|When Dick Wolf found a home for Law and Order on NBC back in 1990 and later cast Sam Waterston in the role of Executive Assistant District Attorney Jack McCoy in 1994, it's safe to say neither one could have predicted the longevity of the series. After a multitude of cast transformations and four spinoffs, Law and Order has become the Gunsmoke of the modern era of TV, as it now heads into its 19th season on Wednesday, November 5 at 10pm. Kicking the season off with a storyline that sees a stockbroker get beaten to death, the premiere of Law and Order is oddly reflecting real life at a time when stocks have dropped like a rock. As the show gears up for November sweeps, fans will also see a later storyline that taps into the heated debate surrounding polygamy from the New York state of mind.|
With Wednesday's Law and Order premiere only a couple of days away, we hopped on phone lines to join a conference call with Dick Wolf and Sam Waterston, whose Jack McCoy was recently promoted to District Attorney, to get the scoop on the upcoming episodes and how they feel about the longevity of the series.
THE DEADBOLT Dick, with the stockbroker getting beaten in the premiere, did you guys want to give something back to the viewers?
DICK WOLF: I don’t know. I don’t think we can compensate them for their losses. But no, it was - believe me, it was obviously written before the crisis hit. But we have, over the years, been I don’t know maybe the prescient zeitgeist, people or something that, a lot of things have shown up on the show almost simultaneously with events that have occurred in real life. This is just an unfortunate, but kind of amusing, coincidence.
THE DEADBOLT For the upcoming "Lost Boys" episode, how do you approach something like polygamy since the law doesn’t seem to be so clearly defined?
WOLF: Well, the law is pretty clearly defined in every state in the union. You can’t do it. You know, the Mormons don’t - admit to it, but [the] Mormon church is always upset about the fact that these are splinter offshoot groups and it’s against the laws of Utah and it’s also against the laws of the state, and certainly against the laws of Texas.
So it’s not a question of New York State trying to impose their values on anybody else. This was just a situation that excited. Again, it’s factually correct. But it’s kind of like lions. You know, the young males are driven out of these communities.
THE DEADBOLT So would you say that it’s the prosecutors that are going wrong? They seem to be getting off, and would you...
WOLF: Well, are you talking about the Texas case?
THE DEADBOLT Right.
WOLF: The Texas case was - again, that’s the headline, but we’re not involved with the Texas case. And there’s really nothing to do with it in the show. It’s a totally different series of facts that brings the case to New York.
THE DEADBOLT Sam, from the material, how have you noticed the crimes and the courts have changed in the past 20 years?
SAM WATERSTON: The way I experience it is it’s just kind of one case at a time. And I haven’t pattern sought and I haven’t pattern felt. I don’t know. I think it’s a little bit like being President of the United States. You have a plan and then all kinds of stuff happens. And you deal with what’s happening. And whatever the patterns are in the law, it’s the same. It’s what the general society puts in front of the courts to decide that determines what they decide, not any plan on the part of the law.
Other Conference Call Highlights:
Dick Wolf on whether the headlines always provide a wealth of ideas:
"It’s unfortunately a constantly renewable resource that - When [Brandon Tartakoff] bought the show way back in the last century, he said 'What’s the bible?' And I said, 'The front page of the New York Post.' And it has not been a bad piece of source material because, you know, for better or worse we can’t come up with stories better than a headless body found in topless bar... But what usually reminds people of a specific case is the headline. But if you think of what goes on after that, it usually doesn’t reflect reality. One reporter said, 'Well, you know, I’m from Connecticut but I live in New Jersey and that episode two years ago trashed - managed to trash the governors of both states.' And I said, 'Yeah, but the reality is that none of them were killed.' You know, there was no murder involved in either state so that’s a major difference right there. You know, it would be we love the flavor of stories but not the specificity."
Sam Waterston on how he continues to develop Jack McCoy after so many years:
"The writers... and Dick himself are careful we don’t go off the reservation. We get our marching orders from the scripts. But in terms of character development, these - I would say that these are very self-contained stories and the character has been long established. And the main thing is not developing him but keeping him consistent with himself. And I’d say that’s partly my job and partly the writers’ job. And we both try very hard to do it."
Wolf on how he taps into what people like from year to year to keep things fresh:
"Well, I think what the audiences like now is what they liked 19 years ago, and what they liked 19 years before that, which is great writing and great acting. The bottom line is that about 15 years ago I sent the heads of all the networks for Christmas, little desk cards that said 'it’s the writing stupid.' And, you know, I know Sam feels the same way, that you can have magnificent actors and if the words suck the show is going to suck. And luckily we have been blessed with a writing staff over the years that I believe is second to none.
"As I had mentioned earlier, (Rene) came back last year. He had run the show in the mid-90s and actually of our 11 Emmy nominations, the one win was on his watch. I think that when you talk about reinvigorating the show, he really did reinvigorate it last year, that he is one of the best writers in, not the television business, but in Hollywood. He constantly manages to surprise even me and we’ve been working together basically for the last 20 years."
Waterston on whether Jack McCoy's promotion to D.A. changes the show from when he was in the courtroom:
"From the point of view of the person playing the part, Dick is fond of saying that action is character and since most of the action that you see these characters doing has to do with their jobs, you could almost say that the job is the character. Well, McCoy was defined as the ADA and then he moved to being District Attorney, and he brought that character with him into a different job. So the tension between the job and his nature is - I think it’s interesting for the show and it’s certainly a lot of fun to play."
Dick Wolf on the secret to getting audiences to accept cast changes:
"I guess the flip answer would be, don’t screw it up. No, I think that it’s part of what the audience actually looks forward to. You know, I joked - and this is again, a long time ago - that I noticed that every time we made a cast change I would get a [letter] ... saying, 'You got rid of my favorite character. I’m never watching the show again, ever,' underlined three times. And then I realized that it was always the same handwriting. So, you know, I think that at any given cast change somebody is going to be more upset than the person next to him if it’s their favorite character.
"But it’s our responsibility to make sure that the changes are hopefully seamless in terms of, well, that’s not the old character but this one is interesting in a different way because the show is unabashedly a workplace show. And it’s why we don’t go home with the characters. We don’t deal with their personal lives because most people, if you work in a corporation or a company and you look around, there aren’t that many people whose apartments you’ve spent time in or houses you’ve gone to. It’s a work environment that goes from 9 to 5 and then you see those people the next day. So the main job has been finding people who were credible in the roles that they were being cast for."