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Monday, June 25, 2012

Whatever Happened To Daniel J. Travanti?

 "I'm loud. Opinionated. Enthusiastic. Passionate"

Today I am starting a new feature for my blog. I wont do one a week, but I will do them periodically,  possibly once a month. Instead of a pure artist profile start to finish as I am accustomed to doing, I will do a profile, but focus on someone who was thrust into the limelight and then seemed to disappear once that vehicle finished. Then, try to see how they got there and why they vanished once it concluded.

 Most of us had never heard of Daniel J. Travanti before he rocketed to fame on Hill Street Blues. We also have not seen much of him since. How did a relative unknown land the lead role, at age 40,  on one of the most revered television shows of all time? Why did it take him so long to attain such a role? Where did he come from and whatever happened to him? And why has he basically disappeared from the limelight after Hill Street Blues ended?

 "I was born an actor.  It's just there and irresistible. It seemed absolutely correct to me. There's just no question."

Travanti, the youngest of five children, was born in Kenosha, Wisconsin, to Italian immigrant parents on March 7, 1940.
During his teen years, he was an athlete and good student, earning scholarships to Harvard University, Princeton University, and Dartmouth College, though he eventually attended the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

 Known as The Kenosha Kid, he was a genuine football hero from the heart of Wisconsin and a High School All American Honorable Mention. He completed his undergraduate work in college in only three years, which was very rare in those days. He starred in every play at the University of Wisconsin over five semesters, also something that had never been done before

 "I discovered I'm here to entertain the folks. That's what I am, an entertainer. It's a gift, Gods gift to me. I didn't have anything to do with it in the first place."

 Despite earning full scholarships to Harvard, Princeton, and Dartmouth he didn't attend any of those. Because his father was so "tightfisted, convinced he'd still have to spend a lot of money," Travanti says, "I ended up at the University of Wisconsin in Madison," to which he earned a General Motors Scholarship. In addition to graduating in three years with several majors he also found time to act in theatres around town, attending open auditions and repeatedly landing the leads. Experience, not classrooms, shaped Travanti's acting.

"I don't believe in acting or playwriting majors," he says. "I say go to college to furnish your hungry and thirsty mind. Learn and explore, above all. Study language, language, and language; if you're going to be an actor, that's your tool and your toy."

 From the beginning Travanti had large ambitions.

"When I was growing up, I wanted three things: to make Phi Beta Kappa, to be an all-American athlete, and win an Academy Award. Well, I've done two of those, but I haven't won an Academy Award. Two Emmys don't count. I've always wanted to be a sought-after actor. I get sterling reviews; still nothing. It's easy to implode."

 Immediately after graduating from the University of Wisconsin, Travanti attended the Yale School of Drama, but dropped out after one year. "It was moribund," he says. "Later, when Robert Brustein took over, it changed. But when I was there, if you finished Yale School of Drama, you were finished as an actor."

By the early '60s, Travanti had relocated to New York and was pounding the pavement looking to carve out a living and build his resume. Not satisfied with what he was finding there, in short order he relocated to Los Angeles "for personal reasons," he says without elaborating. "I got guest shots here and there. But I resisted being in L.A. I resisted accepting shallow material. I always felt I was destined for other things. I watched the actors around me. Some resisted and left. Others became very comfortable and very sad. I was there for 29 years." 

 "I didn't want to appear on tv. I was going to be a serious theater actor"

 Hist first television appearance was on Route 66 in 1963.
 In 1965, by the time he was 25, he was co-starring with Colleen Dewhurst in a road company version of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Moving to Los Angeles in 1966, Travanti appeared on scores of TV shows, playing misfit high schoolers and braying bad guys (he billed himself under his actual last name of Travanty until the early '70s).

 "I was the cause of my own discomfort...often"

For many years he was a guest actor, who found small, one time roles on many of the popular dramas and sitcoms of the day.
Of the many he appeared in, some of those included The Patty Duke Show, Flipper, The Defenders, Gunsmoke, East Side West Side, Love On A Rooftop (the above clip posted), Mission Impossible and Cannon. He has commented that he wanted a series, but he really didn't want a series.

"I was always disgruntled."

In later years, we came to know Travanti as Frank Furillo on Hill Street Blues. He played the Captain of a hectic,  pressure cooker police station who could keep his cool under the pressure. The character was also a recovering alcoholic. Most do not know that Travanti was also a severe alcoholic who almost let that affliction consume him years earlier. What most also don't know is that unlike his character, Travanti could not keep it together and broke down on stage long before that.

"its easier to play someone else, I don't want to be me"

In 1973, Travanti says,  "I was a chronic malcontent. I couldn't figure out what was wrong. By every standard, I was a success, but it wasn't enough. None of my achievements ever seemed to be enough. They didn't make me happy."

 "I wanted to die. This does not happen to Travanti. He does not fail like this. I mean, you don't go from Mr. Completely Successful to a dishrag just like that."

 Yes, you do. You do if you're Daniel J. Travanti on stage in Indianapolis in January 1973, doing a play called Twigs with Sada Thompson, , and you are an alcoholic and it's catching up with you. Mr. Completely Successful fell apart on stage in front of the audience. The show had to be stopped. He didn't understand it, thought it was a crazy fluke, thought it would never happen again. But it did happen again the next night. 

"All the years of agony, crazy relationships, demons inside of me, terrible fears I couldn't face  and this fine mind of mine wasn't helping. I was petrified. I was hit in an area that really terrified me. Everyone can be reached in a particular way, and the best way to reach me was to threaten my career, my work. That got my attention fast."

 He went on to do 15 more performances before he had to stop performing that play. He had finally bottomed out and had to admit what a lot of others knew. He was an alcoholic and it was destroying him.

 His agent urged him to get help.

 "My agent knew I was an alcoholic when I was 25. He knew an alcoholic, knew the behavior  he just didn't label it `alcoholism. And of course, when he told me, I thought he was exaggerating. I kept saying to myself, I'm not that bad."

 Was Travanti that bad?

 "Of course I was. Every bit that bad. Why else would he say such a thing? He had no axe to grind. He wasn't out to get me."

 How bad actually was he?
 Travanti drank after everyone else had gone home. Every night he drank himself to sleep. 

"It's hard for me to believe this now, but I actually believed in my soul, every fiber of my being  that I could not live my life not drinking, and that I would never sleep again."

Once he went over the edge one day in Indianapolis the process of healing began. It was a long process,  many years, with many close calls and relapses, but he has never turned back.

 He describes himself as:

 "an egomaniac with an inferiority complex".

 It was total alcoholic behavior, addictive behavior, something Travanti readily admits now. 

"I overdid everything. I was in four major productions at Yale  which had never been done before that time. Then I got to New York. All of a sudden the buildings didn't care anything about an egomaniac from Kenosha, Wisconsin, by way of Yale, and I felt I was fizzling out. And I was, because I had pushed it so far, so fast and accomplished every young mans dream. I had won literally every single academic honor there is to win in higher education, including Iron Cross at Wisconsin. But nothing was ever enough. I was never satisfied, like a demon, warring all the time."

 Travanti believes his recovery  began on August 14, 1973. That was the night he finally admitted to himself that he was an alcoholic and wasn't the super human he always claimed or thought he could be.

"I had been reduced. It was ego deflation in depth, which is exactly what I needed, exactly what had to happen to me because God was not getting my attention."

 Once he had recovered, he went back to school and earned his masters degree in English literature at Loyola of Merrymount in Los Angeles. As well, since he wasn't an in demand actor, he had to resort to appearing in commercials to earn a living,  something he was loathe to do. But he did it, and he got by earning a decent living that way. He would appear in 15 commercials a year for 4 or 5 years and that allowed him to retool his career.

"I did it for survival. It seemed the correct thing to do (going back to school). It had been in the back of my mind for a long time. And also I went back because I now had all of this spare time. Suddenly every day was a sober day. It was a shock. What will I do, now that I'm actually awake all these hours I'm awake and my brains fertile and fervent? What will I do with it? It's running wild in there and it needs to be fed something. Listen: After I finished off all my course work, I even audited a course in medieval lit. If you had told me a few years ago that I would be choosing to audit a course in medieval literature, I would have said you're out of your mind. Never happen. Never."

In addition, he started to take steady roles that he would never have accepted when he was high and mighty back in the day. One of those was a soap opera, General Hospital, in 1978. He had a six month run on that show, which was the #1 rated soap at the time.
 At that point, he was very disillusioned with the industry and the types of shows they were putting out.  He was almost ready to give up tv and film acting and go back strictly to the theater.

"All of those influences from my teens, 40's and 50's, , radio, tv, theater, movies have faded considerably for me. Very disappointing"

When he went in to read for Hill Street Blues, the secretary at the office recognized him from General Hospital,  something he was not pleased or proud about. He didn't want to be known as a soap opera actor nor was he happy all those years playing the bad boy, the bad guy or the tough from the street. In fact,  he was actually leary of taking any series that would typecast him,  which is what actually happened anyway. He almost refused Hill Street Blues in its original form because it was a cop show.

 "I'm not going to be labelled or stamped, this nationality or that nationality. I can play anything. I can play the king of England or a mafia boss. And I have."

Travanti was cast as Captain Frank Furillo on Hill Street Blues, a job he held down from 1981 through 1987. It is what most know him for and the work he is most proud of to this day.
 When Travanti read the pilot for Hill Street Blues, he turned it down precisely because "it was brilliant and complex": He wanted it too much. Those emotional contradictions had put him in a bind on more than one occasion, resulting in his striding into auditions with the attitude that "I don't have to prove anything or even get the part," he says. "I'm there to entertain the people who are auditioning me and make them wonder who that masked man is."
He read for Hill Street creator and producer Stephen Bochco and Bochco commented to Travanti that he was terrific.Travanti had so gotten used to being disappointed and not getting great roles that his first thought was:

"So!....why aren't you going to hire me?"

Travanti was cast on Hill Street Blues on March 7th, 1980 on his 40th birthday.
 He received five Emmy nominations for his work on the show.

He admits he's a smart aleck and difficult, maybe even self-sabotaging. Personal actions play their role in a career and a life, he says, though he argues that the concept of free will is overrated. "I'm a man of strong opinions and intellect, and I scare people," he says. "And I'm not going to pretend I want to be in a project if it doesn't showcase my abilities." The script must also meet certain standards: "It has to have resonance, celebrate life, and be highly entertaining." 

While on Hill Street Blues, he also appeared in two television movies. One of those was Adam (1983), the story of the disappearance of Adam Walsh, the son of America's Most Wanted star John Walsh.
 Travanti received an Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series or a Special  Emmy nomination for this role.

In 1986, Travanti starred in the  HBO broadcast biographical film Murrow, portraying Edward R. Murrow. He received a Cable Ace nomination for this role.
He considers Hill Street Blues, Adam and Murrow to be his best work. By the conclusion of Hill Street Blues in 1987 he felt he had established himself and was hoping for the better quality roles in tv, film and broadway to come his way. They never did.

"Every good project I have ever done has had the same set of characteristics. Determined men and women, fighting against the odds..against the current and the naysayers"

Travanti's stint on Hill Street Blues was clearly a career high point.

He seemed to have conquered his demons and achieved the professional success, on his own terms,  that he always wanted, and waited 20 years for.  So, what happened? Why did it all go away?

Like most actors, Daniel J. Travanti is riveting when he is acting, but boring and hard to take when he is just being himself.
Once he gave up his dependence on alcohol, and could not lean on that anymore, when the work dried up,  he became a malcontent again.

 "What do i want?. simple I want to give my abilities to a cause..namely the script"

While he was on Hill Street Blues he got many offers to do other projects which he turned down.. He felt the quality was not up to his standard. Once his run ended on Hill Street, the offers stopped coming. His star was fading and his reputation for being difficult and very hard to work with followed him.

"I had clout, but that was very brief"

He was the hot actor on the great show, so he got offered a lot of great things. Once he was off that show, he was the difficult actor who was not hot anymore and went back to being hard to work with. He has never recovered from that, although his talent was still there. It was always there.

"I thought, this is what I should always be doing and then it went away"

To listen to him being interviewed, he is obviously very difficult to deal with. That is something he admits. It is what makes him so commanding on the screen, but what also makes it hard for him to get this day.
He doesn't like to take any direction and wishes the director would just get out of the way and let the actors act. That is not the type of attitude that inspires people to hire him.

"no more dumb bad guys, no matter how much they offer"

Like most actors, Daniel J. Travanti is riveting when he is acting, but boring and hard to take when he is just being himself. He likes acting but he hates the business of acting and that soured him then..and now.

"we are not that interesting. It is all an illusion. It's a lovely illusion. If it works"

 In 1993, he starred in another series, Missing Persons, which he actually didn't enjoy and mocked as a poor quality show. He actually told all that to the producer, who tried to have him fired. After that, he never got offered anything substantial in television or film.
"You can't be going beyond the limits of your character. That's bad acting"

He mocks the poor quality of almost everything he is offered then complains that he never gets offered anything anymore.
 Not that he's eager to do another series. "It really depends," he says. "I don't need the money, and I'm no longer willing to audition for a series." Over the years, Travanti has become less obsessed with stardom. Acting will always be his top priority, but he has other interests now. Today he is a committed environmentalist and vegetarian -- "I call myself a planetarian" -- and lives far from  Hollywood in Lake Forest, Ill., with three cats and two dogs.

The years have taken their toll. The smooth delivery and charm that were once Daniel J. Travanti are now unease and hesitation. The talent just wore away to the point that he is hard to watch. He can still act, because he is a great actor, but he is hard to look at..or watch. When that happens, an actor finds it very tough to get work, especially when he is inherently difficult as Travanti is...self admittedly.

On acting:

 "Its tough. It is a very tough life. You only do it because you can't not do it"

He used to be quick and energetic. Now he is slow and lethargic. The bloom came off the rose long before his prime because he wasted his best years being difficult and an alcoholic. He peaked before he was ready to deal with it.

He is a great actor because he is troubled personally in real life. He understands how to play real emotion because he has experienced real emotional strife in his life. His art is his salvation.

"My regret is that I have much more to offer and that I have never lived up to my abilities"

He mostly now does local theater when he works at all. In 2010 he resurfaced on Criminal Minds in this striking role.


  1. Dan and I both attended Kenosha High School (Mary D. Bradford) and did a comedy act together in the school's variety show.

    We have both been in Los Angeles for more than 25 years, but have not been in touch. His career was in entertainment; mine in travel.

  2. One of the most moving and memorable performances I have ever seen in a movie/ film, is Mr. Travanti's depiction of John Walsh, in the movie ADAM. His performance in that movie was just so exceptional. Particularly, the scene in the hotel room, where he receives a call, that they have found the remains of his slain son. The scene was so evocative and poignant. I cried like a baby; I'm talking uncontrollable sobbing. I was astounded by Daniel J Travanti's performance. How he made the viewer feel every bit of anguish, sorrow, anger and overwhelming grief, that Mr. Walsh himself, must have experienced upon hearing that news. I have not seen the movie in over 20 years but, that scene haunts me to this day...and I do mean...haunts me. What his performance evoked in all of us watching that movie is the stuff that great acting is all about. I'm a movie buff and and Mr. Travanti's depiction of John Walsh, in Adam, still ranks up there in my top 5 most memorable "movie" moments. It left a long and lingering feeling that resonates with me to this day. So few movies do that. Someday, I would like to watch it again...if I can find the strength.

    1. I think that the hotel scene when he is told that Adam was gone was probably the most real scene I've ever seen acted out on television. Is's 2017 and I still remember it clearly, and all other sad scenes I've ever seen are measured by that one. It's at 38:30 in the movie. I bawled my eyes out also, and I never forgot it, even after all these years. It will destroy you. RIP Adam.

  3. I thought the interviewer was a little too harsh with Travanti toward the end. The man is a human being. He has feelings, I'm sure.

  4. You know, I always thought it would be prudent for bloggers to learn how to write. And just out of curiosity, Mark, does writing about people who were famous but fell out of the limelight make you feel better about your own shortcomings? Twit.

  5. I went to school with Dan in Kenosha Wisconsin. We graduated together in 1958. I have written him off and on over the years and he always answers. I wrote him one time when he made me cry in a episode of Grey's Anatomy. He is a sweet soul.

  6. I am glad he has a good life but it is a shame he doesn't act very much nowdays.

  7. Mr Daniel J. Travanti is a talented actor, and I will always watch everything he's in.

    I especially LUVd his work on Hill Street Blues.

  8. I had the pleasure of meeting Dan in 1987 just before the end of Hill Street Blues. I remember him as being a very caring individual. He told me that he really didn't like being typecast into drama and that he would like to do comedy. I still have hopes of seeing him on stage doing a comedy skit...

  9. Daniel, I understand. I would not think you boring, ever. maybe hard to get along with but things CAN change. You are too good not to be using your talent. call me. LOL Got to get you back on your acting feet. We miss you. I always always thought you were a hottie and I bet you still are, yes you are Daniel.

  10. At our last 1957 Bradford class reunion Ernie Pellegrino spoke warmly and lovingly about Dan Travesty his college roommate at UW. Sadly, Ernie has left us but Dan is still here. Perhaps it's time to come back to us and resume his career. Not easy to do at 76...but certainly doable. . Perhaps a TV show recounting very old cold cases from the Hill Street Blues area..."Be careful out there." Pat Costigan Hall (friend in high school)

  11. when hill street started it was hard as hell to find it on tv. they moved the air time around so much. but finally it hit on Thursday nights
    this was before I owned a tape machine, and come hell or high water I would be home on Thursday night to watch. I used to tell my husband a
    week without furillo was like a week without sunshine. a few months ago I bought the entire series on dvd. was a joy to watch it again
    but said to see Michael Conrad get so ill. you notice when you see one show right after the other.
    now i'm an old lady with many doctors and one in particular loves to say as I leave his office "lets be careful out there"

    1. Loved yoir comments and about"be careful out there!" I remember it well!

  12. Caught him just this week on Dick Wolf's CHICAGO MED. oh a trip down memory lane when I saw his name on the opening credits. Would be wonderful to see him have a spot on the CHICAGO PD series. Did I ❤ HILL STREET....oh yeah!!!

  13. Loved seeing him tonight on NCIS LA. I recognized him right away, sort of like the Lost Boy on Hook who squeezed Robin Williams'(Peter Pan) face until he recognized him; "Oh, THERE you are!" Still a great actor. I hope he continues to enjoy the work, because I enjoy watching him. Maybe you need to update this article!

  14. I would like to find a free pic of him for a french book, related to The Wasp woman - he was great indeed as mad scientist

  15. I toured with Dan in "I Never Sang For My Father" 1987-88. I can see why folks thought him difficult, but it only came from him wanting perfection from the cast & crew -- and most importantly himself. But that the Dan I came to know was far from difficult. He was (and is) one of the most generous human beings I have ever known -- he constantly treated the cast & crew to fun weekly tours and experiences around whatever city we were in. He opened his home to us when in LA over Christmas holidays (all of us were far from home-NYC), and often gave special, personal gifts to cast members to boost our spirits on the road. He could laugh at himself and he could make me laugh. As a young actress who had never toured before, Dan was my friend, role model, Scout leader, big brother ... his only difficulty is how judgmental he is about his career. Not that of others. He is his own worst enemy. But he remains to this day a cherished friend. One of his best performances of his I was lucky enough to see was when he played Valmont in London with the Royal Shakespeare Company. And doing brilliant comedy in "Noises Off" at Cleveland Playhouse. He is more versatile than many know. And he DID make it to the New York stage recently, to rave reviews. But Dan is his best when he is surrounded by those he loves, playing with his dogs. He is a fiercely loyal friend with a giant heart. He has already changed the world.

  16. Daniels character Capt Frank Furillo in the Hill Street Blues was one I recommended to all my students to follow in terms of management techniques. He was always calm in any crisis. I could never separate the part from the person and he remains to this day my all time TV hero. I would love to meet him if ever he was in the UK. I would like to thank him for his acting genius. If anyone knows how I could contact him online, I would be truly grateful. Clement. Co Durham, England.


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Daily profile about a specific artist,their life, their work and their impact