|Some actors called it "judging," as in "I judged last week," a verb meaning, "to play a judge on 'Law & Order.' " Donna Hanover, a broadcast journalist and ex-wife of former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, judged seven times. Humorist Fran Lebowitz donned the robes on 12 occasions.|
"To be part of that judge pool, it's an honor," says Stephen McKinley Henderson, who played Judge Marc Kramer on seven episodes over the last 15 years and is also a Tony nominee this year for "Fences."
To play a judge was only one point of entry into perhaps the greatest ongoing casting call of all time. For a record-tying 20 years, the original "Law & Order" shot 456 episodes in all. Its finale on Monday employed 42 actors in speaking roles and 125 extras. Every episode adhered to the same actor-intensive formula: fast location changes, talky scenes separated by the ominous chung chung sound, and crowded New York street life, courtrooms and the like.
The show provided about 4,000 jobs each year, including one-day acting roles, according to the Mayor's Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting. Over the years the show employed 20,639 individual actors, with 5,934 of them in speaking roles and the rest background actors, according to Mike Hodge, the New York division president of the Screen Actors Guild. Of all the movies, plays and other TV shows in history, it's hard to think of a single entertainment entity which has hosted more troupers, emoters and hambones.
One casting director, Suzanne Ryan, estimates she's seen up to 130 auditions per show, which comes out to 2,860 to 3,120 per season, and 57,200 to 62,400 in all. More than one aspirant would end his or her tryout with a hopeful "chung chung."
Some of the roles were played by marquee names—Julia Roberts, Philip Seymour Hoffman, former U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson, Laura Linney, Samuel L. Jackson. Hundreds more were working actors who populate New York theater stages and serve on movies and TV as those familiar character actors we can't quite place.
Known as the "mothership," the original "Law & Order" became a staple on Playbill biographies, with tough-minded creator Dick Wolf as an unlikely Medici for New York actors. To be sure, it was no place for an actor to airily explore his or her "craft." Mr. Wolf fiercely preserved the strict procedural form of "Law & Order"—it was its predictability that made it one of the great rerun shows and a billion-dollar brand for him and NBC.
But for actors it was a lifeline. A "Law & Order" job allowed actors to hold off on a regional theater gig or a part they weren't interested in—a stopgap until something better came along. And it got many a New York performer a Screen Actors Guild card, which helped provide access to health insurance. Actor Peter Sarsgaard, co-star of "Jarhead" and "An Education," got his SAG card with a 1995 guest appearance as a student who knew the victim, according to a casting director. He was in one scene.
The actor-friendly nature of the show, especially in the early years before budget constraints intervened, was well known. Kevin Scullin, who played a corpse, an FBI agent and a court clerk in five episodes between 2001 and 2005, said the series helped him make his rent at least three times. "It was a godsend," he says.
When Mr. Scullin played a corpse, a role for which he did not receive residuals, he said the show found excuses to bulk up his paycheck, throwing in money for performing at night, as well as "wet pay" and "smoke pay," add-ons for scenes that expose actors to water or smoke.
As a corpse, his biggest responsibility was to avoid breathing while the camera was on him as he lay on a slab. But the show also paid him for three extra days of work so he could pose for fake family photos and appear in security-camera footage used in the police investigation. All told, the part paid more than $2,000, he recalls.
Stephen Kunken, who is nominated for a 2010 Tony Award for the play "Enron," appeared on "Law & Order" three times between 2001 and 2009. He says actors tried to work the odds, strategizing so they wouldn't squander their turn in the rotation with a small role. Mr. Wolf has a "60-day rule" that actors cannot play more than one part in "Law & Order," or spinoffs "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" or "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" within a two-month period.
"You had to go, 'I'm going to hold off on the corpse to try to be the lab tech and then I'll trade up from the lab tech, maybe I won't do that for awhile and two years from now I'll be the killer,' " Mr. Kunken says.
When he was 29 years old, Joe Lisi was working as a New York policeman. He went to a "Law & Order" audition and landed one of his first acting jobs playing a cop at a crime scene. That role led to six episodes on "Law & Order" and a string of other TV and movie roles. The dual careers sometimes created confusion. Once Mr. Lisi, who has since retired as a cop, played a gangster indicted for murder on a show called "Against the Law." A clerk called the precinct to report that its newly assigned commanding officer, Capt. Lisi, had just been arrested for murder.
He says that without those roles he may have given up on acting. "There were only two things I wanted to be my whole life: a New York City cop and an actor. With 'Law & Order,' I got to do both," Mr. Lisi says.
"Our Bible became a naturalism that was the absolute antithesis of a polished Hollywood TV look," says executive producer Fred Berner. The prototype was Jerry Orbach, who died in 2004 after playing Det. Lennie Briscoe for 12 years.
"I always think about the show as before Jerry and after Jerry," says executive producer René Balcer, who has worked on the series since it made its 1990 debut. "You saw the weariness of 25 years of crime-fighting in New York written on his face."
Pay for guest roles as judges, jurors and police officers on "Law & Order" ranged from about $800 for one day's work to nearly $3,000 for a week. Actors who stuck around for the entire eight-day shoot were paid at least $7,000, according to the show, based on SAG minimum pay scales. Actors who pass through the show receive residuals, though the checks eventually dwindle: One check—for one cent—is displayed on "Law & Order" actress Leslie Hendrix's bulletin board.
Head casting director Lynn Kressel has found actors for "Law & Order" since the 1989 pilot, which CBS turned down before NBC picked it up. Ms. Kressel has been casting series regulars in the police drama and all of its various spinoffs ever since. (Mr. Wolf, network executives and NBC's Universal Media Studios weigh in on major casting decisions.) Among New York actors Ms. Kressel is a well-known career booster. She sometimes pays by cash at restaurants so the aspiring actor/waitperson won't recognize her name on the credit card and ask for an audition. She tries to go to the theater several nights a week to see if she can spot new faces. "If someone can do it on stage, then they can do it on TV," she says.
When "Law & Order" came to town, there was little New York screen work beyond commercials, a few soaps and the occasional movie (a host of TV shows are now filmed there). William H. Macy, who appeared in one of the first episodes and returned for another spot in 1992 before his acclaim for "Fargo," says the job helped him make ends meet back then: "New York City actors, we just lived and died by the little bit of TV work that would come our way," he says. "Law & Order" and other shows meant a paycheck, but the work of a so-called day player could be lonely. "Lunchtime comes and you pray that someone will sit beside you," he says of the one-day acting jobs. "It's no fault of the cast and crew—usually, they're exhausted."
Fran Lebowitz, whose biting essays were published in "Metropolitan Life" and "Social Studies," got the judge role after begging a friend in the cast for an audition. "People always asked me, 'Fran, are you doing this tiny part hoping to get a bigger part?' and I said, 'No, I'm doing this tiny part hoping to become a real judge,'" says Ms. Lebowitz, whose duties were limited to setting bail.
Guest roles have changed over the years as the series evolved and ratings sagged. The show averages about 7.3 million viewers this season, down 52% from a decade ago, according to Nielsen Co.
At one point, the show did away with what writer Lorenzo Carcaterra calls "the two schmucks who find the body" at the beginning of each episode. Stories began to open while the victim is still alive. Mr. Berner, the executive producer, says he cut down on the practice of suspects and witnesses flipping a pizza or loading a truck as detectives interrogate them: "My experience is that if you get stopped by an officer, your heart beats fast and you stand still."
Ms. Hendrix, who played a medical examiner, says over the years the set seemed to run itself. "It was a formula you could fit yourself into without much effort," she says. "Eight or nine days that episode is shot and finished and boom, here we are, on to the next one." She recalls her favorite line as: "If you'll excuse me, I've got to go pull a javelin out of some guy's chest."
The job can be double-edged. In her recurring role as forensic psychologist Elizabeth Olivet, a passive listener who drew out other people's stories, actress Carolyn McCormick says she received mail from prisoners and others who felt she understood their story. But she lost out on funny and sexy roles elsewhere. "That role has stigmatized me as someone who is smart and boring," says Ms. McCormick. "Someone once said to me, 'I'd love to see you in a play because I'd love to see you change your expression.' "
This Monday night, barring some later cable deal that could result in a few shows with an asterisk attached, "Law & Order" will air its final new episode. "Rubber Room" is yet another "ripped from the headlines" story based on a controversial disciplinary process for New York public school teachers. Before the cancellation, it was written as a goodbye to longtime actress S. Epatha Merkerson. Her character, Lt. Anita Van Buren is battling cancer.
Not every cast member has only fond memories. When George Dzundza was leaving after the first season, the show planned for his character, Sgt. Max Greevey, to get shot in the face. Mr. Dzundza objected, asking to live long enough to say a few words as a kind of goodbye to his fans. The request was denied, he says. He refused to do the episode, and though his character was still shot, he says, there was no final image of his bloodied face.
Mr. Dzundza, who found it hard to be separated from his family as he commuted to the set from his Los Angeles home, recalls a New York cold snap when he shot a scene in 35-second increments because the camera kept freezing. "If we were dogs, they would've shut this company down," he recalls joking at the time. "It would've been cruelty to animals. You take that in stride—that's part of the combat aspect of doing it, and sometimes that's very, very exciting as well, but it's not easy."
But most other actors were filled with regret. One agent sent a note to Ms. Kressel saying, "It's the end of life as we know it." And Ms. Hanover, the former New York first lady who played a judge, said with a sigh, "I was hoping to have a chance to get back on the bench one more time."