Wolf's women: Strong, smart female characters key to Law & Order's longevity, says creator
|The story is now the stuff of Law & Order legend.|
At the end of the 1992-1993 season, Law & Order's third, then-NBC president Warren Littlefield reportedly summoned the show's creator and head producer, Dick Wolf, on the carpet to lay down the law.
There are no women in the show, Littlefield said. Get some women on the show, or else.
Law & Order was respected, if not widely watched. Cancellation, while not imminent, was feasible. The stories were strong, if a little gritty for the times, and the cast had a decidedly testosterone edge: Chris Noth, Jerry Orbach, Michael Moriarty, Dann Florek, Richard Brooks and, before that, George Dzundza and Paul Sorvino.
The issue is not sex, Littlefield told Wolf, but gender. Professional, well-educated women want to see themselves depicted on the screen faithfully and realistically. Law & Order's numbers showed, more than anything, that women were reluctant to watch. The audience was predominantly male.
It was, Wolf said later, the best advice he ever got.
Wolf -- loud, larger-than-life, outspoken, used to having his own way -- is not easily given to taking advice.
With Littlefield holding all the cards, Wolf cut Florek and Brooks loose and signed S. Epatha Merkerson and Jill Hennessy, an Edmonton native who was raised in Kitchener, Ont.
With a female perspective imposed on a predominantly male culture, Law & Order's tone underwent a subtle yet tectonic shift. The men in the squad now had a female boss, and the district attorney had a female deputy.
Hennessy and Merkerson couldn't know it at the time, but they were the vanguard of a long line of strong women in Law & Order, including Carey Lowell, Angie Harmon, Dianne Wiest, Elisabeth Rohm, Annie Parisse and, this season -- the show's 13th -- Milena Govich as a squad detective and Alana De La Garza as deputy to Sam Waterston's long-serving district prosecutor Jack McCoy.
Law & Order established the template, and when its spinoffs Special Victims Unit and Criminal Intent debuted in 1999 and 2001 respectively, they each featured strong women in prominent roles: Emmy-winner Mariska Hargitay and now Connie Nielsen as victims' unit detectives, and Kathryn Erbe, Annabella Sciorra and newly signed Julianne Nicholson as major case squad detectives on Criminal Intent.
For her part, Nielsen, who starred opposite Russell Crowe in the Academy Award-winning film Gladiator, was not interested in appearing in a TV series.
"I'm not a person who watches a lot of TV," Nielsen said.
Law & Order was different, though.
As a career film actress, Nielsen would often find herself in hotel rooms on the road, late at night, with the TV on.
"I remember the first time I heard that music and looked closer, I remember thinking, this is really cool," Nielsen said.
"I think every actor has this dream of one day playing that detective, the tough New York detective. I grew up with these shows about New York detectives. And then, suddenly, I was presented with this really, really great character."
Her character is an outsider, Nielsen said, and abrasive.
"She is the opposite of the kind of person you would hire for a job that requires a lot of sensitivity, which anyone working with victims of violent crime needs."
It's that tendency to cast against type that makes Law & Order such a compelling prospect for an actor looking to stretch outside their comfort zone, Nielsen insists.
"It was fun to play somebody who's a little bit -- there's a line in there, 'You're like a bull in a china shop,' -- outside the box, who has to learn to tread more carefully around people. She has to confront the reasons why she doesn't relate to victims the way other people might, because of her own special history. That, and the fact that she's so different from Mariska's character, fit perfectly."
Nielsen was signed for half the season, to cover for Hargitay's maternity leave.
"It was a close-ended situation, where I go in for two months and then take it from there. I get to have this experience, and I've never had this kind of experience," Nielsen explained.
"And, at the same time, I get to have contact with an audience that, frankly, wouldn't go to see my kind of movies. For me, this has been a win-win situation. I have enjoyed playing this character so very much."
Wolf insists that, despite his marching orders from Littlefield years earlier, he doesn't think of new cast regulars in terms of gender or their past roles.
"The only question in the casting process, and it's one we're asking ourselves 52 weeks a year, is to find the best actor for the role. I don't really worry or care where they've been before. If they're available and they're good, you want to use them in the show."
Law & Order's long-term future is secure, Wolf insists.
Criminal Intent has been spun off as a French-language version in France, with Vince Perez in the Vincent D'Onofrio role and a supporting cast of French actors, with French writers and French producers -- a first for a U.S.-based series. The French spinoff began location filming this past summer in Moscow.
Another Law & Order spinoff, the fifth, will debut some time in the new year.
Law & Order airs Fridays on CTV and NBC. Law & Order: Criminal Intent and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit air back-to-back on Tuesdays, also on CTV and NBC.