Bruce Weitz is growling. But it's a discreet, embarrassed, coffee-shop sort of growl, in keeping with the naugahyde setting and the predictable request.
People ask him to growl all the time. They come up to him on the street and call him "Dogbreath" and "Hairbreath." And then they say, "Growl."
"Some of them say please," Weitz says.
He always tries to oblige. Still, sometimes he wonders.
"Is this a thing for a 42-year-old man to be doing? Growling at people? I ask you!"
Bruce Weitz has been growling for a living for five years now. Recently he began shooting his sixth season on "Hill Street Blues" as Mick Belker, the grungy, grumpy, nose-biting undercover cop with a heart of gold.
In person Weitz is a bit of a shock, because he's so clean. The man is meticulous.
"If I'm wrestling a pig or having a picnic, I like to be dirty," he says. "I like to eat with my hands. Tear chicken apart. But in general I don't like to be dirty."
Which may explain why Grant Tinker, chairman of the board of NBC, couldn't see him in the part. But Steven Bochco, Weitz's college friend and executive producer of the show until this year, knew better. He arranged for an audition.
Weitz didn't shave for two weeks. He arrived chewing on a fetid cigar and wearing an outfit best described as haute Salvation Army. "However the character has evolved, Bruce took it 100 percent further," Bochco says. "He just looked like an animal."
And acted like one, too.
"They were all late," says Weitz. "I had an appointment and it was 1:30, I think, and there was nobody in the room when I arrived. So I just sort of went down the halls banging on the doors of different executives trying to rouse them."
The scene involved "a speech about biting off someone's nose," he says, and growling was "just a natural extension . . . I said, 'If I ever play this role, this guy is going to growl all the time.' It was real uncomfortable to do for a while."
"There was a speech in the pilot," Bochco says, "where Belker had just been in a brawl and [Capt. Frank] Furillo says, 'No biting, Mick, no biting.' And Belker says, 'You think I don't know what they call me? Belker the biter?' And he leaped onto the desk and he's doing this mad dog stuff, which quite honestly I thought was rather terrible."
"I don't know if it was a flying leap, but it was higher than the ground, so I guess you have to call it a leap," Weitz says. "I sort of jumped very close to Grant Tinker, though. In his face? Almost in his lap. I saw a couple of beads of sweat broke out on his upper lip."
"And when he was done," Bochco says, "he snarled and growled and stormed out of the office. The room was deadly silent. Then Grant Tinker said, 'I'm not going to be the one to tell him he can't have the part.' "
After awhile, the part becomes the man. Bruce Weitz may well know the differences, but that doesn't mean everyone else does. They see him on TV for Burger King -- gnawing his way through the box. And they saw him on TV in Chicago asking kids to "Write Bruce" about their experiences with drugs, part of a pilot program for the National PTA, which is what brought him to Washington.
"They know much more who Mick Belker is than Bruce Weitz," he says with a shrug.
Both have changed. Mellowed, as they say. This may be a very good thing for Weitz, but he isn't sure how good it is for Belker, whose bite has lost, well, some of its bite.
"I did not think they would go quite as far," Weitz says. "I think it takes a little credibility away from who the character is to make him completely soft and sentimental all the time . . .
"I can't imagine where he can go and still keep some semblance of the character. I don't think there's too much room left for exploration. I hope I'm wrong. I hope they come in with something."
Maybe Belker and his girlfriend Robin will get hitched.
"Maybe," he says. "Maybe she'll have a baby and we won't be married. It would be more interesting."
Ed Marinaro, who plays Officer Joe Coffey and who is Weitz's best friend in the cast, says, "I think the characters, his character, have lost some of their edge. They've all been made to be likeable. When they saw Belker was so popular they were afraid to make him anything but a wonderful person, and I think it got a little boring. It's become a little like 'Father Knows Best.' "
Still, Weitz says, the funny part is that sentimentality is probably the quality he and Mick have most in common. "I'm a pretty easy touch, the way he is."
Belker masks his mushiness with three days' growth and an equal amount of gruffness. Weitz masks his with wariness and a tart sense of humor.
"I think what you're observing is Bruce's shyness and embarrassment," Bochco says. "Bruce is an enormously sentimental man. He feels things very deeply. He's loath to express his real feelings about things in any kind of a public way."
"I try to be nice to people," Weitz says. "I'm glad they get that impression. But I'm not nice all the time. When I'm not nice, I try to be not nice in private. Sometimes I can be tremendously not nice. If there's someone around that I can be not nice with, then I try not to keep it to myself because it's better to get it out."
"He has mellowed," says Marinaro. "I like to think it's because of me. I don't think I'm 'a mellow kind of guy,' but I know how to relax and how not to worry about things that shouldn't be worried about.
"Bruce worries about everything. You try to travel with him . . . We were going to the Bahamas once and he said, 'I bet it's going to rain when we get there.' He used to drive me crazy. I said, 'Bruce, why would you even think such a thing?' "
Belker wouldn't be caught dead in the Bahamas. And he certainly didn't go to boarding school in Florida. Or clothes shopping in Rome.
"I love clothes," Weitz says.
Also: Weitz does not call his mother "Ma."
"He calls me Mom," says his mother, Sybil Rubel. "I had one interviewer ask me if I was like Mrs. Belker. I said, 'I hope not.' "
"My mother is a very good friend," Weitz says. "And she doesn't call me . . . often."
He was a chubby child.
"He was fat," his mother says. "As a matter of fact, I had a terrible time finding him a decent suit for his bar mitzvah."
"I always went to the husky department," he says.
"I was not happy with myself. I don't know all the reasons why. I think one of the reasons why was I was not happy with the way I was physically. I wanted to be thinner and taller and have straight hair, all the things I didn't have . . .
"Was I a tough kid? I pretended to be a tough kid. I had a lot of anger. I don't like to think I was neglected as a child. I can't really remember being neglected, but I always had something to prove."
He was an athlete, a scrapper. "I used to fight a lot," he says. "I only lost about 70 percent of the time, which was a respectable percentage."
He was a high school All-American in baseball and football. He was 5 feet 8 and weighed more than 200 pounds. He had a low center of gravity. He was a natural at catcher and halfback. Thus Belker's ferocious tackles.
Weitz credits his high school drama teacher, Dan Bowden, with having diverted that energy into the theater. Bowden remembers how angry Weitz was in his first play, "Twelve Angry Men."
"Even then he had his sense of timing, the ability to get inside a character, to feel and know what that character was feeling," Bowden says. "We told him we want you to go to drama school."
Weitz graduated from Carnegie Tech, where he received a BA and a master of fine arts in drama.
"In college he was like a little block of concrete and a bit of a brawler," Bochco says. "I've never seen Bruce lose his temper. I have a hunch he kept it very much reigned in, and then periodically he would go looking for trouble.
"Then he lost 50 pounds, which is a profound change. It's not just a weight loss. There are profound implications about the way one perceives oneself and the need for armory and losing that armory. That was an enormous change. He went through a lot of things."
Weitz was 19 when his father died of a massive coronary. That loss resonated through his performance when Belker's father died. "That episode, that was all Bruce," says his mother. "I think he's still a little angry at his dad for dying."
He moved to Los Angeles in 1977. Before that, he spent many summers performing in Central Park as part of the New York Shakespeare Festival, a year at the Long Wharf Repertory Theater in New Haven, two years at the Tyrone Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis and four at the Arena Stage in Washington, where one night he was picked up by the police for having done nothing in particular.
"I was out very, very late and a cop stopped me and asked for I.D. and I didn't have my wallet so he took me in and put me in jail," he says, adding that he's still mad.
That was the first and last time he saw a cell until he went to "Hill Street," which airs Thursday nights at 10. "I spent 10 days -- two weeks, five days a week -- with two undercover narcotics detectives, all over Los Angeles," he says. "I went on a lot of busts, did the paperwork with them, rode with them and did surveillance with them. I did almost everything they do."
Now when he meets cops, they say the same thing everyone else does: "Growl."
*Weitz figures he's got another two years to exercise his vocabulary. His contract stipulates that he will appear in every episode. "I think we'll probably get one more year out of it after this unless everything falls apart at the seams," he says.
"I think it's a very real possibility that people will see me only in that role. That may be the case, but it's not going to trap me because the money I've made from this show enables me to do whatever I want to do . . .
"I have a business in Hawaii I can do full time, a fishing business. Charter boats. Two out of Maui, three out of Kona."
"He always says that," Marinaro says. "We all think we'd like to take a long vacation. But it's also going to be kind of scary. When Bruce says he's going to Hawaii, he's setting himself up. He's saying, 'I don't want to deal with unemployment.' "
He lives in the Hollywood Hills with his girlfriend, a general contractor specializing in tennis courts. He plays racquetball, but, he says, "My work has made me sane."
Bochco says, "Bruce as much as if not more than anybody on the show has flowered with his success. Success has made his life better and easier instead of harder. As Bruce has become successful, he has become a more accessible man on every level."
No wonder he's so fond of Belker. Even if he does catch himself growling once in a while.
He'd still take Mick home for holidays.
"I'd take him home for Passover," Weitz says. "And I do on occasion."