The year was 1990 and the world was a very different place. The first George Bush was President of the United States, cell phones were the size of shoes and a crime drama called "Law & Order" premiered on NBC. Season 19 begins tonight and, to commemorate the occasion, creator Dick Wolf and series star Sam Waterston talked with Jim Halterman about the long-running series and how there's unfortunately not a lack of inspiration for the stories they tell.
Waterston joked early in the interview about his initial impression of "Law & Order" when he joined the cast in 1994 as Executive Assistant District Attorney Jack McCoy. "I had no idea how long the show was going to last but I knew I would only be with it for year." He added that Wolf and NBC have made it an easy job to stick with over the years. "They have made a long leash and allowed me to sign up year after year, after year. I never felt imprisoned here and I've always felt free to stay, free to go. And I think it's been a great thing and it's part of the reason why I'm here so long. That the show is here so long is because of [Dick Wolf].
Wolf had just as many good things to say about Waterston, who has also appeared on spin-offs "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" and the short-lived "Law & Order: Trial by Jury." Wolf stated, "It goes without saying that there are very few actors working in America who can do what Sam does. And I think that the fact that he has managed to keep himself interested is to my benefit. But the fact that he has managed to keep the audience interested for this long is basically the greatest compliment they can pay him as an actor because he makes the role and the words unendingly interesting. That takes a level of skill and humanism that not many people possess."
Another strength of "Law & Order" is the manner in which it reflects back on our society with stories pulled directly from the headlines. Though tonight's season opener features a badly beaten stockbroker, Wolf said this particular story was not created out of the current financial crisis. "Believe me," he said, "it was obviously written before the crisis hit." As for other headline-influences stories over the years, he added "a lot of things have shown up on the show almost simultaneously with events that have occurred in real life." Though the stockbroker beating isn't one of those instances, Wolf did admit with a chuckle that it was "kind of [an] amusing coincidence."
Running out of stories is not something that "Law & Order" will probably ever come up against, Wolf mentioned. "It's unfortunately a constantly renewable resource. When Brandon Tartikoff 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 Times. And it has not been a bad piece of source material because for better or worse we can't come up with stories better than a headless body found in topless bar." Wolf also admitted, "we steal from the headline but not the body copy. 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."
Asked about the revolving door of cast members who have come and gone from "Law & Order" over the last 19 years, Wolf obviously takes the bringing in of new faces as old ones depart as serious business. "It's our responsibility to make sure that the changes are hopefully seamless... [that] that's not the old character but this one is interesting in a different way."
Wolf also stated, "the show is unabashedly a workplace show." However, that doesn't mean the show is about the regular characters. It's why we don't go home with the characters. We don't deal with their personal lives because... if you work in a corporation or 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 nine to five 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. And we have been extraordinarily lucky."
"Law & Order," as well as all the spin-offs, is one of those series that knows how to use its guest stars and has become a primary stomping ground for actors who either want a juicy role to sink their teeth into or a chance to reveal another side of their acting capabilities. Wolf talked about feeling so blessed with the guest stars they've had on the series. "It's a credit again to the writers that I think there is almost a path for doing the �Law & Orders.' It's not like Oh my god, he's doing episodic television now? But when people show up, they know that it's not going to damage their ability to still be on the big screen for roles or is going to preclude or pigeonhole them into a category that they had not been in before. And that is very advantageous."
Waterston added that it's not only film and television actors that make their way to this highly respected series. "In terms of the theater," Waterston said, "this is a place where a pattern was established that other people have tried to copy. But �Law & Order' really set it up, which is that people from the New York theater at all levels... have felt that kind of confidence that Dick was talking about � about appearing on this show, that it wouldn't harm them in any way. And it's become like that Caf� in Paris where if you sit there long enough the whole world passes by. This show has seen many, many, many, many people from the theater world. And I think they ought to give Dick an Emmy for it. I do. I'm saying that to everybody."
Having been with the series for the last 15 years, Waterston said he would not be able to name a past cast member that he could call his favorite. He eloquently explained, "Working on a show like this has been a very beneficial education to me just as a person because you're thrown together with people... and some of the people, the day you meet them you think we're going to be fast friends forever. And other people you think I don't know. But universally with these people... I've been sad to see every single one of them go. And I think that's partly a little mini-broadening of the mind on my part. But I also think that is just an education in how snap judgments aren't always good judgments."
With a never-ending supply of stories, a loyal audience and the creative prowess of Dick Wolf and Sam Waterston, "Law & Order" should be on our televisions for many more years to come. Tonight's season premiere airs at 10:00/9:00c on NBC.