Looking back: Clapp discusses NYPD role

by Steven Kantor | 7/19/01 5:00am

Eight years ago, Gordon Clapp stuttered through a reading, stumbling through his lines as a flock of ABC producers sat in judgement. The stammer was a quick improvisation, but the audition would open the door for "the role of a lifetime." A month later, he got the call. Shortly thereafter, Clapp taped the first episode of ABC's new series, "NYPD Blue."

What was intended to be a one-time appearance as Detective Greg Medavoy quickly metamorphosed into a recurring role on the show. One of the few remaining members of the original cast, the Emmy-Award-winning actor reflects on his tenure with the 15th precinct, beaming, "I couldn't imagine a better situation."

On screen, Medavoy is conservative in appearance, his short hair and clean shave presenting the image of the honest, hardworking cop that he is. Now, three months after shooting the last season's final episode, Clapp's hair is long and curly, and a beard covers his face. His deep eyes are searching and almost black, giving him a weathered, worried look. When he speaks, though, his voice is warm and rhythmic, interrupted by both chuckles and pauses while the actor describes the journey that brought him to one of the most critically and publicly acclaimed television shows in the history of broadcasting.

The long road to "NYPD Blue" began almost 40 years ago when Clapp, then 12, spent his summer as a summer stock apprentice. Working first behind the scenes, by the end of the summer Clapp had ventured onstage, assuming a leading role. Tempted by thoughts of pursuing his career in New York City, the pre-teen thespian returned to middle school.

Graduating high school with a number of performances under his belt, Clapp attended Williams College, emerging four years later with a degree in English (there was no Drama major offered). It was a time, Clapp remembers, when classes took a second seat. "We wouldn't go to classes, but we would show up for rehearsal," he smiles. "It was as if the administration was begging us to stay and get a degree."

Clapp resisted the urge to move to New York directly after college, choosing instead to form a children's theater group with fellow graduates in upstate New York. "We were hippies," the actor remembers. Shrugging, he adds, "And we did what hippies do."

The acting world is a hard one to break into, and the search for work brought Clapp to Canada, where he played in several stage productions and in 1978, at age 30, made his film debut in "Running." Two years later, Clapp appeared on film in a lead role in fellow Williams graduate John Sayles' "The Return of the Seacaucus Seven," which Clapp calls "a realistic 'Big Chill.'" The actor moved to New York but continued finding work in Canada, "working as much as I could to stay on unemployment."

In 1989, after several TV-movies and the ill-fated comedy series "Check It Out!", Clapp relocated to Los Angeles. By now he was 41, and though he was a long-time veteran of the stage, Clapp's big break wouldn't come for another four years. In 1993, inspired by Goodfella Jimmy Two-Times, he tongue-wrestled through an audition and would soon meet the American people as Det. Greg Medavoy.

From the outset, though, Clapp's future with the show wasn't certain. "When I got into the show, people said to me, 'Wow, you really made it!'" Clapp says. "I never thought of it that way. I thought I made it when I was getting paid to be an actor."

The show's reception was overwhelming, receiving a record-breaking 27 Emmy nominations its first season; Clapp was honored with a nomination for best supporting actor in a drama. "I was shocked to be nominated in the first season," he remembers. Smiling, he becomes modest. "But then of course it made perfect sense. About everyone was nominated the first season."

The show was also nominated for best drama: "That first Emmy night was really strange. We knew we would win best show." Clapp leans forward and exclaims, "And then 'Picket Fences' won! I mean, what?" he boggles. "NYPD Blue" went on to win the award the following season.

Four years later, Clapp would walk off with an Emmy of his own, despite the fact that he hadn't campaigned for the award. "The nomination was a complete surprise ... I just thought time had sort of run out. It was so gratifying to think that this is the result of people watching the show."

Going into its ninth season, "NYPD Blue" is one of the longest-running prime time shows still on TV. The success of the show, Clapp says, is due to the "soap element," that is, "it focuses way more on the lives of the cops and the stories are very compelling." Clapp contrasts the character-driven show with plot-driven programs like NBC's "Law and Order".

David Milch, the show's executive producer for its first seven seasons, took a hands-on approach to "NYPD Blue": "He was absolutely passionate about the show. Every day was like a first day of school with David," Clapp beams. "He knew the characters better than the actors knew the characters."

Clapp's character as grown from the initially timid detective portrayed in the pilot episode. "My character gets painted into a lot of dark corners," Clapp muses. "He has a deeper sense of outrage than the others ... but over the years he's found ways to combat that."

The greatest challenge he's been faced with, Clapp says, has been learning to listen. Explaining, he mimics leafing through a script. "A lot of actors are like, 'bullshit, bullshit, bullshit, my line, bullshit, bullshit, bullshit, my line,'" he laughs. Reacting to the other characters, Clapp says, is more important than delivering his own.

"NYPD Blue" has pushed the limits of network television in its eight seasons, pioneering what Clapp jokingly calls "the ass shot." The occasional nudity or forbidden word has contributed to the show's classification as "groundbreaking," but Clapp stresses the story over these risqu elements as the foundation of "NYPD Blue's" success. "Every third question from a journalist is, 'when am I going to see your butt?'" Clapp jokes, but then goes on to say that while novelty might attract one-time viewers, "NYPD Blue" has earned its fan base with its superb writing, cast and direction.

Despite his defense of BYPD Blue's provocative content, Clapp still isn't comfortable with his 13-year-old son watching the show. "It's not the kind of show I would encourage him to watch. Some of the cases we deal with are hard for kids to understand," he explains.

Both father and son are unassuming about Clapp's celebrity status. Before his dad is about to address an audience, he tiptoes over to a friend and, with a look of incredulity, asks, "Is my dad really the head of this thing?"

During his talk, Clapp fields a question about the rewards of acting: "It's not the money, you know! I have this great ... passion! For the arts!" He laughs.