Experts Analyzed
The apocrypha Interview: Mike Struk

By Kitteridge

Few shows rely on police and legal accuracy like Law & Order does, which means they need to ask experts in the field when it comes time to get down to the nitty gritty. Mike Struk, a former NYPD homicide and narcotics detective for 20 years, is their man, and he's been with the show since its first episode, all the way back. Currently, he runs a private detective agency in New Jersey, but as he tells apocrypha, he's always got his beeper set to "on," in case of emergencies. apocrypha sat down with L&O's police advisor and got down to details pretty fast.

Is there more than one police advisor for the show?
No, I'm the official guy. I've been with the show since the very first episode. I've done the whole thing with them. I'm retired from the NYPD, I was a detective in New York City, through various assignments -- narcotics and homicide squad, etcetera.
How many years?
Twenty years to the minute.
You got out as soon as you could!
(laughs) I was standing there when the clock hit 12.
Twenty years is enough?
Oh, yeah. It was fun, I had a great, great time, but I was young enough to start over and not many people have the opportunity to retire at 41, so I thought, 'Let me go take a shot.'
And how did you get involved with L&O in the first place?
One of the writers [David Black] brought me to the show -- he had written a book on a major murder case I was involved in in July of 1980. I don't know if you remember the Met Murder case -- it had a great amount of notoriety. It was a violinist who got grabbed backstage at the Metropolitan Opera, and we had about four or five weeks to solve the case, and it was a situation where the gal had been pulled into the bowels of the building by a stagehand and thrown off the roof, and it was carried front page on the [New York] Times for a while. And that's rare -- usually they don't put that smut on the front page, at least not that often. So he wrote a book for myself and this other detective, and I guess you could say maybe his first book was the exposure, and he was a gentleman. It kind of opened the doors for him, and he went on to do some writing for Hill Street Blues, Miami Vice and a lot of other projects since then. And he came on board to Law & Order and he was brought on in the initial crew as a writer, and he brought me on.
Not a bad second career.
Yeah, I'm not driving a Porsche, but it's been great fun.
When you first started early on, how much did you contribute to the actual authenticity of the show?
Well, probably in a greater way than I am today because a lot of the writers today are seasoned hairbags themselves. I feel like some of them are detectives I worked with in the homicide squad. They were just making many many scripts early on, and grooming the script was quite a job. Although a lot of them did a lot of research and spoke to peripheral people, but to enhance the script or to the get the script better early on was a lot of work early on, and now they've all developed writing styles and things are in place and it's a lot easier for me today.
Can you think of an example early on of something they missed that you made sure you had fixed?
To think of one specific thing that makes me laugh -- everything from how to wear a gun to why to wear a gun to how many guns to why to arrest people and you name it. Just picture yourself as the layman, writing a story about police officers and the law and the rules and the regulations they have to adhere to. It's just not that easy, whether you're a writer or not.
How important was it and is it to the show to get that kind of thing right?
I can only speculate and speak from my own experience, but I currently run a small investigations business, and it brings me -- I wouldn't say throughout the world, but I have traveled in other countries and throughout the United States and of course all over the Eastern seaboard, and my job brings me into many municipalities and police stations and prosecutors' offices and usually my test for the show is after I've done business with these people and have an opportunity to say near the end of whatever my business was, "By the way, did you guys ever see Law & Order?" And I would come out right from the blue, and nobody knows I had anything to do with it, and really solicit honest opinions from people. And 97--98% of the comments over all these years have always been genuinely upbeat for the show. And I'd hear, "That's a pretty good show, it's close, it's kind of like the real thing," and then I would tell them, don't forget, it is a commercial product, and if they told it exactly like it was, we'd all be snoring. So you got to put in a little of the human interest part. But the overwhelming -- the lawyers, the prosecutors, people that are in law enforcement really -- I thought gave the show thumbs up for many many years and because of that -- the fact that it's close -- there are other good shows that were on, NYPD Blue, and Homicide, they just -- I think they get too much into the personal lives, and they really lose grip of what Law & Order really is.
Are there instances on the show where you could say, "This doesn't really happen" but they do it that way because it has a higher entertainment value?
Well, yeah, of course, they take license on occasion. I've probably told this to people 100 times over the years: [On the show] typically they'll go into arrest an individual, and he could be a CEO of a company or a bank member and they'll go into a meeting or they'll yank the guy out of a meeting, "You're under arrest," read them their rights, and technically, nothing anybody can do about it. But usually with white-collar crime, you call a lawyer up and, "Have him here at 9:00" or you call the attorneys and say, "We're gonna come and get your client, make sure he's there." Not that you have to, but you usually don't expect the people to run and to flee. And being selfish, you want to make it easy for yourself because if the lawyer is there on time, that means you don't have to wait for him to show up and the process part of it would expedite and you'd be able to take care of business a lot easier.
I remember a while ago that Chris Noth said he'd ridden around with cops for a while, to get into the part -- was that you he rode around with?
He used to ride around with Jerry Giorgio, and Jerry was the fellow who did the murder case with me at the Met. Jerry had remained in the job, in fact they just pushed him out because of his age recently, and Jerry worked in a dump up in [Washington] Heights, and Chris would hang out and do the buff thing.
The "buff" thing?
A buff is usually somebody that hangs around a police station or a fire station --
A groupie, like!
Yeah, but cops call them "buffs." So Chris wanted to learn the part and whatever, but he had been there so much I started to tease him and call him "buff." I'm sure it helped him a great deal.
Have any of the other actors come up and asked you questions?
Oh, yeah, from time to time. I don't go to the set that often, I keep out of trouble that way, whenever I go down to the set I'll speak to the actors and they'll ask me different things, but the longer they're there, the less grooming they need. But Chris of course, when he was new, and even Paul Sorvino would have a question from time to time, but he was a very accomplished guy, very laid back about asking too many questions, but over the years -- and George Dzundza, I thought George was the greatest. George was, in my opinion, a natural as a cop. He looked like two coffees and a donut any day of the week. He was a knock around guy, not a pretentious bone in his body, and I was really sorry to see him go. I think George's issues were his family were on the West Coast, I'm not quite sure what the deal was but I was really sorry to see him go. He was a real original on the show and always had a kind thing to say.
So how does the whole process work? Does the West Coast send you a script every week?
Yeah, in fact I just got two today. What I'll do is I'll review the scripts, and I'll refer to comments within scenes and pages, and I'll highlight the issue I'm taking task to, so to speak, and I'll give an answer to it, an opinion, and whether it's 2 scenes or 25 scenes, I'll convey my comments on paper, and I send them right to the West Coast, to Rene's [Balcer] office, and also to the [Chelsea] Pier, to [Ed] Sherin.
Do you sometimes catch something on the show and call up and tell them later, "Don't do that again!"
Well, (chuckles) there have been a few times where, as I say, I realize they have to take license, and I don't own the show, you'd have to talk to Dick about that. But there have been some times where the script was written a particular way and I guess when the director got at it the director thought there would be more impact doing it a certain way. I remember the first time we did that crossover, from Law & Order to Homicide, and there was a part where the Baltimore guys come up into our squad, and the script was kind of brutal on them. And I wrote in comments that said, "Jesus, you can't do this, detectives don't treat each other like shit like this, I mean, there's petty jealousies, and sometimes guys won't help each other as much as they should," but to flat out talk to these brother officers from an other state the way they were -- I said no, you can't do that! Well, they did. And they seemed like they made it even more vile. And boy, I was getting phone calls -- I had chiefs of police and guys and detectives calling me and saying, "Boy, you jerk, how did you let them get away with that?" So that was the one I probably took the most flak over, where those poor detectives came in and they really got harangued.
Not so many calls about the time the cops picked up a gun by the barrel of a gun with a pencil?
There's been things like that, little technical things where -- you see, the script sometimes won't indicate what is being done. It'll be like: "Briscoe and Logan walk into a room, they retrieve the gun." So they retrieve the gun, so I'm reading the script and looking for other stuff, so retrieving the gun, there's nothing wrong with that as written. So if I took apart every word, every phrase, every comment, I would be rewriting the scripts for that. And I'd be holding everybody up.
This year they seem to have gotten under the skin of the cops a bit more -- the police have seemed to be more guilty this year than ever before.
I think that's what's made the show fly, we've lost cases with the shows, now that of course is the trend out there, you know, when you look at what's going on with the sentiment towards the police community, it's what's popular. The crime rate is way down, and if you -- can you put on a show about Law & Order and say what a great job the mayor's done? I don't think we'd have a lot of audience for that.
Well, the good thing about it being based in NY is I don't think anybody's ever going to say, "You know, there's no crime here, we've got to go home now."
Yeah, right!
Are there other crucial things you do for or with the show?
Well, they'll call me -- I have a beeper attached to me -- and they usually know where I'm at 24 hours a day, and if it's something on the set, something about a uniform, something from the wardrobe people, the directors, the writers, and sometimes even the concepts, when script ideas are being born, sometimes they say to me, "What do you think about this, do you guys do this, can it be done," and I can tell that something is in its fetal stage, it's being born, it's still a thought. I'll offer my two cents on those things, and when the phone rings I never know who's calling me from the show, and I kind of enjoy it and it gives me a change of pace.

whaddya think?