|Ten years ago Dick Wolf created Law & Order. Now he's got so many spin-offs and reruns airing each week that you'd have to be unemployed to catch them all. Sure, he may have founded an empire, but don't ever accuse him of being a one-man show.|
Last year NBC was looking for a five-hour miniseries it could air this May. Steve White, the network's head of movies and mini-series, phoned Dick Wolf, the creator of Law & Order, at his offices on the Universal lot. Any ideas? Well, yes. There was a story, a story Wolf had long wanted to do. "Terrorism in New York City," he said. White gave the green light. There wasn't much time. Shooting was set for September.
Cut to: A sultry August morning in New York, as the final scenes of a Law & Order episode are being shot. We are at Chelsea Piers, where the 122-foot yacht Mariner is bobbing and rolling somewhat alarmingly. On deck a greenish Cathy Moriarty smiles bravely from under the brim of an enormous pink hat as she sits across a dining table from her sullen daughter (Kate Moennig). Suddenly, from off-camera, bellows the familiar voice of Detective Lennie Briscoe (Jerry Orbach): "Lorraine Cobin, you're under arrest."
As Briscoe and his partner, Ed Green (Jesse L. Martin), scamper onto the yacht, Moriarty rises, indignant. "This is ridiculous, for what?"
"What's ridiculous," says Briscoe, "is what you must be paying in rent for this boat." A pause. "No, what's ridiculous is your hat."
"It's a better line," Orbach pleads. "The other's too long. By the time I get to `What's ridiculous,' I'm tripping over my tongue."
Director Lewis Gould reaches for his phone. He dials a number at Universal in Los Angeles and leaves a voice mail for Barry Schindel, the show's executive producer, suggesting the line change. Since dialogue cannot be altered without Schindel's approval, and since it's only 8 a.m. in L.A., the scene will be shot both ways.
So it goes as Law & Order keeps cranking them out. Since the show first aired on NBC in 1990, there have been 253 episodes, and by the end of this season, its 12th, you will have 25 more. Not enough? The old ones recycle four times a day on A&E, Monday through Friday, plus twice every Tuesday on TNT Still not enough? Law & Order: Special Victims Unit is in its third season, and if you miss it on Friday night you can catch it nine days later on USA. Want more? Law & Order: Criminal Intent, starring Vincent D'Onofrio as a sort of Sherlock Holmes-slash-Columbo, debuted last fall on Sunday at 9. A fourth show, Crime & Punishment, a "drama-mentary" depicting real-life court cases from the D.A.'s point of view, is in production.
What this means is that a human being can watch 27 hours of Law & Order a week (excluding those A&E marathon weekends). Whether anyone ever has is unclear, but it is known that every week 80 million viewers see a Law & Order something. This does not figure in the number of dogs that, home alone with the TV on, are reported to howl in delight at the show's signature ch-ching! sound. With a Russian version franchised out (Law & Disorder?), a monthly magazine on the drawing board, and yet another Law & Order series percolating for 2003, one wonders, cross-eyed, if the sun ever sets in creator Dick Wolf's brain.
"Once the tap is open and the ideas are flowing, it's hard for Dick to stop having them," says Rene Balcer, who worked on Law & Order for ten years and now oversees Criminal Intent. "It's like saying to Barry Bonds, `Don't you think you have enough home runs now?"
Wolf can write, too. As consistently good as the scripts on all three shows are, rarely is the dialogue as tight or pungent as it was in the first batch of Law & Orders, the ones Wolf wrote. A master pitchman, Wolf often tells the story of how, in 1989, he walked into the office of NBC Entertainment president Brandon Tartikoff to sell a series called Nasty Boys. Six people filled the room. Wolf handed each an envelope. Inside was a photo of four guys in black masks and ninja suits holding automatic weapons and standing against a wall. The words beneath them said WE MAKE HOUSE CALLS. Says Wolf, "It was the only completely nonverbal pitch I ever made. Brandon laughed and said, `Sold!'" (The show ran for halt a season.)
"He's the P.T. Barnum of drama series," testifies Tom Fontana, cocreator of Homicide: Life on the Street. "And I mean P.T Barnum at his best. Each new Law & Order series reignites the others. Really, it's an extraordinary achievement the way he gets people into the tent."
"Quite simply," says David Kissinger, president of USA Television Production Group, the studio that finances the shows, "the man is insatiable."
At the moment, the man is seated somewhat stiffly on a stage at the Ritz-Carlton in Pasadena. Barrel-chested, with dark hair and the ability to scowl without actually doing so, he looks as if he's been dragged at the end of a rope into a coliseum of blood-thirsty spectators--which, in a way, he has. Below him sit the nation's TV critics, who have gathered for their fill press tour. Wolf has a TV rap sheet of considerable length, filled with far more misses than hits, but this season only he and John Wells (The West Wing, ER, Third Watch, and the short-lived Citizen Baines) will attempt to stack prime time with four series each.
"How often do you think you can go back to the Law & Order well without hurting the other series?" snaps one critic.
Although Wolf is flanked by Balcer and the four starring cast members of Criminal Intent, the question can't be handed off. "Well, I just happen to have some statistics here," he says slyly, reaching into his jacket pocket. But as he pulls out a folded sheet of paper, several dollar bills come with it and flutter to the floor. There is a stunned silence at the unwitting symbolism ... then a burst of laughter. Wolf, normally a master of quick comebacks, seems nonplussed as he sweeps up the money and shoves it in his pocket. Then he recites numbers indicating Law & Order's audience is bigger than ever. "There is a huge appetite for the show," he says. "It's a brand. Like Coke and Diet Coke, Coke without caffeine, and Cherry Coke. I think Criminal Intent has to be looked at as a brand extension, not the oversaturation of Law & Order."
Three days later, as I enter his office, Wolf says, "I shouldn't have said Coke. Most people drink only one kind of Coke. But everyone likes many kinds of soup." A pause. "Law & Order is Campbell's soup."
The sheer expanse of his empire is enough to tangle the synapses. Though two of his shows are filmed in New York and one in New Jersey, Wolf's headquarters are planted in Hollywood. "Once a TV producer moves to New York," he observes, "the networks assume he died. Besides, it's harder for them to kill your show if they have to worry about running into you that night at Pinot."
Thus, the empire begins in Santa Barbara, where Wolf, 55, lives with his wife and three children (like a character from one of his shows, Wolf reveals little about his off-duty life). From there the empire stretches south, via chauffeur-driven Town Car, down the 101 freeway to Universal Studios, where Wolf Films occupies three separate buildings. Two of them stand in a courtyard off Ella Fitzgerald Drive. (The third, which houses Criminal Intent, can be reached only by tortured progress behind trams spilling over with Universal Tours people.)
In the sun-dappled courtyard Wolf's chauffeur lounges on a bench reading a script. Behind him are the headquarters--the Jack Webb and the William Goetz. Wolf is in Goetz, up beige-carpeted stairs and down a hallway hung with movie posters. The one slender thread of reality springs from two large wall maps: one of the New York subway system, the other of the city's five boroughs.
Peter Jankowski, a co-executive producer who runs Wolf's operation, is stationed in a large airy office across the hall from the maps. "You could say I manage Dick," says Jankowski. "I make sure he knows everything that's going on. I oversee the inner workings of the company, deal with agents, the network the studio production schedules, and quality control. I end up doing a lot of things Dick, as creator and executive producer, would normally do. Only he's like a CEO and I'm like his personal secretary."
Which involves a monumental juggling act, since the brains of the operation (the producers and writers) are at Universal, while the bodies (the actors and crew) are in New York.
It works like this: Once a first draft is completed (and read by Wolf) it's faxed to New York, where locations are scouted. This is serious business, for Wolf regards the city as the main character. "New York," he says, "is the greatest backdrop ever made. Anywhere you point the camera in New York will be more interesting than anywhere you point the camera in L.A. There simply is no here here."
Determining where to point the camera falls to Moe Bardach, the location manager for all three shows. At Chelsea Piers, where Law & Order and Criminal Intent have their offices and sets, Bardach scrolls a database stocked with 21,000 stores, restaurants, parks, schools, and--probably worth a small fortune, this--10,000 apartments and town houses. "Friends tell me I should get a realtor's license because I know where the available rentals are," Bardach says.
As Bardach and his scouts comb the city, director Gould prepares for the inevitable. "February," he grumbles. "That's when all the scripts have night scenes pulling bodies out of the East River or digging corpses out of snowbanks in Central Park. The writers are in L.A., right? Probably drowning in sunscreen."
Meanwhile, Wolf is batting back and forth like a shuttlecock, reading four scripts per cross-country flight, gridlocking around New York in another Town Car with another chauffeur, ear to cell phone as he commutes from his Upper East Side apartment to Chelsea Piers to that day's locations--or through the Holland Tunnel to North Bergen, New Jersey, home of SVU. So fluid is the synchronization that one wishes Wolf would give it all up and go run the airlines.
At three o'clock on a summer afternoon Wolf is in his office on the Universal lot, sighting down a reporter with narrowed eyes. As usual, he is wearing a long-sleeved shirt with an actual tie, and Italian loafers with actual socks. The look of the office, like that of Wolf himself is Ivy League-ish. A sailing buff turned motorboat man, Wolf has pictures on the wall of the boat he helms at his summer retreat in Maine. More arresting is a black-and-white photo of the Titanic as it steamed out of Southampton. Also on the walls is a collection of handwritten letters from John Steinbeck, Charles Dickens, Jack London, and Dashiell Hammett to agents and editors pleading for money.
But back to the narrowed eyes. Wolf is annoyed that I am still not "getting it." What I don't seem to be getting, to Wolf's satisfaction, is that Law & Order is not a one-man operation. Apparently his people have reported back that I asked them questions about him. A man who doesn't suffer fools well, he is trying to temper his words.
"You need to think of it like a military operation," he says, "with a chain of command. If I'm Eisenhower, I've got six Pattons working for me. My job is to make sure they've got the gas for the tanks. To call in air support. I'll push things that are out of alignment back into alignment. I make sure various factions are getting along. I'm the quality guarantor, not the day-to-day show runner."
"This season I've got 25 hours of Law & Order, 22 hours of Special Victims Unit, 13 of Criminal Intent, and 13 of Crime & Punishment, plus a five-hour miniseries. That's 78 hours of TV we're producing. No way I'm producing it alone."
Unlike Aaron Sorkin, the creator and an executive producer of The West Wing, who had to publicly apologize for hogging all the writing credit on his show, Wolf seems determined to shrink his own importance. Whether he is catering to the egos of his executive producers or fears the networks will think he's overextended and won't let him do one hour more, he persistently extols the workaholics he's hired.
They include his three West Coast show runners. Rene Balcer, a Canadian-born journalist who switched careers, ascended to head writer, then show runner on Law & Order, and now displays a wallful (a very large wallful) of awards, including the show's one Emmy, for Outstanding Drama Series. Neal Baer (make that Doctor Neal Baer) is a delightfully calm individual who divides his time between his SVU office and the emergency room at Childrens Hospital, where he plays a pediatrics intern in real life. Barry Schindel, a former public defender from the Bronx who took over Law & Order midway through last season, has steered the show to its highest ratings yet.
If Wolf is eager to deflect credit to them, they are hungry to grab it. "I met with Dick twice on Criminal Intent," Balcer recalls. "He said, `Let's do a show where we see the crime from the point of view of the criminal.' He wanted to portray how the bad guys deal with pressure, with the lawyers. And he wanted the protagonist to be an American Sherlock Holmes. The first thing I did was change his title from Criminal Intentions to Criminal Intent. I came up with all but one of the initial 13 stories. I worked out the beats with the writers. Then they wrote the teleplays. Depending on the writer, I rewrote a half to three-quarters of each script."
Or Baer: "My strength is story. I try to tell a story in an emotional way that defines who the characters are, though not in a maudlin way. When Dick said he wanted to do a miniseries on terrorism, I told him it should be bioterrorism."
And Schindel: "I may be the first criminal attorney to run a show, so my approach is probably more legal. There was one episode when I had a scene that depicted how a committee of D.A.s meet and decide issues. We had our best ratings last year. My relationship with Dick? I say hello. He reads my scripts."
Even so, once Wolf issues the orders, he monitors progress with a microscope. "He has a great sense of storytelling," says Garth Ancier, former president of NBC Entertainment and now executive vice president of programming at Turner Broadcasting. "He'll look at a first draft and see a possible problem down the line. He'll get it fixed before it's a problem."
The scene shot on the Mariner that day was, in fact, a reshoot. The original story had mom and daughter getting away with murder. But Wolf remembered a long-ago episode with a similar ending, so he asked Schindel to rewrite it. He gave the order. Patton carried it out.
Across from Wolf's office the generals are seated around a conference table--waiting for Eisenhower. They've been waiting for some time. Wolf's door is shut tight as he converses on the phone. In his absence, the empire has come to a screeching halt. Neal Baer, co-executive producer Judith McCreary, and Peter Jankowski are discussing directors to hire for SVU. Charlie Engel, executive vice president of Studios USA, is on his cell phone, as is a thin blond woman sitting in the corner. Two transplanted New York writers stare at their blank notepads. The purpose of the meeting: the third hour of the bioterrorism miniseries.
Ever since the first bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, Wolf had been reading, with increasing alarm, accounts of events in Afghanistan. It took him two weeks to hammer out a 40-page outline for the five-hour drama. In June he summoned Jankowski, Schindel, Baer, Engel, and several writers to New York. For two days they hunkered down at Chelsea Piers refining the story.
It would open in an Afghan camp where a bin Laden devotee was teaching terror tactics to eight-year-olds. With English subtitles crawling across the screen, the man, speaking Farsi, would tell the children that he was going to America on a mission for Allah, which the whole world would soon know about. Before the first hour of the miniseries had run out, explosives would be detonated in the New York City subway, 1,200 lives lost. Then would come the anthrax.
Back in L.A. Baer read books on biological warfare, talked to experts at the Rand Corporation, and hired a consultant from Stanford University. By now Wolf had signed off on the first two hours. Baer, charged with hour number three, is ready to run his latest "beat sheet" by Wolf. Who is just walking in.
Taking his place at the head of the table, he listens as Baer describes each scene. Occasionally Wolf breaks in with:
"The traffic going into the city on the Tuesday after Memorial Day would be bad."
Or "Why would they kill this man? I don't understand."
And "It seems strange if it's this well planned they'd dump a body into Lake Ontario."
Although Baer holds the floor, eyes never stray long from Wolf; comments are directed at him. Everyone at this table is auditioning, eager for his approval.
"I have another problem," Wolf interjects. "Did the press corps suddenly take a four-day weekend when a major story was breaking?"
Wolf's assistant enters and takes whispered lunch orders for sushi. When the food arrives, all use chopsticks except the New York writers; Wolf, of course, handles his with the most finesse.
In the mercurial world of TV, what succeeds and what doesn't is a mystery. Wolf has had 16 series air, only four of which--the three Law & Orders and New York Undercover--survived more than a season. To an outsider, this doesn't sound impressive. "But 97 percent of all series don't make it to a second season," Wolf says, "so you look at the money. The gross revenues of Law & Order and SVU alone are approaching $1 billion." A smile. "My father had a great line: Network people are temporary people making permanent decisions."
In the fall of 2000, NBC pulled the plug on Wolf's heavily hyped Deadline, starring Oliver Platt as a tabloid columnist, after five episodes. "And," adds Wolf, "after giving me the worst possible time slot." Namely, Monday at 9 p.m., opposite Ally McBeal, Monday Night Football, and Everybody Loves Raymond.
"It was a rash decision," says Garth Ancier, who, along with NBC West Coast president Scott Sassa, trooped into WoWs office to break the news. "The show was still finding itself. It was a bit uneven, but that's common with a new show. Scott asked me if I thought we should pull the plug. I said no. Scott said, `I do.'"
Ancier phoned Wolf to warn him messengers were en route and that Sassa was adamant. "I wanted him to be fully prepared," he says.
The meeting, in Wolf's office, was nasty. Sassa, when he's under stress, tends to joke. His tone, which came across as flip, offended Wolf. "When you're canceling a show, you're rejecting it," Ancier says. "You're supposed to take a funereal tone. In retrospect, I regret I didn't fight harder for it."
Given time, maybe Deadline would have found itself, but its problem seemed more to do with concept than time slot. For some reason shows about journalism rarely ring true, and Deadline didn't, either. Platt portrayed a big-city columnist who also happened to be an investigative reporter--a combination as unlikely as a cop who moonlights as a D.A. When I try to make this point, Wolf cuts me off. "The show should have been on at 10," he says.
Wolf's affinity for the investigative story grew out of his fascination with Sherlock Holmes. As an only child in Manhattan, he read all of Arthur Conan Doyle. In prep school at Andover he was a classmate of George W. Bush, who "was the only boy in our class of 140," he recalls, "whom nobody spoke badly of. He's probably the only one who could, 39 years later, remember every one of our names." A glint. "Having said that, I still haven't been invited to the White House."
Wolf had a bit of television and Hollywood lineage going for him. His grandmother wrote title cards for silent pictures at Paramount. His mother worked in publicity at NBC, while his father was head of production at two ad agencies, back when agencies owned TV shows. After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, Wolf followed his father into the business and wrote commercials for eight years. "Remember the Braniff campaign `I'm Cheryl--Fly Me'?" he asks with a smile. "That was mine. I also wrote `Scope Fights Bad Breath. Without Medicine Breath.'" By the time he left advertising he had leamed two valuable lessons: the importance of branding and how to tell a complete story with a complete message succinctly.
He moved to Los Angeles in 1977 and sold a few screenplays. Most went unproduced. Although Skateboard was made, it was panned, Wolf remembers, "as `Bad News Bears on skates,' which really depressed me." He wrote for Steven Bochco on Hill Street Blues, then joined Michael Mann's Miami Vice, which he ran for two years. By then he wanted to create his own show. In 1988 he went to see Barry Diller at 20th Century Fox: "I told him my idea for a series called Law & Order," Wolf recalls over lunch one day in New York. "He bought 13 episodes fight there in the room." The next day Diller phoned back. Upon reflection, he said, Law & Order was not really a Fox show. "Barry was right," says Wolf. "If it had gone on Fox, it would no longer be on the air." (Later, as owner of Studios USA, Diller did, of course, get Law & Order back. Of the five series Studios USA produces, Wolf's three provide the lion's share of the studio's income.) Wolf tried CBS next and got a pilot order. A painstaking researcher, he began hanging around with Detective Stanley White of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department to bone up on homicides. On Super Bowl Sunday, 1989, White phoned Wolf and sent him to an address in a seedy part of town. "So I walk in and there are three cops sitting in the living room watching the Super Bowl on TV," Wolf says, "while the corpse, which had been strangled with a telephone cord and stuffed into a closet, was hanging upside down, eyes wide open, apparently watching the game, too."
As Wolf was writing the pilot, he began plotting his business strategy. The syndication market for one-hour dramas had dried up; thus he devised the split format. The show, he reasoned, could be broken in half and presented as two 30-minute dramas: the police work and the resulting trial.
He also believed that a series in which each episode is self-contained was the key to TV longevity. "Hill Street has been worth nothing in syndication," he says. "Miami Vice is still on. Rockford, Magnum, Columbo, Dragnet, Murder, She Wrote--all were stand-alone pieces of television that are still on. It didn't matter if you didn't see the show for months. That's the problem, I think, with ER, NYPD Blue, Ally McBeal. Those shows are doing nothing."
He cast George Dzundza, Chris Noth, Michael Moriarty, and Richard Brooks and delivered the pilot to CBS. Entertainment president Kim LeMasters turned it down. "He said there were no breakout characters, no stars," Wolf says. "He was right."
Next stop: NBC. Brandon Tartikoff liked the pilot but was dubious. "How can you do this every week?" he asked. Said Wolf: "Give me six script orders and I'll prove it to you." Tartikoff agreed. When the scripts came in, he ordered 13 more. And so, after selling it to three networks, Wolf finally got Law & Order on the air in 1990.
It landed with a thud. "It had the highest advertising pullout of any show in the history of NBC," says executive producer Jeff Hayes. The ratings were lousy, too. But Tartikoff, who had kept Cheers and Seinfeld going as they struggled to find an audience, stuck with Law & Order.
Dry as a Conan Doyle story, the show has a complex structure. "The series puts great storytelling in a format that celebrates narrative. Most TV does not," says Diller. "Either a series is somewhat procedural or ifs strong in terms of character, with long story arcs that go beyond the hour. Law & Order is an original creation that looks easier to do than it is."
Says Hayes, who has been with the series from the beginning: "It's difficult to write for. The show is about the consequences of crime, not the crime itself, so we can't hide behind violence and fights. We don't have establishing shots showing the detectives driving up. We show them banging on the door."
Only twice, says Wolf, has he heard complaints from NBC. Before the fourth season, Warren Littlefield, who succeeded Tartikoff, warned Wolf that if he didn't cast some female leads, he'd cancel the show. In came the beautiful assistant D.A.s. The second "note" arrived two years later from Don Ohlmeyer, then NBC West Coast president. "Sometimes," he told Wolf, "I feel like I'm watching Christiaan Barnard perform heart surgery, it's so clinical. But if you put my kid on the table, I'll watch the show forever."
Indeed, so resolute was Wolf that the series not become "soapy," it lacked any emotion at all. "Now we always make a point of showing the cost of crime, the pain and suffering of the loved ones," he says.
Perhaps. But ifs the main characters viewers want to care about, and after 11 years none of the 80 million addicts who tune in each week has the foggiest notion what these people are like. "The show plays out like any other office situation," Wolf protests. "Do you have any idea what the guy working next to you does when he goes home?"
That Wolf protects his shows from soapiness does not please his actors. When Noth left Law & Order after five years as Detective Mike Logan, the writers had him punch out a congressman and exiled to Staten Island. I begged them, `Let him die in my arms,'" says Jerry Orbach, killing time between scenes in his Chelsea Piers dressing room. "Andy Sipowicz [NYPD Blue] is estranged from his son. Then his son joins the force. They grow close. Then the son is killed in the line of duty. Then Sipowicz's wife is killed. He starts drinking again. His little boy nearly dies. And every year Dennis Franz would win an Emmy! I can do that stuff. Please!"
After a long career in theater and film, Orbach took the role of Lennie Briscoe ten years ago, thinking, "I might get five years out of it. I took it for the security and the money. It ain't King Lear." Asked why people watch the reruns again and again, he says, "It's a ritual, like the stations of the cross. There is a killing; we try to find out who did it. We arrest them. There's some kind of legal problem in the second half. The prosecution wins the case or loses it. You see the show again, you're thinking, Wait. Did they acquit the guy or not?"
Still smarting over the loss of Deadline, Wolf struck back last fall with Criminal Intent. At the same time, Crime & Punishment was in production under the direction of Oscar-winning documentarian Bill Guttentag. The concept, which Guttentag brought to Wolf, is a reality version of Law & Order. Knowing that the people are real makes their stories all the more gritty. Set in San Diego, the series requires three hidden cameras in a courtroom, six camera operators controlling the angles from a tent in the hallway, and massive doses of patience. "Every time we had a great D.A. and a great story," Guttentag says, "the case would be settled." The show is expected to debut on NBC this summer.
Meanwhile, the miniseries Terror was to begin shooting in late September. Variety ran a front-page story plugging it. "Terror was made," the article said, "because Wolf feels passionate about preparing for the possibility of the cataclysmic event of bioterrorism." That morning, as Variety was landing on Hollywood's doorsteps, two planes slammed into the World Trade Center. NBC killed the miniseries a week later.
It's a crisp January morning, and like Groundhog Day, here we are again at the Ritz-Carlton in Pasadena for another press tour. Wolf is seated onstage just as before, though looking somewhat less pained. His soups are scoring big numbers. Some weeks all three are in the Nielsen top 20 dramas. Criminal Intent has been renewed for next season. Wolf has been signed to a new five-year deal with Studios USA at some unprintable price, ensuring., among other things, that Law & Order will surpass Gunsmoke's 15 years as TV's longest-running one-hour drama.
But hold it--what's this?
Up on two big screens yet another Law & Order flashes before our eyes. A pair of uniformed cops, faces grim, leap out of a squad car and stare stonily at the scene of the crime: an expired parking meter.
"Law & Order: Parking Violations Unit," proclaims the godlike voice-over. "Critics have said, `Almost as good as the second spin-off, not as good as the third.'"
Yeah, well. Stay tuned.