Decades from now, when social historians want to know what the late 20th and early 21st centuries looked and sounded like, one place they’ll go will be the nearly 500 episodes of the original Law & Order. The series’ could take any event in the world, from homicide to scandal to war and, using New York city as its petrie dish, mix reality and fiction to create the greatest one hour drama ever produced for television.
Law & Order inaugurated a golden age of one hour dramas on broadcast television that would last almost a decade, until The Sopranos made mainstreaming deviancy fashionable and profitable on cable TV, and took the one hour drama into areas of content, subject matter and taste where shows on advertiser suppported networks couldn’t follow.
For fourteen years, I worked on Law & Order, from Season Two through Fifteen, my last ten running the production office. Since leaving the show five years ago, I have held my breath each spring until it’s renewal for another season was announced. This year, the network that screwed up Jay Leno and The Tonight Show and drove Conan O’Brien away sank to a new perverse level by denying Law & Order the chance to become the longest running drama series in television history. Typically, they waited until the season was over to make their announcement, until the crew had gone on hiatus, the annual ritual of coping with the traumatic stress disorder that is the reality of working the episodic TV schedule.
It is downright weird to contemplate a future in which there would be no Law & Order featuring its greatest and most enduring character, New York city itself. The city will lose much more than the approximately $80 million a year the show pumped into its economy. Among the rank file of the IATSE, the Screen Actor’s Guild and Actor’s Equity, I guarantee you there is real grief. When I left the show, our cast data base had well over 10,000 actors who had drawn a paycheck working on Law & Order over the years.
There are a lot of stories within Law & Order’s history that have never been told. One of the more remarkable is how Ed Sherin, a veteran Broadway and TV director, nurtured and mentored the careers of a handful of tech crew members who are now regular directors of television shows. Another, lost in dusty cartons of production reports and budgets, is how the original line producers, Jeffrey Hayes, Lew Gould and Kati Johnston, produced 22 to 24 hours of television year in and year out on time and on budget, an extraordinary feat of professional acumen. Another feat was Suzanne Ryan, casting over a dozen speaking parts for every episode in addition to the six regular actors. Or how Law & Order survived constant changes in Universal TV studio ownership without losing its direction or soul. Or the day Gregory Hines, playing a defense attorney, grew bored in a packed courtroom waiting for a lighting change and got up and began tap dancing and literally stopped the show. Or how on September 11, 2001, members of the crew were location scouting for a planned Law & Order mini-series about a terrorist attack on New York city. That script went on the shelf, and after the anthrax attack on 30 Rockefeller Center, the P.A’s in the office spent the remainder of the season opening our mail in a closed room wearing dust masks and latex gloves.
But the most important story within the show for me is the people I worked with. It is an unfortunate fact that within the glamorous confines of a film company there is often factionalization, back biting, ego busting, petty competitiveness and a sour, spiteful atmosphere quite apart from the creative conflict necessary to produce the best possible product. But Law & Order was legendary among film crews as a great place to work. In an industry where, as Dick Wolf once said, “Shadenfreude is considered a polite emotion,” everyone worked together in a spirit of profound respect for each other’s contribution. Whatever momentary bitchery may have erupted in the daily tumult of working in a highly charged atmosphere, I am sure that everyone who ever worked on Law & Order is thinking right now of the others they worked with and sharing a deep grief at the end of a remarkable experience.
One anecdote illustrates what I mean. When the late Jerry Orbach chose to leave the show, in the spring of 2004, the wrap party that year was his farewell. Jesse L. Martin and Epatha took the stage with a piano player and serenaded him with a version of “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.” An official from the Detectives Endowment Association presented Jerry with a plaque for making New York City cops look so good. Other speeches and testimonials were offered, and then Jerry took the stage and did one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen, a gesture entirely in keeping with the man’s elegant nature. While the piano player comped the chords of the Rogers & Hammerstein song, “Favorite Things”, he sang the song, having rewritten its lyrics, to portray virtually everybody on the crew going about their jobs, accurately and in detail. Only we knew at the time Jerry was leaving because the cancer he’d been battling for years was gaining on him, and that fact gave the song’s refrain I just remember my favorite things / and then I don’t feel so bad a devastating poignancy. Of course, Jerry tossed the song off with his usual nonchalance. but in a way, that’s what working on Law & Order was like: cool expertise and the highest degree of craft, to produce stories that touched the heart.
The Hudson Reporter June 20, 2010