Fresh Air: Celebrating Law & Order's 20 Years
Last week, NBC announced that it would be canceling Law & Order after 20 years on-air. Originally created by Dick Wolf, the decorated crime procedural has featured hundreds of New York-based actors and spun off the series Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and Law and Order: Criminal Intent.
Today's Fresh Air features interviews with series creator Dick Wolf, the late actor Jerry Orbach -- who played Detective Lenny Briscoe until 2004 -- and S. Epatha Merkerson, who played Lt. Anita Van Buren, the series' longest-running character. Below, you can also find Fresh Air interviews with one of the series newest cast members, Anthony Anderson -- as well as interviews with Richard Belzer and Ice-T, both of whom played detectives on Law & Order: SVU.
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, sitting in for Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of television program, "Law & Order")
Unidentified Man (Announcer): In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate and equally important groups: the police who investigate crime, and the district attorneys who prosecute the offenders. These are their stories.
BIANCULLI: After 20 years on NBC, "Law & Order" ends its run this month, but spinoffs continue, including a new one next season set in Los Angeles. Here's a scene from the first episode of the original "Law & Order." The detectives are George Dzundza and Chris Noth. The guest star is John Spencer.
(Soundbite of song, "Law & Order")
Mr. GEORGE DZUNDZA (Actor): (As Sergeant Max Greevey) Where was she murdered?
Mr. JOHN SPENCER (Actor): (As Howard Morton) I told you, Urban Medical Center.
M. DZUNDZA: (As Greevey) I'm sorry, Mr. Morton, I'm a little confused. Your daughter was killed at the hospital?
Mr. SPENCER: (As Morton) Yeah, in the emergency room, and I want to swear out a murder complaint against the resident in charge of it.
Mr. CHRIS NOTH (Actor): (As Detective Mike Logan) This resident was treating her?
Mr. SPENCER: (As Morton) No, killing her.
M. DZUNDZA: (As Greevey) But she was at the hospital for treatment?
Mr. SPENCER: (As Morton) Yeah, a sore throat, muscle aches. She only went in to get a prescription for some antibiotics.
Mr. NOTH: (As Logan) Well, sometimes people are a lot sicker than they look.
Mr. SPENCER: (As Morton) Listen to me. I was a medic in Vietnam. I know who's dying and who isn't. My daughter was not that sick. Somebody in that emergency room did something that killed her.
BIANCULLI: Executive producer Dick Wolf created "Law & Order" two decades ago, after working on "Miami Vice" and other TV crime shows. In 2003, he spoke with Terry Gross.
TERRY GROSS, host:
One of the things that's pretty consistent in the writing, stylistically and content-wise, is that you don't find out much about the private lives of the detectives or the prosecutors. It's really driven by the story. Why did you make that decision?
Mr. DICK WOLF (Executive Producer, "Law & Order"): The wonderful thing about procedurals is that it does away with the necessity for soap opera. In other words, when you're not dealing with the personal lives of the characters, you can concentrate on the story.
You can tell a complete story, with a beginning, middle and an end, and it's quite efficient in terms of dealing with complicated issues, dealing with moral issues that - you know, we've been saying the same thing for years, that the first half is a murder mystery, and the second half is a moral mystery.
So it's how do you keep those elements unpolluted by the sex lives of the characters or going home with them. They're workplace shows, and I think that there is a fascination of just watching people at work without those sideline distractions of their personal lives.
GROSS: And, you know, another thing the shows have in common, you've tried to do away with, you know, the establishing shots. You say you don't really want to spend a lot of time with the characters kind of getting from one scene to another, getting in and out of rooms. What are some of those things that you wanted to kind of streamline or just take out altogether and just keep the action going?
Mr. WOLF: That's - you've annotated several of them already, that I think that one of the realities is that there is enough information in either side of the show to make a completely satisfying hour cop show or a completely satisfying hour legal show.
The fact that you have to give what in many cases is twice as much information in the same 43, 20, you know, 43 minutes that you have in a character-driven show, to tell this much story, you don't have time to go home with the characters.
I mean, the pace of the show, the average hour show has about 26 scenes per episode. "Law & Order" usually has between 40 and 42. So that's a huge differential in terms of the pacing and in terms of the way scenes are structured on the shows.
GROSS: One of the things you have to do every week is cast a dead body.
Mr. WOLF: Ah.
GROSS: You know, actors like to come in and show you their stuff. How do you audition to be dead?
Mr. WOLF: It's a very, very complex process because everybody wants to be the dead body. It's the only thing that I'm constantly getting requests to be from people that, you know, can I be the dead body? And it's highly sought after because you can't be cut out.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. WOLF: So it's a great gig for extras.
GROSS: Have you become - I don't know if there's a word for this, somebody who hangs out at crime scenes?
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: I mean...
Mr. WOLF: No, I don't. I mean, that's a level of - I guess buffdom - that, no, I've spent an inordinate amount of time with cops but not really at that many crime scenes in the last 15 or 18 years. I used to go to them a lot when I was starting out writing this stuff.
GROSS: How would you go? Did you have a police band radio?
Mr. WOLF: No, I had a couple of homicide cops in L.A., and one of the aims was to see one of every kind of crime or one every kind of murder. You know, there was - it was open call if there was a shooting, stabbing, garroting, something that was a little unique. Stan White or his partner would call, and we'd go out and see it.
And I think the strangest crime scene I ever went to was on Super Bowl Sunday about 15 years ago, and I got a call from Stanley to meet him in Bell(ph), which is one of the worst sections of L.A. And I walked in, and it was this apartment that was in kind of a motel complex.
And there were three uniform cops sitting on the sofa in this apartment watching the Super Bowl. And I was saying, God, this doesn't look like a crime scene, and then I walked two feet further in, and there was a body inside the closet, upside down, wrapped up in telephone cord with his eyes open, watching the game along with the cops.
It was - these three cops sitting there, absolutely no interest in this body two feet away from them, but they were into the game.
GROSS: Did you go to these crime scenes with two different mindsets, one being this is really horrible, this is tragic, this is the end of a life, and the other being this is really interesting, let me study what it looks like so I can, you know, accurately render it in my series?
Mr. WOLF: Unfortunately, I wish I'd had the former thought occasionally. It was always the latter: This is kind of interesting. There's no personal involvement. It's how cops do it. You know, it's almost like coming in - you're almost seeing a movie when you go to these things because they can be so horrific, but there is - if you're a writer, certainly, and you're interested, the attraction far outweighs any kind of moral quandaries that you might find yourself in.
GROSS: I'm sure you'd seen a lot of crime in movies and television and read a lot of books with crime. Were there some things that just really astonished you about how real murder looks?
Mr. WOLF: Yeah, it's a lot bloodier than we show it on television. I mean, that's - one of the things that probably unfortunately most people will tell you that have gone to a crime scene is it's surprising how much blood there is in a human body. It's much worse than we've ever shown on the show.
GROSS: And when you actually saw these real murders, was there anything that surprised you about the faces, the expressions on the victims' faces?
Mr. WOLF: Well, the guy in the closet looked quite surprised, but he was upside-down. So I don't know, you know, what lividity has to do with that. But there are - I would say that people - if there was one expression, it wasn't pain. It was kind of like what happened. You know, it's surprise. I don't think people usually expect to get shot.
It's also one of the things that most cops will tell you, that the most common thing is never ask to be shot because a lot of drunken altercations and a lot of street confrontations, somebody pulls a gun, and somebody else says oh yeah, you're so tough, go ahead and shoot. Okay. And homicide cops will tell you the number of people, the number of killers that they've arrested that say, well, he told me to shoot him.
GROSS: That's really interesting, because in a lot of crime movies and TV shows somebody who is kind of tough and challenging, and sometimes the hero himself or herself will say, yeah, go ahead and shoot me. And then the person gets really weak, because the hero is wise enough to know that the person doesn't have the courage to do it, and...
Mr. WOLF: Yeah, one homicide detective told me it is the single most common line in homicide: Go ahead and shoot.
GROSS: That's really, really interesting, and that makes me think too about the kind of wise-guy language that a lot of people use in TV shows and in movies, smart-aleck stuff, where somebody's got a gun on you, and you're quipping. Bad idea in real life?
Mr. WOLF: Not a smart thing to do. You know, somebody - the best solution to anybody having a - if you ever have a gun pointed at you, give them whatever they ask for immediately.
GROSS: Including some respect?
Mr. WOLF: I'd be polite.
GROSS: Right, right. How does this affect the dialogue that you write and the dialogue that you edit for "Law & Order"?
Mr. WOLF: Well, you see, it's not really much of a problem because by the time the show starts, they're already dead.
GROSS: Yeah, but there's still other you know, the cops, the detectives are hunting for the killer, and they sometimes get in tough situations, and friends of the victim sometimes get in tough situations too.
Mr. WOLF: Yeah, I think it's much more - I mean, the hallmark of - and Jerry is the one who said this, that "Law & Order" is kind of like...
GROSS: Jerry Orbach?
Mr. WOLF: Jerry Orbach it's kind of like a Catholic high mass, that it's a rite, that the audience knows what's going to happen not in terms of the storytelling but that there is a rhythm to the show, and I'd say one of the rhythms that is now part and parcel of it is Jerry's kind of mordantly kind of acerbic comment at the end of the teaser, which has become part of, you know, just sort of the "Law & Order" mantra, that there is a setup line, and then Jerry gets to get the last line in the teaser, which invariably is kind of a -either acerbic, sarcastic or insightful comment about the stupidity of murder.
GROSS: "Law & Order," one of the things it's known for is that a lot of the shows are, you know, the kind of, quote ripped-from-the-headlines type of shows, where they're based on actual news stories.
Mr. WOLF: No, they're not based on there. We steal the headline but not the body copy.
GROSS: Oh, really?
Mr. WOLF: Yeah. No, I mean, if you actually have knowledge of any of the cases that, as they unroll, you go oh, that's that case, it never is. That's - the headline, the top-of-mind awareness is what we're after, and then, you know, the reality is most real-life murders take a very predictable road to fruition, that they, you know, most murders are solved within the first 48 hours, and most people are convicted. That does not give you the twists and turns that make for an entertaining hour of television.
GROSS: Now, I know you worked in advertising before you started working television. You worked doing advertising, mostly for Procter & Gamble products like Crest and Scope.
Mr. WOLF: Uh-huh. Yup.
GROSS: Would we know any of the campaigns you did for Crest or Scope? Did you write any of the jingles or slogans?
Mr. WOLF: Oh sure: Scope fights bad breath without giving you medicine breath. There's one of the undying lines...
GROSS: Oh, medicine breath, that was yours.
Mr. WOLF: Yeah, and then National Airlines, which was probably the most controversial campaign that I was ever involved with, and I'm sure you're too young to remember, but it...
GROSS: Oh, try me.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. WOLF: Try me? Fly me. I'm Cheryl, fly me. Remember National Airlines?
GROSS: Well, that was - fly me was yours?
Mr. WOLF: Yeah, that's a lot time ago. That's over 30 years ago now.
GROSS: Oh, that was controversial because of - for feminist reasons.
Mr. WOLF: Yes, it was. That was the beginning of feminist.
GROSS: It sounded like a sexual innuendo.
Mr. WOLF: Well, it was.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: So much of advertising was then. I mean, a lot of advertising still is, but it was all more innuendo than overt, yeah.
Mr. WOLF: It was very, very direct innuendo because they had a very specific goal in mind, that National Airlines had by far the highest percentage of business travelers in the early '70s going to Florida, and the reason was the stewardesses. That was the age of miniskirts that were so short that the stewardesses were not allowed to bend over in the cabin. They had to sort of do a semi-curtsy when they were serving people.
And National really wanted a campaign directed at businessmen about the stewardesses. So it may have lacked some subtlety, but it did get talked about.
BIANCULLI: "Law & Order" creator Dick Wolf, speaking to Terry Gross in 2003. We'll hear from one of the show's stars after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Today we're saluting "Law & Order," which has been canceled after 20 years. For many of those years, the most popular actor on the show was Jerry Orbach, playing quintessential New York detective Lennie Briscoe.
(Soundbite of television program, "Law & Order")
Mr. JERRY ORBACH (Actor): (As Detective Lennie Briscoe) What is it, a drive-by, a hit?
Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) (Unintelligible) right through the neck, hit the carotid artery. No line, no waiting, gone.
Mr. ORBACH: (As Briscoe) Let's get him up. Got it?
Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (As character) Fourteen years old.
Mr. ORBACH: (As Briscoe) Pretty soon we'll be passing out vests in kindergarten.
BIANCULLI: Terry spoke with Jerry Orbach in 1989, asking about one of his other memorable cop roles.
TERRY GROSS, host:
You co-starred in the film "Prince of the City." I really consider that movie to be your movie. You play a corrupt cop who won't cooperate with a commission investigating members of a narcotics squad on the take.
Mr. ORBACH: Right.
GROSS: Let me play a scene from it.
(Soundbite of film, "Prince of the City")
Mr. ORBACH: (As Gus Levy) You indict me on the squawk of a dope dealer who tried to buy me out of a (bleep) bust? You want to break up another federal operation that'll put away more quality mob guys in a year than you'll touch in your whole piss-ant career?
Unidentified Man #3 (Actor): (As character) Detective Levy, you're hardly in the position...
Mr. ORBACH: (As Levy) I'll tell you what I'm in a position to do, and that's throw you out the (bleep) window. It's only the fifth floor, but I'll try to aim you so you land on your pointed little head.
Unidentified Man #3: (As character) Levy, you can easily avoid trial. All you have to do is cooperate.
Mr. ORBACH: (As Levy) (Bleep) You've got your mind made up to try me, go ahead and try me, but not for a lousy $400. At least get me for assault.
(Soundbite of scream)
GROSS: Now, in this scene, where you've just overturned the investigator's desk, it's very menacing...
Mr. ORBACH: Yes.
GROSS: ...in that scene. Did you feel well-suited to that kind of menacing performance?
Mr. ORBACH: Oh, I love it because, you know, in real life you can't go around throwing people's desks over and hitting them or kneeing them in the groin. You'll get sued. So to play that kind of a scene is a wonderful release for anybody because we have so many frustrations. There are people we'd like to hit, but we can't really do that.
Also, it was a great release for the audience because in "Prince of the City" the prosecutors are very dry and very nasty and, you know, they just don't give an inch to anybody, and it was sort of the audience got its revenge on those guys for a minute there when I did that. It was a release for the audience.
GROSS: You actually got your start in musicals. As a matter of fact, why don't I play something here from "42nd Street."
(Soundbite of play, "42nd Street")
Unidentified Woman #1 (Actor): (As character) I'm sorry. Show business isn't for me. I'm going back to Allentown.
Mr. ORBACH: (As Julian Marsh) What was that word you just said, Allentown? I'm offering you a chance to star in the biggest musical Broadway's seen in 20 years, and you say Allentown?
(Soundbite of song, "Lullaby of Broadway")
Mr. ORBACH: (Singing) Come along and listen to the lullaby of Broadway, the hip-hooray and ballyhoo, the lullaby of Broadway. The rumble of a subway train, the rattle of the taxis, the daffy-dills who entertain at Angelo's and Maxie's. When a Broadway baby...
GROSS: Now, I've read about you that your heroes when you were getting started were James Dean, Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift. They didn't do musicals, with the exception of Brando's "Guys and Dolls." Was it your ambition to do musicals when you were starting out?
Mr. ORBACH: It's funny. I always sang and came to New York after I got out of Northwestern, and I was a very serious young actor and did study with Lee Strasberg, Herbert Berghof, Mira Rostova, worked at the Actors Studio. But the first job I got in New York was to replace the street singer in "Threepenny Opera." I actually then replaced Macheath, Mack the Knife, for about six months, worked with Lenya and everything.
I went from three years, three and a half years in "Threepenny Opera" to originate El Gallo in "The Fantasticks," and I just kept going from one show to another, from one musical to another, and it was a terrific life.
My kids were being born, and I was raising a family in New York, and all my friends who couldn't sing, who were desperate and out of work, couldn't a job off-Broadway or anything, all went to Hollywood. And some of them became big stars out there, and that's sort of what I had wanted to do. You know, in the background, I'd always wanted to do that, work in film. And it just didn't seem to work out that way. I kept working, and it was all right.
GROSS: What kinds of roles did you think you were heading for when you were getting started? What did you think that your specialty was going to be?
Mr. ORBACH: I really didn't know. I didn't have any kind of a specialty. I thought I'd be a leading man, you know, and - I was never a juvenile, even when I was 19 or 20. I mean, at 20 I was playing Mack the Knife opposite Lenya, which is outrageous. You know, I had no business being there. But I never looked like a kid.
So it took me until I was into my mid-20s to start to really get the roles that I was - that I looked like. You know, I should've been 30, 35 playing them.
GROSS: Did that seem like a hardship at the time, that you didn't look like a kid when you were a kid?
Mr. ORBACH: I don't know. Not really, but sometimes I'd think, you know, the sort of Tab Hunter, Tony Curtis types, you know, I said, well, I can never compete with them, you know, back in the late '50s because I was a little off-beat.
GROSS: Of course then their careers sometimes end early because...
Mr. ORBACH: Yes, I found that out.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ORBACH: Longevity is in being a character man. Somebody said, are you ever going to retire? I said no, I want to be like Melvyn Douglas, playing the grandpa on my deathbed when I'm about 85. That would be a pleasure.
Mr. ORBACH: Okay.
GROSS: ...a lot for doing the interview.
Mr. ORBACH: It's a pleasure.
BIANCULLI: Jerry Orbach, speaking with Terry Gross in 1989. Orbach died in 2004 at the age of 69.
We'll continue our "Law & Order" salute in the second half of the show. You can find links to interviews with actors who have starred in other "Law & Order" programs, including Richard Belzer and Ice-T, at our website, freshair.npr.org. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR. Here's Jerry Orbach singing from the original Broadway cast recording of "Promises, Promises" back in 1968.
(Soundbite of song, "Promises, Promises")
Mr. ORBACH (Actor): (As Chuck Baxter) (Singing) Promises, promises, I'm all through with promises, promises now. I don't know how I got the nerve to walk out. If I shout, remember I feel free. Now I can look at myself and be proud. I'm laughing out loud.
Oh, promises, promises, this is where those promises, promises end. I won't pretend that what was wrong can be right. Every night I'll sleep now, no more lies. Things that I promised myself fell apart, but I found my heart.
(Soundbite of music)
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Im David Bianculli of TVWorthWatching.com, sitting in for Terry Gross.
We're saluting NBC's original "Law and Order," which is leaving TV after 20 years on the air. Our next guest is S. Epatha Merkerson who plays Lieutenant Anita Van Buren. Terry spoke with her in 2006.
Here's a clip from an episode in which she recognizes a dead body as the daughter of a close friend. The initial suspicion is suicide, but Van Buren suspects something else and visits the girl's mother.
(Soundbite of "Law and Order")
Unidentified Woman: Maybe it's for the better if this just went away.
Ms. S. EPATHA MERKERSON (Actress): (As Lieutenant Anita Van Buren) Christine, Im going to tell you, Im having trouble understanding your reaction.
Unidentified Woman: It didnt happen to you, Anita.
Ms. MERKERSON: (As Lieutenant Anita Van Buren) No doubt, but I think you know something and you're afraid to tell me.
Unidentified Woman: I understand police procedure. I understand you need to ask me these questions...
Ms. MERKERSON: (As Lieutenant Anita Van Buren) Im not here as a police officer. Im here as your friend.
Unidentified Woman: Then as my friend, please leave this alone and let us heal.
Ms. MERKERSON: (As Lieutenant Anita Van Buren) He's a serial abuser, Christine. He's going to do it again.
Unidentified Woman: Not here he won't. And you dont understand because it's not your child at risk.
Ms. MERKERSON: (As Lieutenant Anita Van Buren) And Emily doesnt deserve more? Or are we not just talking about Emily here?
Unidentified Woman: Please, just let this go.
Ms. MERKERSON: (As Lieutenant Anita Van Buren) Christine, has he made threats against Callie(ph), too?
Unidentified Woman: I can't do this.
Ms. MERKERSON: (As Lieutenant Anita Van Buren) Did he call here?
Unidentified Woman: Anita, I can't lose another child.
Ms. MERKERSON: (As Lieutenant Anita Van Buren) And you won't if you let me put this man away. But, girl, you got to come clean.
Unidentified Woman: Why are you all over me?
Ms. MERKERSON: (As Lieutenant Anita Van Buren) You remember when I was a rookie and I wanted to quit because all the crap I was taking on the job? Well, you said to me, don't let them beat you. And the reason I hung in was because you wouldnt let me give up and Im not going to let you give up now.
TERRY GROSS, host:
What did you know about your character when you first got the part?
Ms. MERKERSON: You know, the interesting thing is I knew nothing and it happened quickly. I mean, literally, I got the job on a Friday and I started working on a Monday. Because that whole thing about NBC asking Dick to bring women on happened, I believe, at the last minute. So I literally had to...
GROSS: Wait. Wait. What whole thing about asking him to bring women on?
Ms. MERKERSON: Well, they were going to cancel "Law and Order" and I think in its third season because NBC wanted women on the show. So Dick let two of the guys go and he brought on two women. Thats how Jill Hennessey and I ended up on the show, because NBC was going to cancel it if he didnt bring skirts in.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. MERKERSON: And it was really that...
Ms. MERKERSON: ...simple. They didnt believe that the show could last without women on it. I dont think it was any, you know, really heavy thought other than the skirt. But what happened was when the show went to syndication thats when our demographic changed, because there are a lot of women who are at home. And then we started getting more women viewers.
So with the change in bringing women and going to syndication, it really did change the demographic of the show.
But when I first started, I literally just hit the ground running. I wasnt able to even talk to any lieutenants until after my first episode, because we were so busy, you know, shooting the show.
I really dont think anyone other than Dick was very clear about who this person was, and he did give me a biography of who he thought Van Buren. And she came from a small family. There was no one in her family who was in law enforcement. It was something that she wanted to do. She's the kind of woman who shoots straight from the shoulder. And that was sort of a basic hit the ground running.
And then I had the opportunity to meet a couple of female lieutenants. And the interesting thing is when I started, I believe there were only five in Manhattan. There was one lieutenant who was so cool. When you saw her, she literally looked like, you know, someone's aunt or, you know, sweet mother. But the minute she walked into the precinct, you knew she garnered serious respect from the guys that worked for her.
And it was so cool watching this change from meeting her outside, walking through the precinct, and then going to her office. And when the door closed, we were giggling like a couple of girls. Someone would knock on the door, her whole demeanor would change. It was really interesting having the opportunity to do that.
BIANCULLI: S. Epatha Merkerson speaking to Terry Gross in 2006.
"Law and Order" lasted 20 years on NBC, tying "Gunsmoke" as the longest-running primetime drama series.
Coming up, clarinetist Artie Shaw, as we mark the hundredth anniversary of his birthday.
This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.