The apocrypha Interview: Dick Wolf
By Kitteridge
 
Though it seems impossible to imagine there are any, for those who don't know who Dick Wolf is, here's a little info: Wolf, the creator and executive producer of all three Law & Order shows, has been working in television for over a quarter century. He began as an ad exec (penning the notorious "I'm Cheryl. Fly me" tagline that was both the "Do it" or "Where's the beef" of the '70s, but which was later quoted by Mike Logan in a episode as a backhanded reference), and began writing for such shows as Miami Vice and Hill Street Blues in the 1980s. Though he's had his misses (Mann and Machine, for one), Wolf kept at the producing game until something stuck - and when it did, he hit gold, with Law & Order, which taped its pilot in 1988 and began airing in 1990. Since then, with the help of early cable syndication on A&E (which played the reruns of the original show with persistent, frequent regularity), Wolf has proved a maverick in developing not just spin-offs of the show, but in getting them rerun on cable almost instantly, and in 1999, TNT paid at least $150 million for the rerun rights of the original show. Along the way, Wolf has been an outspoken voice in supporting the home of his main shows, New York, and is often quoted in reference to the changing face of television in general - any article from advertising to ratings to audience criticism will usually find Wolf's name in there somewhere. In addition to a long list of awards (though L&O has only won the show Emmy once, in 1997, he continues to be honored by everyone from the Banff Television Festival to the Publicist's Guild of America), Wolf is also Honorary Consul of Monaco, and is involved in the principality's annual TV festival. He spoke to us in Spring of 2003, just prior to L&O's 300th episode.
 
300! Did you ever think, early on, that there would be 300 of these out there?
Oh, yeah. Absolutely. Doesn't everybody? I just wanted to get past 13, which was highly unlikely at the time. I think it's the only show that was sold to three different networks.
Did the other networks buy it first, then turn it down, or something else?
No, Barry Diller bought 13 episodes in the room. Bang. Done. For Fox. And then he called back two days later and said I think what he said was, "I must have been crazy, this isn't a Fox show."
Which it really wasn't.
No, it wasn't. And when he bought the Universal TV ads [later on], we had lunch and I said, "You do remember -" and he said, "Of course I remember, aren't you lucky, because it would have never been on [today] if it had been on Fox. I did you a huge favor." I said, "Thank you, Barry."
So when he bought the 13 episodes in the room, you hadn't made the pilot at that point.
No. Then we sold it to CBS, made a pilot, they didn't pick up the pilot. A year later I showed the pilot to Brandon [Tartikoff at NBC] and he said, "Well, you can't do this every week," and I said, "Of course we can." And I said, "Give me six scripts and I'll prove it." And we wrote six scripts and it worked.
ABC never had a chance to turn it down.
No, it didn't get that far, but you never know. Who knows, in the future that will happen!
What did Brandon see that no one else did?
Something that hadn't been done. The prosecutors had never been on television, literally, except as the enemy, and he thought that was interesting, and he just liked -- what he liked was the unvarnished storytelling. There was no character stuff, and he thought it was a huge risk, too, because it violated the basic premises of series television -- that people tune in to watch their characters, they don't tune in to watch stories. And I said, "Well, if the stories are compelling enough, they'll watch the stories."
And the pilot's very stylized -- shot on 16mm, uses point of view to propel narrative 
We shot on 16mm, and as a matter of fact, I got a call from Brandon one day and he said, "I think you'd better come over here." I said, "Why," and he said, "You have to see the head of technical services," and I said, "What are you talking about," and he said, "This will be fun." And I went over, Brandon and I went into the basement in Burbank and went into this control room and they have the pilot up and the head of technical services says, "This is not broadcast quality, we can't put this on the network. It looks like garbage." I said, "Well, that was quite deliberate, that's why we shot on 16." He said, "I don't think you understand, this is broadcast quality," and he put on some miniseries with someone walking in the front door of their house into a hallway and there were shadows on the opposite both walls. I said, "It's really funny, in your house do you have shadows on all the walls?" So Brandon said basically, just forget about the note [on the show], he is sending the show over looking like this, but very few network presidents will do things like that. He didn't care.
But you did switch to 35mm film for shooting 
We eventually switched to 35mm because there was no need to do it on 16. There's only one setup on a tripod in the entire pilot, it was all hand-held. And when we realized there were reasons you couldn't handheld -- you could do a pilot, but it's very hard to get people to do that 40 weeks a year. [Laughs.] It's just a practical consideration. When you're doing a series and you're on a stage, it didn't make sense.
Did you think "Everybody's Favorite Bagman" would get lost in the shuffle?
Yeah. CBS wouldn't sell the pilot back [once NBC wanted it]. There was basically a pissing match. "You can't have it back" -- ridiculous. But we got it back.
How involved was NBC early on? Was Wednesday at 10 P.M. a good slot at the time?
It was not a good slot, it was a terrible timeslot then, and the other reality of the show was except for Brandon, everybody at NBC hated it. Not mildly disliked it, hated it. And I know because you can find out everything eventually, but for the first five years, that was the chief topic of the first day of scheduling every year: What do we have to replace Law & Order. They hated it. It wasn't until it went to A&E that the numbers started going significantly up. 
When you came up with the idea of little character development, no continuing arcs -- did you think that would play really well in syndication?
The horrible truth was the reason Law & Order was created was that it was the nadir of the hour market, and we were consciously trying to come up [with something new] The then-president of Universal and I were trying to figure out ways to do a show that could be split into half hours. We developed something called Day & Night, it was anything that could literally make sense to split. Then it started to take on a life of its own. I started -- when I started working on the pilot, I thought well, this is actually different. The interesting thing about Bagman is there's no trial. It's a stink and then -- the tag is Michael Moriarty delivering his opening address in court.
It was interesting to see the prosecutors getting involved in a way that wasn't obvious.
That was the other thing, to me, eventually, the trial when I was writing the pilot was -- it would be another trap. We've seen trials in one form or the other forever on television, and I didn't know if you could sustain it. It was a very deliberate attempt to stay out of the courtroom of the pilot, to do the legal system really from the inside, not what the public sees but what goes on behind the scenes. But as we quickly found out, trials are wonderful vehicles and it gives you a defined end every week.
Had you thought about re-filming the pilot?
No, by who? NBC?
Yeah, as in, let's make this look like the other ones...
It does look like the other ones. It's rawer, when you look at it there is a raw energy that a lot of the early shows weren't as finished. Most of those first 13, especially the first 6 or 7 when the show was like, "Ooooh -- how is this going to work, looks pretty gritty."
When did NBC soften up and stop hating the show so much? Just after A&E?
Basically. It's a network. I mean, who was it, that Senator during Watergate -- they are not eleemosynary institutions.
Were you involved in getting it to A&E?
No, I didn't want them to sell it. The first flight on A&E we got $159,000 an episode. And I said, "Why bother even selling it? That's not even taking a chunk out of the deficit, the market is going to come around sometimes." "No, you don't sell it now we'll never sell it, take the money." It was a very bad deal that made the show. [Laughs.]
As much as they tried to kill it, they just made it stronger.
That's really -- it led into a whole bunch of thinking that now has -- there was no idea of branding [at the time], but the A&E thing made me realize what had also been true for Murder She Wrote, and it's a story that nobody usually writes, that the real secret of keeping a show healthy on a network is to have it in syndication, to have it on a cable channel concurrently, because they're synergistic.
And since the show started, and A&E picked it up, that was flukish, but since then and starting around then is when people timeshifted more often, cable was coming into its own.
Yeah, it was starting. I think the biggest shift that he is responsible for in television was the SVU deal. [On USA, with Barry Diller then running things there.] That was the first time a network had ever given up a dual-window or a cable run within two weeks of the original run. The deal took six months to make, because he just kept saying no, and NBC would say no, we won't do it, and he'd say, no, make the deal. That's what I want.
And thus repurposing was born.
It was literally 100 episodes ago when that deal was made. It was the 200th episode party at Elaine's, and that day I was driving in from the airport at 4 P.M., switching back and forth I'd talked to Bob Wright and Barry Diller and I said, "You've got to close this deal because every major television press person in the country is going to be at this party, this is where you want to announce it. We all know we're making the deal, let's just do it." And it turned out to be a very big announcement, because it was right there at the party, but it took 7 months. It was the most drawn out -- because Barry would say no forever. I kept telling Robert, "He ain't gonna bend. He's just going to keep saying no." 
How involved is NBC in the content, in what you're allowed to put on?
It's not a question of at this stage we've never had a story that the network hasn't allowed us to do ever. The Puerto Rican day fiasco was stupid.
And it'll appear on TNT.
Of course. There are only two episodes that never reran: That and the abortion clinic bombing, "Life Choice," which is probably still my favorite episode. It is perfect in terms of the twist and the moral questions and the fact that it wasn't all six [main characters having different points of view], which is the perfect episode, which is yet to be written, but four of them were on very different sides of the question. 
One of my favorites is "Indifference."
There are a bunch of great episodes. There are episodes that are completely atypical, and we're doing another, "Mayhem." There are no lawyers in it. "Mayhem" was the original, and now we're doing the 299th, and that's the last episode -- we're airing -- there are two different episodes. The 299th is called "Mayhem," or will be called "Mayhem 2" [Episode 299 was eventually called "Sheltered"] or something, but it's four different stories in a row, it had the John Wayne Bobbit character, Mr. Peepers, the guy they thought was the Son of Sam and died, it's got four and they're very recognizable stories. 
You've only diverted twice, with "Mayhem" and "Aftershock."
Yeah, "Aftershock," you learn a lesson. I shouldn't have had Jill [Hennessey, ex-Claire] die. That was -- 'cause she would have come back. Absolutely. She wanted to do episodes. I said, "You're dead!" [And she came back with] "It was a dream, I was in the shower!"
What do you know about TV that not every producer seems to get? You've got three shows in the top 20, and no one else can manage that.
What do I know about TV? Not much. 
Well, you come out of advertising.
I come out of advertising and the movie business. I've been around television my whole life. My father was in the television business, my parents met at NBC. My father was a publicist -- he was in the publicity department of NBC and then went into the advertising business, and then he was in producing. I grew up -- I could always get into the [Howdy Doody Show] peanut gallery. [Chuckles] It was great.
Did you invent the slogan, "Fly me?"
Uh, yeah. 
It went in an episode and I thought it was a neat inside joke. 
Yeah. It's an odd kind of claim to fame, I guess. It really was -- it made people crazy, but it was the most successful campaign in airline history at that point. Because it was all -- they had a very specific directive. They said 70 percent of their passengers were business passengers. They had all the surveys. The reason they flew was all of the stewardesses on National were University of Florida co-eds. And the businessmen liked them and they were in these dresses that were so tiny in 1969 that they weren't allowed to bend over in the cabin. They had to serve the drinks by curtseying basically.
Did you learn anything in advertising help you to be a producer 
Oh, enormously. That's why there are three Law & Orders. I learned branding from Procter & Gamble. That's why there are seven crests. They are different tastes, but the reason they can do seven is people know "Oh, it's Crest! I can buy it!" And one of the other phrases of my advertising youth was "You can't beat Crest for fighting cavities.
That's pretty basic.
It also means absolutely nothing. It means there are 312 toothpastes out there and none of them are any better than Crest.
But it worked.
It also worked beyond -- there were two flavors then. And the one rule on brand extensions is there is no such thing as a bad brand extension except one that doesn't work. Because that hurts the whole brand -- New Coke. If SVU had turned out to be a flop, I think it would have really negatively affected Law & Order. It's a huge risk, but it's also a pretty good reward, if it works.
You really repaired SVU pretty fast. It started out slow, with no lawyers, but then suddenly - as many lawyers as L&O classic.
That was the repair? [Laughs.] No, the actual repair on that show was bringing Neil Behr on halfway through the second season. He does an unbelievable job. If you look at the show, he's a doctor, and the level of the story complexity and the psychological underpinnings of the story -- he improved the show 30 percent.
I didn't enjoy it so much at first, and then it did swing around. But I thought about that if you have a crime, you've already taught us it doesn't end with the crime, so you needed lawyers, that's what I meant!
But that really is the only connective tissue, because if you really look at the shows, I would say Law & Order is more different or SVU and Law & Order are much more different as shows than Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue. That's why they are brand extensions, but it is more like Campbell's soup than Crest. Which I've used before -- if you're going to eat soup, you see the right can, you go, well, I've never had that but I'm sure if I wanted Cream of Mushroom theirs is going to taste as good as any other cream of mushroom.
What's your style when it comes to working with executive producers and head writers?
You hire them and let them go and issue as many minor adjustments as are necessary, and if there are major adjustments necessary, it probably means you're looking for a new show runner. I honestly do think we have the best four higher show runners in the business. You look at the show runners -- Waylon Green I've known for 20 years, he's running Dragnet and he was the first show runner on Law & Order after me, he came in as EP in the second season. Rene has been there since 1990, and he's a machine. He's also very, very talented, he ran Law & Order really well for two years, won the only Emmy we've ever won, and Criminal Intent is a hit, it's a legitimate hit. So Rene has been working except for a very brief interlude, continuously with me for 13 years. There's not much -- literally, I give Rene maybe 2 or 3 notes a season, but they're global. I'm not going to tell him that scene doesn't work; he's making too much money. Michael Chernuchin, we wrote the 300th episode together, he's been there since the beginning, ran the show for 3 years, got his own show on, these are the best writers in town. 
And the longevity would prove that they're still interested in the show.
Sure. Nuch [Chernuchin] is really reinvigorated, because after you've gone and been out there and had something that was pretty good get stomped on and be on the wrong network....
I rather liked the show he put together, Bull.
And it would have gotten continually better, because he's a good writer. It certainly didn't deserve the fate it got on TNT. But those four guys, it's very funny, somebody said who would you hire next, and I said I don't know anybody else who's good. One of them would have to move on to a new show and someone be elevated in, and that's when I do tend to be much more involved. When somebody has not been in that seat before and we have not done 150 episodes together, or 300 episodes together, you tend to much more micromanage.
Where are the women in the show?
There have been a lot of women over the years. Lynn Mamet isn't there. Carolyn was there for 3-4 years, and Judith McCrary has been there on and off, from NY Undercover to SVU, she's now writing features, but no -- there aren't that many women show runners period. There's Barbara and Carol Hall, and the women on CSI, but I don't know them. There aren't many senior television women dramatic writers. Let's put it this way. There aren't a lot of senior women scripted TV writers. They tend to write features or long-form. I don't care if people are green, if they can write. I don't need to see them -- I'm sure Law & Order has the oldest writing staff in the business. The average age last year was 46. 
There was that 60 Minutes piece on TV writers' ages that honed in on L&O's staff.
I've never understood the obsession with younger writers and dramas. Comedies I understand, but how do you write drama at 23, you haven't experienced anything. You know about 23 year olds. It's kind of hard to write about 60 year old EADAs. Only a couple of us are 60 years old so far, but there are not many 23 year olds who can write about life-changing situations unless it's medical. That sounds weird, but there's not the mileage on the odometer to get under the surface. There are exceptions that prove the rule -- Dickens wasn't bad at 23. 
What would you say has been a high point for the show? The Emmy?
You mean what are the high points? A high water mark? That'll come someplace around 2112, when we beat Gunsmoke [in episode numbers]. Certainly winning the Emmy, and strangely enough what's more important to everyone on the show than winning the Emmy, is getting nominated for a 12th consecutive Emmy. We're tied at 11 with M*A*S*H and Cheers. If we do get a nomination this year, I don't think it'll ever be beaten. Because TV doesn't work that way any more. [L&O didn't get the nomination.]
When you first came out of the gate it wasn't a ratings success.
Oh, God, no, it was incredibly low-rated. I think it was 77th in the Neilsens the first season. It was noticed when it first came out. I've still got the original reviews and I went into my office that morning and they all came in that day and I remember I walked into my office, closed the door, sat behind my desk and thought to myself, "This is never going to happen again." So that may have been the high water mark. They were unbelievable reviews.
Do you think in the long run that's one of the reasons it has lasted as long as it has, that it wasn't noticed so early on?
Absolutely. All dramas, and I've said this for years, all dramas take a full season to find out what they are. For the actors to find out, for the writers to find out, and in that first year there are usually some good episodes if it's a good show but it doesn't have the consistency. If you look at the first 22 episodes of Law & Order it's like going on a roller coaster. Every so often it's like Oops, that didn't work.
Do you have a least favorite episode?
My least favorite of all 300 episodes -- where Jerry's daughter gets killed. The drug dealer -- it was exactly what the show wasn't, but Jerry has pled for years, "Please let someone die in my arms so I can get nominated." And it was so not the show it kind of screamed at you. The odds of a detective having a daughter who is murdered by a drug dealer are -- zero! Sorry, that's how it is.
And it came not long after "Aftershock".
And it was like, "Oh, never again."
Some of your best episodes have gone around the subject of race. 
There are no easy answers. It's kind of like this is the Middle East. Whatever happens, ain't gonna change anything over -- there'll be a change, but you're dealing with tribes. This is tribal warfare, and some things are insoluble. Race is insoluble. Abortion is insoluble. You'll never get people to agree. They're on one side or the other. There have been moments about race -- the one with Joe Morton, the Malcom X murder, that same character came back, but in the first one where the assassination took place and the bodyguard as being cross examined by the comic, what's his name --
Eric Bogosian.
Yes, exactly. And he gets this guy caught on his own shoelaces and he says, "The damn Jew shot Malcom and now you damn Jew lawyers are going to get him off."' And the first time I saw it and the guy was in tears, it made the hair on the back of my head go up. I said, "That's really great. Nobody else gets the chance to do that." 
And the context is set up so that it's not inflammatory.
It's the way people really talk. And that's when the show transcends television. Or, ain't nothing better on HBO.
And some of the arguments with Ben and Shambala Green, you wouldn't see that anywhere else.
Some of the things she pulled out that he would then respond to were also great. She was the only character that Michael allowed to get a rise out of him. She got under his skin.
I talked to her a few years ago and she said they would play the chemistry.
Yeah, yeah. Lorraine is terrific, and her show with Annie Potts [Any Day Now] wasn't bad. It was the best of the Lifetime shows, certainly.
As I understand, NBC was very instrumental in the removal of Richard Brooks.
Richard Brooks and Dann Florek. Warren [Littlefield, then NBC President] called me up at the end of the third season and he said, "I'm giving you a cancellation notice a year early." And I said, "I know people don't like the show, but that's a little extreme." He said no, "Unless you put women in the show, the show is cancelled for next year." And I said, "I can't just add women, I have to get rid of characters." And he said, "Yep, you do." That was the worst phone call -- it was horrible. And I think Dann, if you talk to him, I certainly remember the phone call, I said, "Dann, I'm going to tell you something you are not going to believe. You have been unbelievable, you've shown up on time every day, every episode, you've known your lines, you've never bumped into the furniture, you've got a great demeanor, you're fired." And he went, "What?" And I said, "No, that's it."
But you were able to fix him later on. He's back on SVU now.
And Richard was the same thing. Richard was very good, I would never have fired him, but it saved the show. Warren, to give credit where credit is due, the show wouldn't still be on if it was all guys.
So that was my other question: Did they make the right decision?
Absolutely. Doing it again -- we're going to add women on Dragnet
I didn't mind it so much early on with just guys, it removes a particular element.
Yeah, then you explain to me why no women are watching. Guys are watching. That's --
Quite a few of the fans I talk to are women.
Women also watch women. Stupid me, I thought they'd rather watch guys, but, no.
See, I'm shallow, I watch Chris Noth.
Aaaaah... [laughs] that's okay, it's understandable.
And I didn't abandon it when he got fired!
No, I mean, you're going to stop watching because Benjamin Bratt came on? It's funny, we get letters, they come in every time, it doesn't matter who leaves, "'I'll never watch the show again" and then I realized that over 3 cast leavings there were about 3 to 4 letters that seemed remarkably similar, and they're all from the same person. "I'll never watch the show!"' And you're still watching. 
It was ugly around the time Moriarty left, but the three episodes that were written in case he didn't show up were great. And then when it was his last episode --
And it was his last episode, and he got to quit for the same reasons he quit the show. He couldn't stand the manipulation. Michael, it's actually upsetting. He is one of the most brilliant actors of his generation. He was so into the show. He really lived the show. He would get depressed literally the first two seasons when he lost. And he'd say, "This guy is guilty, you can't let this guy off." And I said," Michael, it's good for you to lose a case." And he said, "I don't mind losing a case, but this guy is guilty." And I said, "I have to tell you something. When you get a conviction, we don't send the actors to Attica." But he was totally into it.
And it certainly showed.
I mean, when he would stand up there, there were a couple of episodes, he literally when he'd get someone on the witness stand, he'd be chewing the inside of his cheek. It was like -- ooh, don't do that! 
Along those same lines, what happens when Sam or Jerry leaves?
What'll happen? The same thing as when Michael left. It might make a difference, but I don't think so. That is not true, of course it will make a difference. But if you want the show to keep going, you have to think there are other people out there who will turn an audience on, and I honestly think there are. There are great actors who are not working or underutilized -- it's not such a bad gig. Ask Ed O'Neill [on Dragnet]. When you're in every scene, it's a different life than when you're in the whole show. The cops work 5 days an episode as opposed to 4 or 3 like the DAs. But it's not a bad gig. When Michael quit, he faxed me, Don Ohlmeyer and Warren at home and they arrived on my fax machine at 2:30 in the morning, which meant it was 5:30 in the morning for him, which meant he was up all night writing them.
And that is the best time to send angry faxes.
That's how you do it. Stay up all night, read it, and go! And fax it! So Warren -- I had known this was coming basically, and I had made some discrete enquiries, and Warren was on the phone, basically asking What are we going to do, he's the soul of the show, my God, this is horrifying. I said, "I have two words for you." "What?" "Sam Waterston." And Warren went, "All right. Talk to you later."
He was an early possible Ben Stone, right?
Yes, but he was doing I'll Fly Away and before that he was doing Killing Fields. 1988. And he was not available, I remember that. But he was when you start thinking of names, Michael was -- there was not that long a list, but he was right at the top of it too, it wasn't like I didn't get Sam so I went back, I'm just glad he was available. 
Wasn't there going to be a show that incorporated all three shows --
That wasn't an episode, that was a 5 hour miniseries. We were supposed to start shooting September 24 [2001]. It was called "Terror," and it started in an Al Quaeda training camp in Afghanistan, then went to four guys coming across the border in New York state with United Arab Emirate passports, coming to New York and blowing up the shuttle under Times Square.
So you have spooked yourself before.
A lot of times. But the miniseries was freaky, because at the end of the first -- it was five hours, and at the end of the second hour was the shuttle blowing up, the end of the third episode they released anthrax.
How are the next 300 going to be different?
All the stories will be different. [Laughs] The souffle rose. You've got to be nuts to change the recipe. It works. 
Anything else you'd like to say?
Yeah, it's wonderful to be the focus of what seems at times -- if you're living it, like a personality cult, oh, my god, someone says I love you -- there are about 150 people working on each show. The thing about television is it is so voracious and unstoppable and unremitting, that anyone who says I do it all -- I do as little as possible because there are people working 60, 70 hours a week on these shows, and it's basically quality control. The casting wasn't very good in that episode, or the third act twist wasn't there -- it's a huge mistake. Or you become David Kelley and write everything yourself. He can't be on the set -- you can't do it all. People run shows differently. Obviously, David has made a very good career being a maniac. How can you do that? He does it every day and comes in at 9 and leaves at 5, I don't know how he does it. I'd kill people. It's a fate worse than death, being locked in that room every day. That is a unique form of torture. We started out by saying that I do think I have the best 4 show runners in the business, and the one thing I did years ago and I know Warren and is still on Les's desk, I sent out this card that says, "It's the writing, stupid."' And it is the writing. We've had great actors on the show, 17 of them now, no real clunkers, but they don't make up the words.

 

whaddya think?