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The Universal Laws of 'Law & Order'

NEW YORK — NEW YORK -- You could say that Dick Wolf is at the top of the world.

His world, anyway. The 56-year-old television producer is standing in a conference room 22 stories above Lexington Avenue, looking through a wall of windows toward the Chrysler Building and the magic of Manhattan at dusk. In his double-breasted, blue Brioni blazer, charcoal-gray slacks, silk tie and French cuffs, Wolf exudes the polished confidence of a highly successful CEO.

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It's no wonder. His Hollywood production company, Wolf Films, now has five series airing on two networks, NBC and ABC. In addition to Law & Order, there's Law & Order: Criminal Intent; Law & Order: SVU; Dragnet; and Crime & Punishment.

All, as the narrator says in the beginning of Law & Order, tell the stories of "the police who investigate crime and the district attorneys who prosecute offenders." All are guaranteed at least another season, except Dragnet, whose fate will be revealed later this month when ABC completes its fall schedule.

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Each Law & Order series will finish the season among the 20 highest-rated shows on network television, with the original Law & Order firmly in the Top 10. Even better (in the eyes of advertisers), all three attract the coveted 18- to 49-year-old and upscale audiences. Known in the television industry as "the mother ship" for its longevity and ability to spawn successful spin-offs, the original Law & Order will air its 300th episode this month, as it completes its 13th season on NBC.

Such high ratings for quality drama in a season initially dominated by reality series like Joe Millionaire, then disrupted by coverage of the war in Iraq, should be enough to qualify Wolf for top of the television world status. (Business Week magazine last month called him nothing less than "King of Television.")

But the numbers only begin to explain what puts Wolf in a league by himself these days, above other big-name Hollywood producers like David E. Kelley, Steven Bochco, or even David Chase, the creator of The Sopranos. With his original Law & Order series, Wolf hit upon a way to meet network demands for profit while creating compelling and intelligent television drama. Against a backdrop of reality shows that seem daily to become dumb and dumber or comedies that rarely deviate from prescribed plots, he produces a steady stream of shows that are unafraid to tackle contemporary social issues, controversial or not. And, in the process, his work has become nearly ubiquitous.

Between the three Law & Order series that air on NBC and the Law & Order reruns that air on various cable channels, a viewer could watch 26 hours weekly of Law & Order. And, according to Nielsen estimates, more than 90 million Americans spend at least one hour each week watching some version of the franchise.

For many, that time is one of the most important and intense hours of the week. Last year, in an article headlined A Law and Order Addict Tells All, film critic and author Molly Haskell labeled such fans: "the not-so-secret addicts of Law and Order." She proudly counted herself among them.

Wolf, it seems, is not just at the door; after 13 seasons, with these numbers, his work surely has become ingrained in our national consciousness. Yet, relatively little is known about the man behind the shows -- or the team behind the man.

The producer himself insists that it is the writers and producers hired by Wolf Films who ultimately elevate Law & Order from mere diversion to an intelligent pop culture phenomenon. "The most important thing for you to understand -- and for me -- it's realpolitik: the team does this," Wolf says, sitting down at a long table in his publicist's conference room. "I am just the front man. Try to understand that. It's the only way to understand the success of Law & Order."

But to fathom the incredible success of Law & Order, as well as what its popularity says about American life, you have to start with Wolf. The man and the sensibility of the series -- from its steeped-in-Manhattan feel to its savvy take on social class -- connect in several ways.

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First of all, as the only child of parents who worked in the publicity department at NBC in New York, Wolf literally is a child of television.

"They both worked at 30 Rock (Rockefeller Center). I like to say I'm the longest surviving NBC employee," Wolf says.

Then, motioning beyond the conference room windows, toward the glittery, black Manhattan night, he adds: "I grew up four blocks east of where we're sitting -- in Tudor Village. It's a neighborhood directly across from the U.N. ... a little neighborhood unto itself with parks. It's lovely."

If a childhood spent in Manhattan explains the love and intimate knowledge of the neighborhoods and nuances of New York that suffuse Law & Order, then the reading habits of young Dick Wolf may shed light on how much the series owes to British detective and murder-mystery genres.

"I grew up with Conan Doyle. That's what I read when I was growing up. Sherlock Holmes is still my favorite fictional character," Wolf says.

"I started with The Hardy Boys and then moved on to Sherlock Holmes. I've always read mysteries -- Dorothy Sayers, Inspector Poirot. I still read a lot of mysteries."

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After prep school at the elite Andover Academy where he was a classmate of George W. Bush, Wolf majored in English at the University of Pennsylvania. He spent the first eight years of his professional life on Madison Avenue, writing for advertising agencies.

His resume includes a campaign for Braniff Airlines that featured a stewardess saying, "I'm Cheryl. Fly me." He also came up with: "Scope fights bad breath -- without medicine breath." If nothing else, he learned how to tell a story fast.

In 1977, he left New York for Los Angeles to try screenwriting. One script was made into a feature film called Skateboard, but was panned as "Bad News Bears on skates." But he had better luck with television. In 1985, he became a writer for Bochco's groundbreaking Hill Street Blues. A year later, he switched to Universal Studios to produce Miami Vice for creator Michael Mann.

Wolf wrote the pilot for Law & Order in 1988, but both Fox and CBS rejected the series. Kim LeMasters, then the head of programming at CBS, remarked that the show had no "breakout characters" and so would never find an audience. He was right about the characters, but oh-so-wrong about the series, which NBC put on the air Sept. 13, 1990.

Today Wolf Films is headquartered in two of the largest buildings on the Universal lot in Los Angeles. Wolf, who lives in Santa Barbara with his wife and three children, commutes cross-country to stay on top of Law & Order and Law & Order: Criminal Intent, both of which are filmed in New York City. (Law & Order: SVU is filmed in New Jersey.)

A background that includes the Ivy League and Madison Avenue, along with gross annual revenues of more than a billion dollars, suggests a particular world view, one steeped in privilege and power. But at a mention of social class, Wolf interrupts, saying, "Are you trying to ask why there are so many rich, white perps on Law & Order?"

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When it's explained that the question is actually aimed at how much more enlightened Law & Order seems than, say, NYPD Blue, in its treatment of crime and social class, Wolf says, "NYPD Blue is mostly street crime, and it's lower-class crime, which is what most crime is. Unfortunately, it is economically based.

"But mysteries, which I love, have always been different. I mean, the British upper-class mystery in which somebody rich kills somebody else rich is great. And the thing I love about Law & Order is that it crosses the whole spectrum in terms of class.

"But, another reason that we have so many rich, white perps is that there are no rich, white guy pressure groups. You can do anything you want to rich, white guys, and nobody cares. Really."

One of the most refreshing things about Wolf is how comfortable he seems with his status as a Hollywood power broker.

Tom Fontana, of Homicide: Life on the Street and Oz, for example, still strives to be seen as an artist in T-shirt and jeans battling the greedy corporate gods of network television. The same is true for Bochco, who favors sneakers and jeans and portrays himself as a crusader fighting for more on-air flesh and four-letter words.

Wolf, however, dresses for the part of CEO and seems to take greater pride in his business acumen than in his clear creative talents. In fact, his identity seems far more rooted in the business of television than in any notion of his work as art.

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One of the things that makes him proudest of Law & Order, Wolf says, was a compliment from Lew Wasserman, the late, legendary chairman of Universal Studios. For a time in the 1970s and '80s, there was no one more powerful in Hollywood than Wasserman, one of the last of the movie moguls.

While Wasserman in the 1960s built Universal into one of the richest and most powerful Hollywood institutions, he also was largely responsible for many coming to see the corporation as a soulless factory that cranked out television shows and movies with all the imagination that Detroit showed in stamping out cars.

"I used to have lunch with Lew Wasserman every two months, because he loved Law & Order. And what Lew Wasserman said one day is that Law & Order is the ultimate development of the Universal Television ideal," Wolf says.

"If you look back over the last 20, 30 or 40 years, the mantra at Universal was to come up with dramas that could be syndicated [sold in reruns domestically and abroad after airing on the networks]. And, if you look at the dramas made at Universal that did well in syndication -- Murder She Wrote, Rockford Files, Columbo -- what do they all have in common?

"Each episode of each series is a stand-alone hour of television that you can tune into and then maybe not see the series again for a year, two years, two months, or two days. But when you come back to it, you're getting a complete hour of television that stands by itself."

Wolf grew more and more animated as he broke the concept down further.

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"There are no arcs [story lines that extend across more than one episode before they are resolved]. There's no delving into the personal lives of the characters.

"You didn't know anything about Columbo's personal life. He mentioned his wife, but you never saw her. With Rockford, it was all about the story. People came in and out, but it was him and that story each week -- that's what mattered.

"That's the formula on which Law & Order was modeled -- the Universal ideal. The way I would put it is that it's a formula for success if the show works. But first the show has to work. In the old days, everybody was happy to have the job [making network television shows], but nobody wanted to work at Universal. It was, you know, like making cars. But that's what it is."

At the suggestion that his explanation makes Law & Order sound more like a business than an art form, Wolf says: "It is a business. It's called show business." He smiles to soften the edge of exasperation in his voice.

When Law & Order made its debut in 1990, it looked like anything but good business. Not only was it one of the lowest-rated series on NBC, it set new records in terms of advertiser pullout. "Our first two years, I think we had the highest advertiser dropout rate of any show on the network," says Jeffrey Hayes, an executive producer who has been with Law & Order since the beginning.

"We would do a controversial show, and people who advertised for years in that time period on the network would pull out. We did shows on the Irish Republican Army, abortion, religion, sex, whatever, and we didn't shy away from discussing the real issues. And it made advertisers very uncomfortable. They want everything antiseptic, you know."

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It wasn't until 1994, when the series went into syndication on the A&E; cable channel, that its ratings began to climb. "I think viewers found us on A&E; and then decided to watch on NBC. I mean, there was really a big jump for us. When we first made the Top 20, none of us could believe it," Hayes says.

Wolf agrees: "There's an absolute direct relationship between our ratings and us going into syndication on A&E.; Again, in terms of the Universal formula, it's not just Law & Order. The same thing happened with Murder She Wrote when it was on CBS and went into syndication on A&E.; It's synergistic.

"And, by the way, it was probably the deal of the millennium for A&E.; They paid $159,000 for all the episodes through 1998. They made a whole cable network off that deal."

There Wolf goes again, talking about deals and quoting Wasserman on the Universal formula. At heart, that's who he is: A CEO who sticks to the formula and embraces the system -- even if that system threatens the show itself.

In 1994, for example, actors Chris Noth and Michael Moriarty, who played Det. Mike Logan and Assistant District Attorney Ben Stone respectively, left Law & Order after highly public disputes with the network. Moriarty quit over what he claimed were NBC's attempts to quiet the actor's public criticism of Janet Reno, then attorney general of the United States, who was campaigning against TV violence.

Noth's five-year contract expired and was not renewed, though the actor said he left because Wolf refused to give him a raise or to give his character a life outside the office. As Moriarty put it at the time, "If Wolf can prove to the business that he can write a show, and it doesn't matter who the actor is, OK. But sooner or later, it's going to catch up with him."

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Over the years, Law & Order has been a veritable revolving door for actors.

As the 13th season comes to an end, no original cast member remains. In addition to Noth and Moriarty, the show, which has had more lead actors than any other series to date, has starred at one time or another: George Dzundza, Paul Sorvino, Richard Brooks, Benjamin Bratt, Dan Florek, Jill Hennessy, Angie Harmon, Carey Lowell, Steven Hill and Dianne Wiest. (The current cast includes Jerry Orbach, Jesse L. Martin, Elisabeth Rohm, S. Epatha Merkerson, Fred Thompson and Sam Waterston.)

Despite Moriarty's prediction, it has not caught up with Wolf, who insists, "The play is the thing -- the writing is what matters most -- and every actor who comes to the show knows that."

In the end, for all of Wolf's worship of Wasserman, there is a difference between his formula and that of Universal's: Wolf values writing and allows room on his assembly line for writers to be great. As high as the turnover has been in actors, several key writer-producers have stayed the distance with Wolf Films.

Generally considered the best group of executive producers and writers in television, the Wolf team includes Michael S. Chernuchin, a former lawyer now in charge of Law & Order and Rene Balcer, a former journalist, now running Law & Order: Criminal Intent. All told, Wolf Films has won more Oscars and Emmys than any other Hollywood production company.

With five series in production, it is a practical necessity for Wolf to keep his producers and writers happy, particularly since his involvement with scripts is limited to an occasional story idea or line. Nonetheless, "I still read every script," he says. "I don't have to, but I do. These are rather expensive. I haven't gotten to the point yet where I want somebody spending $2.5 million [the cost to the network for an hour of drama] on something I've never read."

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Wolf will tell you that the first half of Law & Order is a mystery, and the second half is a morality play. But Chernuchin takes it a step further saying, "The shows are about morality and relative morality."

To make his point, the writer points to the forthcoming 300th episode, which is scheduled to air May 21, and will be about a "very famous entertainer who is also a pedophile." Rather than focusing on the celebrity, Chernuchin says, "we take it to the next step and say, 'What about the parents who are turning over their kids to this famous pedophile?' "

As the Law & Order detectives investigate, they discover that the parents not only knew the entertainer was a pedophile, but also were paid by him.

"When you hit that page in the script where you find out the parents knew all about it and collected millions of dollars, you go, 'What sons of bitches those parents are.'

"Then you find out they did it because their other kid was born with a defective heart and they needed the money to keep him alive. So, now you're basically sacrificing one kid for the other. And that's the kind of thing we're trying to do in every episode of Law & Order. You don't stop with the bad guy. It always has to be about something else, this is Sophie's Choice."

It is this edge that enlivens the formula and elevates Law & Order above assembly-line television -- and it couldn't exist without Wolf's backing. "There's are certain elements of the assembly line to all television production, no matter who does it -- whether it's Kelley or Bochco or whoever," says Balcer of Law & Order: Criminal Intent.

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"You're not re-inventing the wheel every week. There's a system in place to actually get the thing produced. But in terms of the writing, we don't have any pattern that we cut to. ... Yeah, there's a formula: Following the laws of drama that are as old as the Greeks. That's the formula we follow in writing for Law & Order."

That's a higher kind of universal.

Sam Waterston

Joined the cast in 1994 as assistant district attorney Jack McCoy, and provided a sense of moral earnestness never before seen in a TV prosecutor.

Elisabeth Rohm

As assistant district attorney Serena Southerlyn, Rohm is the latest beneficiary of a 1993 NBC dictate that the series needed more female presence and sex appeal. She replaced Angie Harmon.

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Fred Thompson

The former U.S. senator joined the cast this year as district attorney Arthur Branch. Think Sam Ervin, the Southern senator of Watergate hearings fame, says creator Dick Wolf.

Jerry Orbach

As Detective Lennie Briscoe, Orbach has become television's king of the sardonic wisecrack. Orbach, who joined the cast in its third season, proves an actor can have a career with Wolf.

S. Epatha Merkerson

Came aboard as Lt. Anita Van Buren in the series' fourth season. Merkerson once joked that her character got out of the office so seldom, she considered it going "on location" if Van Buren got to take her purse.

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Jesse L. Martin

Joined the cast as Detective Edward Green when Benjamin Bratt left the series. Before being cast by Wolf, his major claim to TV fame was as an "Ally McBeal" love interest.


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