This story first appeared in the May 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
“You’ve got to see this,” says Dick Wolf, swiping through the photos on his iPhone. He finds what he’s hunting for: a snapshot of a tattoo on a fan’s calf made up of the four words that appear at the conclusion of every one of his television shows: Executive Producer Dick Wolf. Adds the 68-year-old producer: “Somebody’s got one on their tricep, too. I suppose it’s an insane compliment?”
He’s gotten plenty of sane ones, as well. With an unprecedented two back-to-back hit franchises — Law & Order and Chicago Fire — he’s among the most successful producers in TV history. Come the 2015-16 season, Wolf Films, his production company, will be responsible for a staggering four hours of NBC’s weekly schedule, with a newly added medical spinoff, Chicago Med, joining Chicago Fire, Chicago P.D. and the long-running Law & Order: SVU, now wrapping its 16th season. In addition, the network is prepping a one-hour Wolf-produced live special, You the Jury, which will give viewers a chance to decide the verdict in real-life civil cases.
In recent years, Wolf also has been making a push into unscripted, with projects including TNT’s Cold Justice and A&E’s Nightwatch. He has tentacles in publishing, too, where he’s churned out a collection of best-selling thrillers — his third novel, The Ultimatum, comes out in June — that he’d like to turn into television fare.
The Manhattan native followed his father into the advertising business before turning his attention to Hollywood, where he landed his first TV gig tapping out scripts for Hill Street Blues. Thirty years and a million “chung-chungs” later, his team is in the middle of talks for a new deal that’ll likely be among the richest in television to keep him at his longtime home, Universal Television.
In addition to the eight series he already has on the air, Wolf, now a Montecito, Calif., resident, has more ideas brewing — though he’s perhaps most determined to revive the show that started it all. He believes the original Law & Order was prematurely canceled after a mere 20 years. (And yes, that “chung-chung” is his ringtone.)
During an interview at his office on the Universal lot, the married father of five and two-time Emmy winner opens up about his biggest frustrations, the time Barry Diller told him to get down on his knees and the real reason he’s pushing into reality TV.
You were reluctant to take your first job on Hill Street Blues. Why?
My agent called and said, “Do you want to do TV?” I said, “Absolutely not.” I was a screenwriter! She said it was Hill Street, my favorite show, so I said, “Oh, that’s different.” I wrote a script, David Milch read it and wanted me to go on staff. This was the conversation I had with my agent on speakerphone: “Hill Street wants you to go on staff.” “No. I don’t want to go into an office. I’ve done that.” Then she said, “Let me explain something to you: They’ll pay you $6,000 a week and then they’ll pay you for your scripts on top of that.” My wife at the time walked over, leaned down and said, “He’ll be there Monday.”
Dick Wolf was photographed in his office by Christopher Patey.
You surprised a lot of people when you left Hill Street after one season to do Miami Vice.
People were like, “What are you, crazy? You’re going from the best show on TV to a cartoon?” I said, “From a résumé standpoint, I know that if I do a decent job, there’s nobody who will ever question whether I can do cop shows.”
Unlike those two shows, Law & Order was your own creation. What was your pitch?
It was the era when you couldn’t give away hour shows in syndication; they only wanted sitcoms. So as soon as the ’87 writers strike was over, there was this rush to get development back on track, and I’d spent about two months looking at things that could be literally split in two [half-hour segments] for syndication. We pitched Law & Order and a medical drama. I had no idea what was going to sell. The one thing I knew was that Fox was doing different kinds of programming, so we went over and pitched Law & Order to Barry Diller, who bought 13 [episodes] in the room. Then the next day he called back and reneged.
What was his rationale?
Well, 12 years later, when he bought Universal, I had lunch with him and I said, “You do remember …” And he said, “Of course, I remember, and you should get on your knees and thank me because if it had gone on Fox it never would have been on now.” He said it wasn’t a Fox show, and, in fairness, he was right. So after Fox reneged, we went over and sold it to CBS and made the pilot. We were assured, as you are during development, “Oh yeah, this is going to go.” And then no pickup. A year later, I went in and saw Brandon [Tartikoff] at NBC and ran the pilot for him. He said: “That’s great. How are you going to do that every week?” I said, “Give me six scripts and I’ll prove it to you.” Even then, it was obvious to me that the ripped-from-the-headlines formula worked. That first season, we had Cynthia Nixon do one about a subway shooting that reminded you of Bernie Goetz. And then we did one about the bombing of an abortion clinic.
Brandon was a fan, but how about the rest of NBC?
If it wasn’t for Brandon, the show never would have gotten past 13 episodes. Everybody in the entire building except for Brandon Tartikoff wanted the show off the air. On the abortion episode, there were $900,000 in advertiser pull-outs. Brandon didn’t care. It was a good show.
You’ve had to deal with a fair amount of cast turnover on your shows, and those exits haven’t always been graceful. Any particularly wild ones come to mind?
I’ll never forget when Michael [Moriarty] resigned [from Law & Order]. The fax came in the middle of the night to California, which means that he’d been up all night [in New York]. It was like, “I can’t continue.” It was things like the “Nazification of television” and everything else with Janet Reno. [Editor’s note: Moriarty had threatened a lawsuit against the then attorney general, who had cited Law & Order as offensively violent.] Warren [Littlefield of NBC] called me at home, which never happened, at 7 a.m. He said, “Did you get this?” I said, “Of course I got it.” He said, “What are we going to do? He’s the moral heart of the show. There’s no way we can work around this.” I said, “Sure there is. I’ve got two words for you: Sam Waterston.” He went, “Oh, OK.” (Laughs.) But then when Jerry Orbach came in [to replace Paul Sorvino], Warren got very upset and said, “You know, this is ridiculous.” I said, ‘”No, no, no. It’s no problem.” He didn’t want to use Jerry because Jerry had done a failed show on CBS the year before, which had been a spinoff of Murder, She Wrote. He said, “Over my dead body.” I said, “Warren, die.”
On several occasions, your shows have proved prescient. When were you most startled by life imitating art?
It was probably 2001, when [we were about to shoot] a five-hour miniseries [titled Terror] which had the cast of all three Law & Orders in it. The opening shot was an exterior of a madrassa in Afghanistan, with a bunch of 10-year-olds in a classroom with their hands up, saying, “God is great, death to America.” One of the older brothers and three other guys drive across the Canadian border to New York to set off a bomb killing 2,500 people. It had been a year in prep, we were about to start shooting it, but obviously it could not have been made.
You have reality shows at TNT, A&E and Showtime. Why the push into unscripted?
Tom Thayer, my partner in the unscripted area, came to me about four years ago and said, “Do you want to get in the unscripted business?” I’d sort of been in it. I still think Crime & Punishment is the best unscripted crime show ever put on network television, and it was a big hit for NBC for the summers when it was on [2002-04]. But what I said to Tom is, if we can do these shows 20 to 25 percent better than what’s out there, we could be a significant presence in five years. I’d say Cold Justice exceeds that metric, and Nightwatch is doing real business for A&E. This is a unit that, ideally, can be built up and be sold because that is what’s been happening with reality companies. You look at these prices and you go, “Excuse me?”
Your deal with Universal is coming up. What’s most important to you now? Money? Autonomy?
This is always a dangerous area because anybody who says it’s not about money is lying. Obviously, it’s always about money. But at this stage, what’s much more important is support. With the Chicago shows, there’s no reason they can’t run as long as the Law & Orders did. Let’s be conservative and say 10 years.
One byproduct of having multiple shows is that you can’t be as hands-on. How comfortable were you making that adjustment?
I love being the sort of fireman that is available but not involved day-to-day a lot more. I like lots of the things going on. I get up in the morning and I don’t know what the day looks like. It’s like having a good breakfast buffet every day. You come down and go, “OK, either what’s burning or what is the next thing that has to be addressed?” I read every script, but the notes are minimal.
Fair to call it a well-oiled machine at this point?
It’s a well?oiled creative machine, which means every once in a while a wheel goes flying off or the engine overheats. But with the Chicago shows, we’re doing 46 episodes this year, and we’ve never missed an airdate and we come in on budget. That takes discipline on everybody’s part. The wonderful thing about the company is, we don’t make Ferraris. We make Mercedes S-class sedans. They’re black. They’re not flashy. But they run for hundreds of thousands of miles. That’s what they’re designed to do.
Do you miss writing episodes?
I’ve never been a person who actually enjoys the writing process. It’s a means to an end. I’ve never made a dime in my life that wasn’t based on writing, but it is not my favorite activity.
Yet you’re about to publish your third novel. And unlike TV shows, writing books is a solitary process.
It’s a very solitary process and, in all honesty, somewhat disappointing. I called HarperCollins about three months after the first book had been released and said, “How are we doing?” My editor said, “Oh, really well.” I asked how many hard copies, and he said 12,000. I said, “What? Are there three more zeros?”
If you could revive any one of your projects, which would you bring back first?
Oh, I’d bring back Law & Order. Everybody who knows me knows it’s something I want to do. My only regret looking backward is all the great stories that we haven’t been able to do for the past five years. It feels like there’s something every day. I would have loved us to have found a way to do Blackwater. And then [Robert] Durst, obviously.
The industry today has changed drastically from the one you entered. What keeps you up at night?
Nobody knows what anything is going to be worth. Anybody who tells you what the business is going to be like in five years is either drunk or crazy because nobody knows.
What are you watching on TV these days?
I’ll watch anything, but there’s little I’m addicted to except for Jimmy Fallon. That’s must-watch for me. And then I usually go to USA or TNT and fall asleep to Law & Order.