|Chris Noth, in character as hunky Det. Mike Logan from NBC's Law & Order, is sitting in the witness box at the Tweed Courthouse in downtown Manhattan when the director suddenly yells, ''Cut!'' He smells smoke. Turns out it's coming from a huge fire at the nearby Fulton Fish Market by the Brooklyn Bridge. Real detectives at One Police Plaza across the street will later say that wiseguys, angry at Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's plan to clean up the allegedly Mob- controlled market, deliberately set part of it on fire. u It's the kind of ripped-from-the-headlines story you'd ex-pect to find on Law & Order, the critically acclaimed series shot in New York City. And you probably will, says executive producer Ed Sherin, when the fire makes front-page news the next day. ''We already have one coming up about the Russian Mafia, and this one is a natural.'' * Since its debut in 1990, Law & Order has stuck to a simple, compelling format: Cops make arrests in the first half, and DAs attempt to nail the defendants in the second. Unlike flashier, more melodramatic hits such as NYPD Blue and ER, Law & Order focuses exclusively on cases instead of delving into its characters' personal lives. From the start, the formula has received critical raves, but now it's also reaping ratings success: This season, the series earned its best numbers yet-reaching as high as No. 17-and has been renewed for two more years. Behind the scenes, however, the show is more like, well, a soap opera. Last month, the cast was rocked by the announcement that Noth, 38, the last remaining original cast member (Steven Hill, who plays DA Adam Schiff, did not appear in the pilot), will be let go after this season to make way for a younger detective. Noth's departure is just the latest cast shake-up. George Dzundza resigned after the first year; Paul Sorvino, who replaced him, left soon after the second season; Dann Florek and Richard Brooks were fired after the third season to bring in the show's first two principal female characters; Michael Moriarty left under a cloud of controversy last year and was replaced by Sam Waterston. How does a show that loses six cast members in five short years survive-and still thrive? To find out, we asked the people who make up Law & Order. As they say about the cops and prosecutors in the show's sonorous opening voice- over, these are their stories. |
Smoke from not-so-distant fires is just another reminder of the show's gritty urban setting. ''It keeps us honest,'' says Jill Hennessy, 26, who joined the cast last season as assistant DA Claire Kincaid. ''You run into real lawyers every time we film outside. You can't fake it here, baby.'' Nobody seems to fake it on Law & Order, either on- or off-camera. Free from the hothouse politics of isolated Hollywood soundstages, the cast members are as open and voluble as old-fashioned New York cabbies. Take S. Epatha Merkerson, 42, who plays Lieut. Anita Van Buren. ''They got a bargain with me,'' she says about being African-American and female. ''Just picture what it's like trying to explain to the six white guys who write the show what it's like to be black and a woman. I win some and lose some, but I don't back down.''
As they shoot exteriors and courtroom scenes downtown, many in the cast are still reeling from the previous week's bombshell about Noth. Much of their anger is directed at the show's creator and executive producer, Dick Wolf, who oversees the show mainly from Los Angeles. "I've given up trying to figure out how these people think," says Hennessy. "It's not worth it to me to sit around and figure out people's motives. This is just a business full of surprises." Wolf sounds resigned to the criticism. "Firing people is the worst part of the job," he says. Wolf insists he's dropping Noth because there isn't enough conflict between his character and Det. Lennie Briscoe, played by Jerry Orbach, 59. Wolf wants Briscoe's new partner to be a "Generation X type" and has hired 30-year-old Benjamin Bratt (Texas). Wolf once called Law & Order "actorproof" but now regrets the remark because it upset the cast. Many of them wish episodes focused more on their characters' personal lives, since that would give them more opportunities to emote. Wolf maintains, however, that Law & Order succeeds precisely because the show is the star. "No producer voluntarily screws with what's working," says Wolf. "But I think the Chris thing had to be done now. I'm not infallible. I may have done something terrible, but I don't think so." Noth scoffs at Wolf's claim that a younger actor is needed. "Bulls ---," says Noth. "The writers had plenty of stuff to write with us. I think I've just been a thorn in his side. I've been very outspoken" about cast changes and the direction of the show. Though the cast has grown accustomed to frequent changes, they say it's still tough every time someone leaves. "It's hurtful," says Steven Hill (who would only give his age as 65-plus). "People are not furniture. We develop very close relationships here." For Dann Florek, 43, who played Capt. Don Cragen for three seasons and has returned to direct (and act in) this episode, the news has reopened old wounds. "Chris is a really good friend, and I see his pain," says Florek. "It stirs up memories for me-what I went through when I realized I was going to be gone." In fact, says Florek, it was Noth who tipped him off about his own axing. "It was kind of difficult to hear about it through the back door." And Florek wasn't shy about expressing his feelings. "I called Dick and let him have it," he says. "I said, 'What, you don't have a phone?'" But Florek was able to return for this episode without many hard feelings on either side. "I hadn't seen Dick at all since I left," says Florek, who has since appeared in the movies The Flintstones and Getting Even With Dad. "He flew in one day when I was directing. It was kind of a sweaty moment, but I don't hold a grudge. I like what I've been doing since I left." Noth's colleagues hope that he will also find satisfaction beyond the show. "I'll miss him; we both act as a little reality for the other," says Sam Waterston, 54, whose portrayal of tough ADA Jack McCoy has reenergized the show and given it a shot of welcome sexual tension in his scenes with Hennessy. "I'm sorry personally that he's going, but he's terrifically talented. I'm sure he'll be fine." Noth himself thinks so too. As he leans back in a chair in the courthouse, kibitzing with the crew and downplaying questions about his striking good looks, it is easy to see why he is a cast-and female fan-favorite. ("You should see the fan mail-the obscene fan mail he gets," says Hennessy.) Like Florek, Noth is more upset at the way he was dismissed. "Dick and I are old drinking buddies, even though I understand he's a bureaucrat," says Noth. "But I would have thought we could have sat down at some point. Instead, (executive producer) Ed Sherin took me out to lunch and told me. I didn't hear from Dick for five days. I'm going to miss the show and the people-but I'm not bitter. I always land on my feet." Sherin, seated in his office on the chilly Chelsea pier set where the show films interior scenes, smiles when asked about Noth, then says, "It's sad, but it will be good for him. He needs to spread his wings." Having been with the . show since its second season, Sherin is used to the in-house upheavals. "George (Dzundza) just wanted to get out of here," Sherin says wearily, echoing other accounts that Dzundza was difficult and unhappy with the airtime Moriarty got. "Paul (Sorvino) couldn't take the pace. Too much for him. He went back to his opera singing. He was always cold. We had to get him a goddamn fur hat and let him wear it in every scene. "Richard (Brooks) didn't want to go, but he didn't get along with Moriarty and he was grousing all the time. We needed a new mix-it was nothing but testosterone here." Sherin claims he begged Moriarty to stay during the actor's well-publicized feud last year with Attorney General Janet Reno over the censorship of violence on TV. Moriarty says this is untrue. "Dick Wolf specializes in constructive termination-making people miserable until they quit," says Moriarty bitterly. "I resigned before they could fire me. Then I see Wolf talking (in the press) about how Sam Waterston is sexier than I am. I hope that's on Sam's grave-'Here lies a man who's sexier than Mike Moriarty.'" Joe Stern, the former coexecutive producer who left the show after three seasons, believes Noth's dismissal is a mistake. "I think he's the heart and soul of the show," says Stern. "His work is consistently the best." But producers Wolf and Sherin-even some of the actors-insist that the heart and soul of the show are the stories. "It's hard on our egos, but it's probably true," says Merkerson. Sherin, for his part, offers a two-tiered theory for the show's success: "The rest of the shows are about bare butts," he says. "We're c---teases. You won't necessarily ever know if Jack and Claire are having an affair. The real passion of this show comes from the controversy stirred up by the stories." Noth, in his dressing room before a scene, is philosophical. "I'm not going to say goodbye," he says. "I'll be around. I'll be working with these guys again. I don't see myself as a victim." Noth's only wish is that Detective Logan is rewarded with a graceful exit. "I don't want to get the bum's rush or killed off." Don't tell that to his on-screen partner, Jerry Orbach, though. Orbach and Noth are pals, and Orbach says he'll miss him. But he sees a fleeting chance to ham it up on a distinctly unhammy show. "I want him to die in my arms," Orbach cracks. "That's the only way I'll get an Emmy nomination out of this show." *