundza has one simple wish for his career.  “My concern has always been that people who I portray, or the professions that I portray, are not embarrassed by my portrayal of them.  Whether they’re soldiers or policemen or priests or doctors or lawyers… That whoever has that job won’t say ‘oh, my God, where’d they get this guy?’” Dzundza laughs.

 

Isn't that, in a nutshell, an actor’s greatest challenge?

 

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Photo credits:
#1 2002 Eric Liebowitz - courtesy of CBS Television
#2 2002 Eric Liebowitz - courtesy of CBS Television
#3 2002 Tony Esparza - courtesy of CBS Television

 

Copyright 2003 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: February 26, 2003.

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Copyright 2003   PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: February 26, 2003.