After eight seasons and close to 200 shows, let us say it's about time: Law & Order finally has a reference book: The Law & Order Unofficial Companion, which should be available from Renaissance Books by the time you're reading this article. It's a project that's almost three years in the making, and proves what a difference an Emmy can make -- while Courrier and Green, both freelance writers, pitched the idea several years ago, nobody was interested until after L&O won the 1997 award for Best Drama. Also, exclusive to apocrypha: Two chapters which couldn't fit in the book will be published exclusively under our non-fiction section during the next two issues. This issue features an interview with the late William Kuntsler, who played himself on the 5th season episode, "White Rabbit." Recently, Green and Courrier took some time out of their schedule to chat with apocrypha about what, and who, went into the making of this book.
|| Can you start out by giving me a little of your backgrounds?
||Kevin: My background comes primarily out of radio. I graduated from a college radio program where I'd been working on radio documentaries, and I was hoping to continue doing that in my professional life once I got out of school. It took about three or four years, but I finally landed a job at a radio station in Toronto called CJRT-FM, and I worked on a show called "On The Arts," which was a talk show basically about the arts. I did that for about eight years and then in 1989, I went to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. I worked on a show called "Prime Time," as a producer as well as a film critic. Once [that show] went off the air in about 1993 or 1994, I started freelancing. And from that point onward, I was doing a combination of freelancing at the CBC and other radio work, and I was also writing articles for various newspapers in Toronto like The Financial Post and The Toronto Star.
Susan: I'm from NY originally and I went to college up here in Vermont. After I got married and had a baby, we ended up moving here. I worked as a journalist, both at newspapers on staff and freelance. I've been doing that for about that last 20 years. As a freelancer, I've also contributed to publications like Premiere, Travel and Leisure, Box Office Magazine in L.A. And I've been a film critic for most of that time as well as a regular, everyday journalist. Kevin and I met [around 1985] while we were both covering the Montreal Film Festival. I had started watching Law & Order on NBC, you know, the first-run shows, fell madly in love with it, and sometimes would talk about it with other friends who watched it. Kevin would be in the room, but he hadn't yet see it, so he didn't know about it. And then he discovered it. And then the two of us would end up calling each other on Wednesdays nights at 11:00 after an episode had finished, just to talk about it. He actually came up with the idea [for the book], so I should let him talk about that.
Kevin: In the fall of '94, when Law & Order was just starting its fifth season with Sam Waterston [as Jack McCoy], and A&E was starting the series at the same time. I had seen an ad on TV on that summer like on A&E, basically saying that the show was coming this fall, and since I had not registered all those times that Susan had brought up Law & Order in the past, I thought this was a new show A&E was running. They showed all the cast members simultaneously, which made it look like George Dzundza [Max Greevey], Paul Sorvino [Phil Ceretta], Jerry Orbach [Lennie Briscoe] -- all these people were on the show at the same time, and I thought, "My God, what a cast. This looks like a really interesting show. I'm gonna have to tune into this when it starts." The Toronto Film Festival had happened in September, and Susan had happened to be at that festival. We were visiting a friend, and they were all talking about Michael Moriarty's [Ben Stone] last episode on the show. I was just standing there at this party, listening to this, very puzzled, because I was thinking, "I just saw an ad for this. They're just starting. Why is he leaving?" So I joined the conversation and that's when I found out that actually the show had been around. It suddenly registered, and I mentioned that A&E was gonna be running these reruns. We just got talking about the show, and I started tuning in, I guess it was partway through the reruns of the first season. I think the first episode I watched was ["Out Of The Half-Light"]. What was interesting was, I started taping them, from the moment I started watching. And I didn't stop. Every night I was home, I taped every episode. And as Susan said, we were on the phone, talking constantly. And I was also taping simultaneously the new ones with Sam Waterston, so you can imagine my confusion, going from season one to season five. But our interest grew, and I asked her one night on the phone, "Has anyone done a book on this show?" Susan didn't think one had been written, and I thought, "Well, gee, there's so many interesting issues on this show, I think it would be a great book." We decided we would try something. I had read a book, a Twilight Zone companion book, which I thought was really nicely done, and so I mentioned this to Susan, and we sort of created a proposal based loosely on the structure that guy had done for that book, and off and went to Dick Wolf [Executive Producer, creator of the show] to see if they might be interested. They liked the idea of the proposal, so they gave us their approval.
Susan: I started sending that proposal to agents at the publishing houses and we got an agent in New York who was interested; he, too, was a fan of the show, in fact. He told us what more we needed to do to sort of have a more professional proposal. So we did a bit more work. We had a couple of sample chapters. Kevin, by phone, interviewed Michael Chernunchin [former show executive-producer and Head Writer], I interviewed, before his death, William Kuntsler [see article, included in this issue], who had been playing himself on "White Rabbit." We did three sample reviews of episodes. I think we picked "Reaper's Helper," "Sanctuary," and "White Rabbit." We put together a graphic look for it and had this nice little packaged proposal, which we sent to the agent, and he began sending it out to publishers. We did that for about nine months, getting nothing but rejections and comments like, "Nobody will buy a book about a show that's on after 10:00." Crazy things like that. Basically, he seemed to feel they thought the show just wasn't sexy enough. It didn't have the soap opera following.
|Which is one of the reasons why everybody loves it.
||Susan: Everybody loves it, but the people at the publishing houses are only thinking sex. So then, at this point, [our agent] said he'd run out of ideas, and he sort of had to put it on the back burner until something else came along. So we gave up at that point, or just put it aside. And then some time later, we got a call from him saying he had a publisher who was interested -- Renaissance Books out in Los Angeles, apparently did this type of book on a regular basis. And they made us an offer. Being that it was the only offer we had, we went for it! They wanted it lickety-split. But we said, "Okay, we can do this." Foolishly! Never having done anything like that before, we said, "Sure we can do this." (Laughs)
Kevin: Of course, what was also interesting was the fact that what resurrected the interest in the book from publishers was that Susan had read an article that was done in The New York Times -- a really big spread. The book was dead before this article appeared -- we figured there was no way we were going to get a publisher. We had run the gamut, and as soon as this New York Times article appeared [our agent] was getting phone calls again from the same people who had turned us down! So he phoned us up and was like, "Do you mind if I start sending this out again?" and we were like, "Sure!" Initially, the same thing started happening, some more turn downs. And we started thinking, "This is getting to be too much of a roller coaster ride." And it was in Spring of '97 that finally Renaissance came through.
|So how did you get going on the project?
||Susan: Kevin, because he had the episodes on tape, sort of began relentlessly watching them in order to take notes and get some of the details down. I think you were doing about three a day?
Kevin: Yeah, it was all last summer. Pretty much watching about three a day. I was indoors constantly and going through all these, but then again, this is where I thought it was really interesting that I has started taping these form the moment I started watching, because Susan and I had talked about how more difficult this would have been, had I not taped any of these, because we would have had to try and get them. They would have certainly given us episodes, but you can imagine, getting all eight seasons sent to us would have been an enormous task.
|Did you ever realize that A&E edits the episodes?
||Kevin: Well, I discovered this when they got to rerunning the fifth season. I had taped the fifth season while it was on NBC. When we were in New York actually on the set, we used to go home after we would be on the set all day, and we'd watch the A&E version at 11:00, just to sort of see if anything would come up in the episodes that might prompt questions we might want to ask the next day when we were on the set. So we're sitting there watching the episode "Seed" -- you know, the one with David Margolis playing the fertility doctor. Watching that, I could have sworn I remembered a scene with Chris Noth and Jerry Orbach, after they visit this lesbian couple who had gone to this guy's clinic so they could have a baby, making derogatory remarks about lesbian couples. So I said to Susan, "There's a scene...I remember there being this scene..." But I couldn't confirm it till we got back to Susan's place in Burlington and I grabbed the tape and went through it until we found the scene. So we went to the set the next day and started alerting people, but no one seemed to know who was responsible for editing this, whether it was A&E or NBC, we didn't know. And A&E denied it, when I asked the person we spoke to [there]. The did the usual thing, "Well, you know, you have to edit for commercials," and all that. But nobody talked about editing for content.
||From what I've heard with that episode was that when it was originally broadcast, it went out the way it did with that scene you remember. But there had been protest over that scene, and NBC cut it for the rerun. But A&E cuts for space constraints -- they have more ads.
||Susan: We asked people who worked for the show and nobody was aware that these cuts had been made or when they were made. It's very hard to track information down. For one thing, it's the dual nature -- being on both coasts. And then over a period of eight years, so many people have come and gone. We ran into a real problem with these one-page synopsis sheets that we needed to use. They were very helpful because they gave us the rundown on the show kind of in a nutshell, mentioned cast members, and so forth. And we were able to get a few from a few seasons from one source, and then someone else on the East Coast had a couple for another few seasons. And we finally got most of what we needed, but from several different sources, done in several different styles, and sometimes their information contradicted each other.
||Really? Like what?
||Susan: Oh, like the name of a performer, for instance. And they have a Law & Order database that we took a look at and sometimes, what was on the synopsis sheets actually wasn't on the tapes.
||Who keeps the database? A&E?
||Susan: No, right at Law & Order.
Kevin: When we were there in New York, we sort of took a look while we were there to see.
Susan: Sometimes, there were two three different spellings of actors' names, so there's a bit of craziness and chaos to the whole thing, because of the way things are set up, and the change of personnel.
Kevin: It's even the same on the show. When I was going through the episodes, by the time I got to seasons three and four, I think, the credits at the end...you see someone like Judge Harvey in the episode, and in the credits, Judge Harvey was suddenly turned into Judge Taylor. I said to Susan, 'This is confusing.' The judge's name, you can see it on the name block.
Susan: I don't know if you noticed, but the spelling of Sam Waterston on the Homicide crossover was incorrect.
Kevin: They called him Waterson.
|The first crossover or the second?
||Kevin: Second. But there may be a few. I called Susan and said, "Look, they spelled his name wrong!" Well, it just goes to show you how difficult a task that can be. And as Susan said, the fact that they're bi-coastal doesn't help.
||Did you go to the Museum of Television and Radio at all?
||Susan: We got information sent to us from them. They have extensive files and they sent us a huge packet of clippings and so forth -- press releases that they keep on file.
||Did they send you the chapter from the book about producing television shows?
||Kevin: I was sent a copy of that book way back when we first sent the proposal. Susan hasn't had a chance to look at this book, because I haven't been able to find it! But that's the one with the chapter on the pilot and how they did the pilot.
||Did it end up getting incorporated into the unofficial companion?
||Kevin: No, not really.
||Tell me what The Unofficial Companion is about. It's not a history about the show -- is more about each individual show?
||Susan: Both. The first half of the book is the history of the show and interviews with people then and now, both in front of and behind the camera. And we managed to reach all the cast members, both past and present, except for Michael Moriarty. We reached him, but he refused [to speak]. But we finally tracked down everyone else, which was no easy task, since most people aren't talking to each other any more.
||Who's not talking to each other?
||Susan: Well, not so much not talking, but just not having kept in touch. In order to find a phone number for George Dzundza, Chris Noth gave us the name of a guy named Norby who organized the poker games they used to play. And Norby -- I can just imagine what he might look like! -- he gave us George's number. So it was things like that. A lot of people have left the show in not-so-happy circumstances, and therefore, they haven't kept in touch. People who would have had their number no longer have it, because their predecessors have left the show. So just a lot of that sort of chaos and confusion about things. Just as we had a hard time finding these sheets with the synopsis, it was hard to track certain people down. Writers have left the show that we wanted to talk to, and we were able to get some numbers or get in touch through a previous producer, Joe Stern, who started with the show, from the pilot to the third year. So there was a lot of detective work.
Kevin: There was a great deal of contentiousness on the show, and it's part of the show's history. Everyone who was associated with the show has a passionate stake in it. But the thing is, that everyone has their own view on what the show's about and what it should be -- and how they were treated -- and so forth. So what Susan and I wanted to do was create the feeling of everyone sitting around a table in the same room and throwing their comments out. And I think the book creates that kind of feeling. When you read the history of the show, you're getting a number of different voices. Sometimes they contradict each other, sometimes they add to the voice before, and sometimes they build on something somebody said. But you're getting a lot of views, and I think the reader will read through this and sort out a little bit of what the show was about and what went in to putting together. We were very fortunate to have talked to not only as many people as we did, but also to so many intelligent people. We wanted this book to be a really intelligent guide, because we felt the fans of this show, were an intelligent group. And I don't think they would have just settled for a trivia about how Benjamin Bratt's relationship with Julia Roberts is going. They would be more interested in knowing how some of these shows were put together. What were the writers thinking? How did the actors feel about these particular scenes they played? We were very fortunate that the writers had tremendous insight. And even the actors -- like Chris Noth wasn't one who wanted to talk about the acting at all -- he ended up being more forthcoming than I could have imagined. He's one of the people who left the show under not-very-good circumstances, and he didn't want to be the only one saying what really went on, as he put it. At first he was being very reticent about talking to us at all, but after a few phone calls, he really warmed up. Once he told me that I should phone George Dzundza, and we weren't going to even phone Dzundza, cause we didn't think he was going to talk at all! And Chris Noth said, 'You phone him, or you're not gonna talk to me.' Even though the two of them were at each other's throats during that first season, he still felt that George Dzundza had to be in the book. So that's how we got in touch with him. And once we talked to him, and some other people like Jill Hennessey and Joe Stern especially, Chris Noth agreed to be part of the book. So we were very fortunate, given the amount of work we had to do, to have so many gracious people.
|Who was the most interesting person you ended up interviewing?
||Susan: I think the person we had the most fun with was Gus [cinematographer and director, Constantine Makris]. He's the director of photography and cinematographer, but he also directs many episodes. He won two Emmys, and he's wonderful. He's the most gracious, hilarious, fun-to-be-with guy. And he happened to be directing the two weeks we were on the set. So we had more time with him, 'cause we were kind of sticking right nearby. And he'd come over to us any time there was a break [on the set], telling stories. And he, to such a large extent, has really created the visual look of Law & Order. A lot of the people, mostly the crew and producers, came from movies, and they think they're making a movie every week. They approach it with that kind of dedication and pride in their craft. Joe Stern was really helpful in tracing those early days.
||Was there something you learned that you didn't expect to find out?
||Susan: I didn't know there were so many bad feelings. I had read, just like everybody else, that Michael Moriarty sort of faxed in his resignation and that he was upset about Janet Reno, blah, blah, blah, but I didn't know the half of that story, which is going to be a real revelation in the book. What he went through and what he continues to go through.
||Obviously, you want people to read the book, but does it make clear where the bad guys were in that situation?
||Susan: No, that's what we tried to avoid. We tried to let everybody have their say, and let you be the judge. Just to be fair, I think we tried to come at it without an attitude or a preconceived notion. Because these were all passionate people; these weren't people who were phoning in their performance. There was just huge clashes of personality and style.
||Regardless of how stable you think Moriarty is, it's interesting that they've ended up doing whole episodes on the things he was so pissed off about before he left.
||Kevin: This is why, I think, we felt that the best way to be fair was to try and get to the essence of the show. And you don't make judgments. You want to let all the voices in, because somewhere in all of that, you want to get a more accurate picture of what's going on.
Susan: An event can have many different perspectives -- and many different truths -- and how do you judge which is the one? I think that was the case. We were coming at it from so many different angles, each one seeing things through their own screen, their own view of the world. People [will] be somewhat upset at some of the things they read, but on the whole, I don't think that they can say they were unfair. And that's what we were hoping for.
|When we were setting up this interview, I believe Susan mentioned that Chris Noth had "blasted" the show. Did he?
||Susan: Not the show. He said, "It's probably still the best show on television." Blasting how he was treated and some of the creative choices that have been made. The people we talked to more or less fell into two groups: The proponents of "It was better in the first couple years," and those who think it's better now. A lot of people felt it was grittier in the first couple years, and there were more stories about inner city issues and so forth -- the Joe Stern era. And people who feel now that it's gotten more white-collar crime, upscale. And the more soap opera, some people are really objecting to that. Depending to the people we talked to, for instance, a lot of people pointed to the show "Mushrooms," as the example of what the show should be doing and what it was at its best. Some people felt that it was a racial thing. There is some pressure from demographics of who watches the show, and I think it was Dick Wolf who made the comment that people want grit, but they don't necessarily want it in their face every Wednesday night at 10:00.
Kevin: The person who set off this whole discussion was [Makris] himself. He made the comment one day when we were on the set that he didn't feel like he'd visited the crackhouse in years. And he talked about the fact that he was tired of working on those sort of yuppie crimes, and he sort of lamented that he hadn't visited the crackhouse in years. And we laughed, but it opened up this door.
|I have to agree that that's true. The Emmy was a good thing, but...
||Kevin: And you do worry about those things -- if success could ruin you in that respect.
Susan: You know, some people felt that some of the best writers had left in the early days, who were delivering some of those most powerful shows.
Kevin: Like Robert Palm, who wrote "Mushrooms."
|A lot of people point to 'Indifference' as one of the better shows...
||Susan: Amazing show.
Kevin: It came up, not as often as "Mushrooms," but we interviewed a number of the writers, and Robert Palm, in the episode guide part of the book, talks about that episode and working on it. He tells a very funny anecdote, which I won't ruin for you. Susan and I were on the phone every commercial, saying "Did you see that?" That was the first time we saw "Indifference" together and we were kind of stunned.
|How big a book we looking at?
||Susan: Well, it's 250-some-odd pages. It's a trade paperback. There's something like 30 photos -- I think they're black and white, with the color shot on the cover. We still don't know what the cover is. We wanted for the title, A Passion For Justice: The Unofficial Law & Order Companion, and they said, "Oh, no, you have to have a title just like all our other books, where it starts with the title of the show and then underneath, says 'an unofficial companion.'" So they ditched our idea, which I think would have been better.
Susan: We start off with sort of a prologue interview with Dick Wolf, sort of explaining him and his background. Then we go into the momentum of how they got going to convince Universal to do such a show, what happened with the pilot, which was nothing. It was for CBS, but it got rolled into the first season on NBC. That chapter is called "The Momentum," and it's about all this energy and excitement that they had about doing this thing on a bare-bones budget, what it took. And of course, they were creating something new that really hadn't been done on television. They had certain predecessors that gave them some sort of touch zones -- Hill Street Blues, for instance, which some people had worked on, including Dick Wolf -- but really, they were creating something new. They were shooting it like in a documentary style on 16 [millimeter film], with hand-held cameras, so they had that jittery feel of intimacy. So anyway, that traces all that, and then we go into the casting decisions -- of how they made their choices. And then a chapter called "Metamorphosis," and the sub-head is, "Out With The Old"; this is when people began to leave or were asked to leave.
|How did the people who were asked to leave feel?
||Susan: A little bitter.
Kevin: Talking to [Dzundza] was very hard, because you could tell he really didn't want to go back to any of this again. It was the kind of interview where we really had to lead him through all of this. He's so far beyond it now, but he didn't want to delve into it.
|What does Noth have the biggest beef with?
||Susan: It's a mixture of things. Some of them are angry at Dick. Some of them, [like] Chris Noth are angry at Ed Sherin, who took over from Joe Stern. Some of them have beefs with the other actors -- like the Dzundza/Noth [pair]. They were just bitter enemies the whole time they were performing together. There's an array of factors. It's a really mixed bag. In "In With The New," we talk to all the people who took the place of these people. Both the actors who came on board, and some of the writers, some of the producers -- what was happening behind the scenes. Then a chapter called "The Words," which is just about the writing. And then, after that, a chapter called "The Issues," which is about what they tackle. And then another section called "The Grit," which is grit vs. no-grit, is pretty much how that turned out. We talk about the place -- the significance of shooting in New York, that's another chapter. There's a chapter on the direction, where the directors have their say. A chapter called "The Look, The Style," and that's about the cinematography and the feel of the show. There's a chapter called "The Performances," where some of the actors are talking about their craft and some of the directors are talking about directing some of the actors, as well. And then there's the personal, I think we called it, and that's where we bring in this soap opera type story line. And people again, who were for it and against it. And a chapter called "The Right Stuff," where we interview the casting people, the location people, the production design people. We had a chapter call "The Coast," meaning, what's it like to have half your operation in California and half in New York. Some people think that's great, some people think it's terrible! One called "The Bucks," which is just about the financial issues of putting on [the show]. And a chapter called "The Clan," and that was about the sort of familial feelings that these people have for each other, in the midst of all the hecticness and the tension -- they've just made some incredible bonds. We had one called "The Viewers." We got some comments from people on the Internet, and from the people on the show, what they think about the viewers. And one called "The Future," which is what happens now that they've won the Emmy, and where people think it's going. The last chapter is "The Players," and it tackles each of the performers who've ever been on the show, just strictly a profile and interview of that particular person, along with a profile of the character. We just got the recurring regulars. Then we go into the episodes, done season by season, with a very brief synopsis, 'cause the law says now that you can't have more than three or four lines of synopsis.
||Kevin: Don't get me started.
||What law are we talking about?
||Susan: I guess it was a trial in which people who had done a book about "Twin Peaks" -- 'cause it's known as "The Twin Peaks Ruling" -- they got sued because they just used pages of synopsis and quotes from dialogue and photos and all sorts of things they didn't have the right to use. So they got sued -- and for lots of money -- so now, everybody who does these books has to be very careful. So you can only have a couple lines of synopsis. So we did that, and they're mostly reviews. You could weave a little synopsis into that, but it has to be the flavor of a review. And you couldn't use any lines of dialogue, which is really unfortunate. Because if you want to show how good the writing is....Then, each of those review kind of has of a little commentary from either one of the directors, the writers, the actors.
Kevin: It's something we called "Relevant Testimony," which is essentially a quote from anyone who worked on that show who had anything interesting to say. I think we had one from almost every episode, but a couple had to be cut for space. Some of [these] books almost create a generic quality...they become such a book for the fan, but they don't really illuminate the show. They just play to the "fan-nish" qualities of the show, which I won't say is a bad thing, it's just an easier kind of book to do -- and it dates. We wanted to do something that was distinct. We wanted to do it as a work of journalism, let's say, where we actually were investigating a show and what made it the kind of show it was. And in order to do that, you have to talk to the people, you have to make the effort to phone writers, talk to directors, ask questions, have things in the book that just might upset a few people. But, even if it upsets people, it brings to life the elements the show that make it interesting.
|I'm very pleased to hear that it's going to have good and bad.
||Susan: I think that if it had been an official book, it would have ended up being censored for any of the more negative stuff. But we tried to present the negative stuff in more of an illuminating way. And it was really unfortunate we couldn't talk to Moriarty; his stuff was some of the most provocative.
Kevin: We also bring kind of a critical look. I mean, we don't like every show, and the ones we don't like are the ones that some of the people in the show think are the best things they did. We don't like the three-parter, for instance.
Now, go check out The William Kuntsler Interview by Susan Greene and Kevin Courrier, which was excised from the book.