|It looks like Law & Order may be the rule that proves the exception. While the survival of many series these days seems to hinge more on the art of the deal than the art of the artists (see: Friends, Frasier and The Sopranos), L&O is still setting longevity standards the old-fashioned way: ratings. |
Martin, Orbach, Rohm and Waterston
And the secret to that, says its famously pragmatic creator, Dick Wolf, is no secret. It’s just fine acting. In fact, so much performing talent has passed through the L&O era that you don’t even have to watch the show any more to see Wolf’s point – not that you’d want to skip it on that account.
Over thirteen seasons – and, as of May 21, 300 episodes – NBC’s Law & Order has not only become an institution, it has spawned two flourishing spinoffs, L&O: Special Victims Unit and L&O: Criminal Intent, making Wolf (who also oversees ABC’s updated Dragnet) one of the most prolific and successful producers in the business.
Many reasons have been cited for the continued popularity of L&O: its story-driven (rather than character-driven) ethos; its controversial, ripped-from-the-headlines plots; its dismissal of cliffhangers and long-term story arcs in favor of self-contained narratives that are resolved at the end of each episode. But its secret weapon may be something that is rarely mentioned.
"You don’t have this kind of success with mediocre actors," Wolf says. "One of the things that has been massively overlooked over the years is that, in a sense, this is the toughest kind of acting to do. It’s a lot easier to cry on camera than it is to be effective delivering straight-ahead language. The ability to make strictly procedural scenes compelling is a gift of really, really good actors. Otherwise it’s crap."
Any discussion of L&O’s actors inevitably leads to the observation that, despite the departure of several major cast members over the years (remember Michael Moriarty, Paul Sorvino, Chris Noth, Jill Hennessy, Benjamin Bratt and Angie Harmon?) the show has not only survived, it has thrived. Interestingly, according to Nancy Perkins, senior vice-president of casting for Universal Network Television, the studio behind L&O, the cast shake-ups may have contributed to the show’s longevity.
"This is a new theory," Perkins says, "but one of the things that we’ve been discussing is that the recasting, after being on the air so many years, may actually be rejuvenating the show. When you bring in new people, it creates different dynamics between the characters than those that have existed up to that point. It’s invigorating."
Some cast members left voluntarily (like Moriarty, who resigned via fax) and some by request (like Dann Florek and Richard Brooks, who moved on when NBC wanted more women in the mix; Florek later resurfaced on SVU). But in Wolf’s view, changing the lineup is good for the writers, actors and, yes, the audience: "As Jerry Orbach [Detective Lennie Briscoe] said, ‘If the original cast never changed, the show wouldn’t be on the air.’ Also, hopefully, it mirrors life in the real workplace. Things change. Life is flux."
Because of its reputation for quality, L&O is not only an enviable gig for its regulars, but for guest stars as well. "The show has become known as a repository of great guest stars," Wolf says. "People have gotten Emmy nominations for guest roles on Law & Order, so we’re able to get actors that normally don’t do episodic television."
Three actors have been Emmy-nommed for those guest turns – multi-Tony nominee Elaine Stritch, multi-Oscar nominee Jane Alexander and Oscar winner Julia Roberts, who appeared in the two-hundredth episode when then-boyfriend Benjamin Bratt was still on the show; Stritch is the only of the three to win. But the high-caliber guests keep coming; they’ve included: Karen Allen, Adam Arkin, Elizabeth Ashley, Talia Balsam, Tom Berenger, Gary Busey, Len Cariou, Jill Clayburgh, Chris Cooper, Lisa Gay Hamilton, John Heard, Gregory Hines, Mary Beth Hurt, Anne Jackson, James Earl Jones, Alan King, Patti LuPone, Mandy Patinkin, Joe Piscopo, Chris Sarandon and Eli Wallach.
On occasion, guest roles have led to full-time employment. Orbach joined the cast as a cop in season three after playing a defense attorney in season two. S. Epatha Merkerson, who stars as Lieutenant Anita Van Buren, guested back in season one as a cleaning woman whose child is killed before being tapped as a regular in season four.
Wolf credits much of the top-to-bottom quality of L&O’s talent to the fact that it is filmed in New York City, home to a rich pool of theater actors. "If you go to a Broadway show and you read Playbill," he offers, "any actor who doesn’t have Law & Order as a credit either just moved from California or probably isn’t very good."
While New York stage actors have provided L&O with years of memorable performances, the series has provided many of them with a valuable career boost. "For a lot of actors, Law & Order is one of their first big filmed parts," Perkins says, "because there aren’t many opportunities in New York in terms of series television or film. And because the guest roles are usually so well written and people are able to do great scenes, they come away with wonderful experience – and sometimes a very good tape of themselves."
Especially gratifying to Suzanne Ryan, the show’s casting director since the first season, is that many actors who got early breaks on L&O went on to become stars in their own right, including Laura Linney, William H. Macy, Samuel L. Jackson, Claire Danes, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Taye Diggs and Jennifer Garner. "When certain people make it, you’re usually not too surprised," says Ryan. "When Claire Danes did the show [in 1992], for instance, she was very young, but it was evident that she had a gift beyond her years. It wasn’t as if I saw something that other people couldn’t see." And Alias star Garner? "She was so gorgeous and so talented that it was hard to believe she wouldn’t have some kind of career."
With no sign of slowing down, Law & Order is on track to achieve Wolf’s long-term goal of outlasting Gunsmoke, which aired for twenty years to become the longest-running prime-time drama in television history. Which not only means that a lot more actors – both known and unknown – will pass through L&O before its final gavel is struck, but that Ryan has her work cut out for her.
"If you’re a New York actor and you’re good, chances are you’ve been on the show," she says. "But there are wonderful actors whom we have not cast yet. They’re still out there, and thank God, because at the rate things are going, we’re going to need them."