Dialogue: Dick Wolf

The brains and brawn behind 'L&O' discusses his approach to the job

Although his long-running NBC cops-and-criminals franchise "Law & Order" deals with the grit and goons of New York, Dick Wolf chooses to pursue far more civilized pastimes outside the office. When he isn't sailing in Maine or tinkering with cars, he's watching French New Wave cinema and collecting old watches, antique maps and rare books. Yet, even with -- or some would say despite -- his rich life outside of work, Wolf manages to spend much of his time overseeing a vast show-business landscape, devoting endless hours to what he says is pure joy and "the best sandbox ever invented." Wolf recently spoke with Susan Green for The Hollywood Reporter about how he got his start in the business and how he maintains his passion for entertainment.

The Hollywood Reporter: American crime is your bailiwick. Shows you created on other subjects didn't survive for long.
Dick Wolf: Luck of the draw, but you learn as much from failures. I still think there are very ripe areas that nobody has cracked in years and years and years -- like journalism. One of the things that affected NBC's "Deadline" was the fact that it came on just as the digital age was being born. Very few people now use newspapers as their primary source of information. NBC's "Mann & Machine" taught me that you don't want to do science fiction that's set more than about 15 minutes in the future, because the cars and the wardrobe alone will make you go insane.

THR: How does your team make it all happen?
Wolf: Everyone's concerned with quality control. They have to deal with putting out multiple fires every day. Nobody does this alone. Nobody. The lucky ones have an infrastructure of enormously talented people willing to work, you know, 60-hour weeks for 10 months a year.

THR: What's your management style?
Wolf: I hope I have a light hand on the tiller. Over the years, I'm always asked what I do best as a producer. The answer hasn't changed: I let people do their jobs and support them to as great a degree as I can.

THR: You've got "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" in the works as an HBO film. What else is on tap for the future?
Wolf: HBO is open to the possibility of doing something in that vein again. And we also have a feature-film division. There aren't that many people out there with an original James Ellroy screenplay that survived three different regimes at Paramount, but (it) is unlikely to get made. (1992's) "School Ties" took 11 years and made 11 cents. Maybe not even that much. That's my level of frustration with movies, squared. It takes too long and gets too expensive.

THR: Beyond that, what's life like for you at age 60?
Wolf: About once every six weeks, I walk by a mirror and go, "Oh, my God, look at that." But I actually don't feel any different than when I started on "Hill Street Blues" in the mid-1980s. I really don't. And it's a lot more fun now. My fondest hope is that they'll pry the remote out of my cold, dead fingers, and I'll still be on primetime.

THR: Warren Leight, NBC's "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" showrunner, remembers that you called him from the prairie. He claims you were in the midst of a semispiritual experience while looking at 50,000 buffalo but still had time to phone him about the poisoning of a victim on the show.
Wolf: I was up in Calgary, (Canada), but we were preparing a huge (computer-generated imagery) shot for "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee," with dozens and dozens of teepees and hundreds of horses.

THR: Your attorney, Clifford Gilbert-Lurie of Ziffren, Brittenham, Branca, Fischer, Gilbert-Lurie, Stiffelman & Cook Llp., describes riding around with you in New York. He says that even in the midst of intense conversations, you'll go through the New York Times and the tabloids and magazines, circling stories you like, and a week or two later they're "Law & Order" scripts. Do you think he's on target in suggesting you have a Renaissance mind?
Wolf: Everybody multitasks.

THR: Do you ever regret that producing obligations have eclipsed your career as writer?
Wolf: I wrote the "Law & Order" and (NBC's "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit") pilots and all the early episodes of "New York Undercover." But I'm much happier being involved with the storytelling process behind the scenes. Writing is a very sobering exercise. I do it as a necessary step, putting down a template that can be replicated.

THR: Is it true there are framed letters of complaint in your office that legendary authors such as Charles Dickens, John Steinbeck and Dashiell Hammett wrote to their agents or editors?
Wolf: They're about money, which is a constant theme for all writers.

THR: Why is the idea of a "Law & Order" brand so meaningful to you?
Wolf: When I started in advertising, there was Crest -- one toothpaste -- but then mint-flavored came in, and gel. Now, there are probably six or seven generations of Crest, yet the tagline I wrote still holds: "You can't beat Crest for fighting cavities." If you get kids hooked on Crest and that becomes their toothpaste, you have a customer -- essentially for life. People don't tend to change for a different consistency or flavor, and now Crest has all those varieties. That's the concept behind brand expansion.

THR: Your parents both worked at NBC and even met there, so why did you go into advertising instead of television?
Wolf: My father and I had the same career spokes but in a different order. He started out in television and then went into the advertising side as a producer. That was in the era when the ad agencies controlled schedules, so the advertising he did was very similar to programming.

THR: What made you switch gears and head west in the mid-1970s?
Wolf: I left New York five days after my 30th birthday because I didn't want to sell toothpaste anymore.

THR: Your lineage is both Catholic and Jewish. Was "School Ties," the screenplay you wrote about anti-Semitism at a prep school, based on what you actually witnessed or experienced?
Wolf: No, it wasn't autobiographical. The picture is set in the 1950s, not the '60s, when I went to (Phillips Academy) Andover, and the school in the movie is a decidedly WASPier place. But anti-Semitism was certainly alive and well in America then and still is now.

THR: President George W. Bush was in your class at Andover?
Wolf: He was the only person that nobody hated. I wasn't surprised at all he went into politics. He's personable, charismatic and charming.

THR: What was it like meeting up with him again when you screened "Twin Towers," the Oscar-winning short documentary about sibling rescue workers who perished on Sept. 11, for him at the White House in 2003?
Wolf: I hadn't seen him at that point in almost 39 years. When I said, "Mr. President, you may not remember me, but in school I used to be called Wolfie." He replied, "Oh, sure I do. You did good." And I said, "Well, you didn't do too bad, either."

THR: That was a pretty good Texas drawl. Did he proceed to call you Wolfie for the rest of the night?
Wolf: There weren't that many intimate exchanges. It was a great evening, but you realize how lucky you are not to live there after you leave.

THR: Where are you on the political spectrum?
Wolf: I'm a fiscal conservative and social liberal. On Fox News, Bill O'Reilly once said that that I'm one of the biggest pinkos in Hollywood.

THR: He must have you confused with your grandmother, who was a communist back in the day. You relocated to California in the 1970s, so why do most of your shows take place in New York?
Wolf: When you grow up in the city, it never leaves you. A crime any place in the world can be replicated there believably. And I had been shooting on the streets of New York for years -- commercials, the (1988) feature film "Masquerade" and a lot of other things.

THR: In 1999, you were appointed an honorary consul for Monaco. What's that about?
Wolf: About 10 years ago, their television festival was at a sort of low ebb, and they didn't have anybody inside the Hollywood community to help them. I'd been to Monaco a few times. They invited me to become an honorary consul, which carries full diplomatic immunity.

THR: Does that mean you could commit a crime in Monte Carlo and get away with it?
Wolf: No, no, no. But if a Monaco citizen commits a crime there, they could call me, and I'd get them a lawyer. In 10 years, the phone has never rung.   

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