'Law & Order: SVU' and 'Chicago Fire' Bosses Talk Dick Wolf's Words of Wisdom and His Fight for Jason Beghe

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Warren Leight and Matt Olmstead

Warren Leight and Matt Olmstead recall their first meetings with and most memorable stories about THR's TV Producer of the Year.

Dick Wolf has a lot to celebrate. In addition to his three returning shows, Law & Order: SVU, Chicago Fire and Chicago P.D. — all of which were renewed in February — the Peacock just picked up a fourth series, Fire spinoff Chicago Med, from The Hollywood Reporter's TV Producer of the Year.

Dick Wolf has a lot to celebrate. In addition to his three returning shows, Law & Order: SVU, Chicago Fire and Chicago P.D. — all of which were renewed in February — the Peacock just picked up a fourth series, Fire spinoff Chicago Med, from The Hollywood Reporter's TV Producer of the Year.

Suffice it to say, it takes a well-oiled machine to keep everything on track. And two important parts of that machine are showrunners Warren Leight and Matt Olmstead. Before joining SVU as showrunner in 2011, Leight logged four years as a staff writer/producer and two as showrunner on Criminal Intent. A more recent Wolf Films recruit, Olmstead has served as showrunner on Chicago Fire for all three seasons — the last two while simultaneously running the ship on spinoff Chicago P.D.

THR recently caught up with Leight and Olmstead to discuss their first meetings with Wolf, favorite stories and how to stay on his good side.

When did you first meet Dick?

Leight: I had been a staff writer/producer on Criminal Intent for a number of years. I would see him in the hallway, but I would just go the other way. I just thought that was safer, and then five years into my run, I got a call: "Dick Wolf wants to meet with you," which seems scary. I had no idea what it was about, and it turned out that the showrunner, Rene Balcer, had decided not to come back, and the season was about to start, the writing team was about to start. I go in and meet with him and he said, "They say you're a nice guy. You know you can't be a nice guy if you're a showrunner." I go, "Well, I think different personalities can learn," and he goes, "Well, but you know you may need to be tough." I go, "I'm sorry, what are we talking about here?" And he said, "Rene's decided not to come back. But you know you can't be too nice. You have to be able to be —" I said, "Are you asking me if I want to be the showrunner?" He goes, "Yes." I said, "Oh, well, if you're giving me the shot, I'll take it." And he goes, "That's all I need to hear." And that was the entire job interview. (Laughs.)

Olmstead: I had known Derek [Haas] and Michael [Brandt], who created Chicago Fire, for like 10 years prior to working on Chicago Fire. They were in features and I was in TV, so there was never any thought about working together, which was great. Friendships are always a little bit easier when that happens. So they create Chicago Fire, they're looking for a showrunner, my show had just ended — it was a very strange confluence of events. So they brought my name up to Dick and we met at the Beverly Hills Hotel, and I think there was another showrunner or showrunners in the queue behind me waiting to meet him. He was going through meetings and we had a very nice conversation. I always remember because at the end of it, he was saying that his hope whenever he meets a writer and is about to go into business with a writer is that he's having the same great conversation with them in six years. It's very fanciful because there are so many impediments to that ever happening. I remember thinking we might have a pretty good shot at that happening, and here we are.

How did he differ from your perception of him?

Leight: I know him as a human being now, but you have to understand in New York, he's an icon. This guy, basically, there'd be no theater left in New York if Law & Order hadn't stayed on the air in the '90s. There was no television at all being shot. There are many producers in L.A., and in New York at that time, there was really only Dick Wolf. I didn't even know that was a real person for a number of years, I just assumed it was some mythical character that employed all of my friends. So I was actually nervous to see him in the halls, and I figured if you stay out of the way maybe you won't get shot or something like that. It turns out I haven't been shot yet. But it was like meeting someone you've heard about for 15 years.

Olmstead: You don't last as long as he has and have the success that he's had without having some sharp elbows. I've known people that have been fired off of Law & Order, and you hear the stories, and it didn't dissuade me at all. He's result-oriented, and so as long as it's getting done, he's a super-loyal guy. People who work with him, assistants and people in his company, have been here for 20-plus years. He just wants to win. He wants to have good material, and as long as that's happening, he's a pleasant person to work with. I'd heard stories coming in and I've never seen that side of him in the four years I've been here.

Do you have any favorite stories about him?

Leight: That first time I met him and I got home, I thought, "I think my life just changed." Dick has changed a lot of people's lives. It's amazing the ripple effect of the work that he's brought to New York and now Chicago, and how many people's lives have been made whole by that.

Olmstead: We were doing some reshoots for the pilot of Chicago Fire. We were casting this role of a dirty cop, the Voight character, and at that point it was just going to be a three-episode arc for that character. I pitched it to Dick and he said, "Jason Beghe." … He's in his director's chair. I think on one phone he was either buying or selling a piece of art and on the other phone he was dealing with casting in terms of who the Voight character was going to be. I've known him to be super-even-tempered and never lose it, but there were some impediments to Jason Beghe being approved for Voight, and I saw the temper come out in defense of what he felt was the right choice. As it turned out, he was vindicated, certainly, because Jason Beghe went on to be the lead of his own show [Chicago P.D.].

Dick Wolf's management style is …

Leight: He's a classic laissez-faire manager. You get to do what you want to do until you screw up. So then I'll go a long period of time where I'm not in great touch with him or it's just pleasant. If he trusts you, he lets you do your work, and if something bugs him, that's when he calls. So you know you're pleasing Dick if you don't hear from him, and if your phone is lighting up a lot with his name, that may mean you have some reshoots or rewrites to do. But he has a very clear-cut style. Sometimes in these relationships, you're supposed to kiss ass. That's just the deal. Dick doesn't need that. He's very intelligent. You can have a strong discussion. You have to know when to stop, I think. But I like that the goal is always to make the best show you can. I've never been asked to dumb something down. You're allowed to write as complex a story as you can in 42 minutes. He doesn't ask you to pander to an audience, and that's a relief.

Olmstead: He likes to keep a light hand on the wheel. He lets people do their jobs. He's not micromanaging, he's not pulling the rug just to pull the rug. He watches and he encourages at the right time so you feel very empowered as you do your job, but when something's not working, he moves in, and when there's a problem or disagreement with network or whomever, he moves in. Just knowing that is comforting because he's there to fight those battles if they need to be fought. It's a very shrewd management style in that he lets people do their job, which is good for him, and good for them and everybody. He's not someone you feel is breathing down your neck and is, for whatever reason, an impediment. He really puts you in a position to succeed.

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