Finally, the truth comes out. Dick Wolf, creator and producer of Law & Order, says there's "a secret ingredient" in every episode that keeps his long-running series going strong. "It's visual nicotine," he says. "The more you watch, the more you HAVE to watch. You get hooked. But it's a very good addiction. It keeps people off the streets." Wolf is just joking, of course, but there really IS an addictive quality to Law & Order. The acclaimed crime-and-punishment drama is now in its 17th season. Not a single member of the original cast remains today. But the look, the rhythm, the feel hasn't changed. Tune in to any of more than 350 episodes on TNT and, with only a handful of exceptions, you know precisely what you'll get: an hour of television that's half murder mystery, half legal and moral quagmire -- and 100 percent satisfying. It's formulaic yet, after all these years, somehow always fresh. When we chatted with Wolf about the show and its remarkable endurance, here's what we learned.
What do you consider to be the secret to Law & Order's success?
"Television is a vast wasteland most of the time because of one simple fact: Most programmers and most producers underestimate the audience. The writers on Law & Order know that there are rules that are absolutely unbreakable, like the fact that information is never, ever repeated twice. If you give the audience a challenge and if the show is well-written, which in drama is the key to everything, and if the show is well-acted, you have a much higher chance of succeeding rather than by catering to a lower common denominator."
What was the genesis of the "ripped from the headlines" premise?
"The background story is that, when [NBC president] Brandon Tartikoff bought the show, he said, 'What's the bible?' That's what you put together to say where the show is going and what the characters are going to become, et cetera, et cetera. I looked at him and said, 'Our bible is the front page of the New York Post.' And that's what it's turned out to be. When we're working a Law & Order story, we take the headline, but the body copy is never the same."
Why do you stop at the headline?
"Because 99 percent of the murders don't fulfill either of the criteria of making a good episode, which is the first half is a murder mystery and the second half is a moral mystery. Real life comes up short because usually you know immediately who did it. The story is usually that the guy is under arrest, the case is over, he's going to be convicted and there are no twists or turns. So we take just that headline."
When making of the pilot, how big did you dream in terms of longevity? Did you hope for two or three seasons? Or two or three HUNDRED episodes?
"I was just hoping to go past 10 shows. I was hoping to get a back-nine order for the first season. Every show is born under an execution order. They just don't tell you the date."
It's been said that virtually every actor working on Broadway has been in at least one episode of Law & Order. Is that one of the advantages of making the show in New York, the fact that you have such a great pool of actors?
"The reality is if you go to the theater in New York, if somebody doesn't have Law & Order in their playbill biography, they either just got off the bus or they're really bad actors. One of the great gifts of having these actors is they take what is often essentially expository material and they continually make it fresh and real."
Real-life cops often commend the fact that Law & Order isn't chock-full of raging gun battles. How meaningful is it to you that the show is more realistic than most cop shows?
"This show is not about car chases and people hopping over garbage cans and tackling criminals. I mean, the cops have tackled a bunch of people over the years. But that's not the reason people are watching. The reality is most cops never shoot anybody. They occasionally pull a gun. But most detectives go their entire careers without getting in a gunfight. The only time [in the first 300 episodes] that the cops on our show fired their guns was when Epatha Merkerson [who plays Lt. Anita Van Buren] was at the cash machine with her two boys in the car and she shot the kid who was robbing her. That was the only time. Which is the reality of 99 percent of the police officers in this country."
Is it possible that the show ever got "too real" for any of your actors?
"When Michael Moriarty was on the show, he would get so upset that he would literally go into a major depression on cases he lost. And by the end of the first season, I had to tell him, because he was just totally bummed out, I said, 'Michael, you have to lose occasionally.' He said, 'This was wrong. This guy was dead-bang guilty. We never should have lost this case.' I said, 'I hate to break something to you. At the end of the show, when you convict them, the actors don't go to Attica!'"
When is it most satisfying for you to be doing this show? What accomplishments make you happiest?
"When Law & Order is truly at its best, somebody's ox is being gored. Somebody once said to me, 'You've got an awful lot of rich white guys killing people in your show.' And I said, 'That's because there's no rich white guys pressure group.' But the fact is, in more than 300 episodes, we have offended every race, color, creed, religion."
And you think being an equal-opportunity offender is good television?
"The best shows are often the most controversial, where people's preconceptions are the most challenged. That's the continuing joy of the show. No issue is black or white. It's all about all the shades of gray that are part and parcel of life in America. This show is a wonderful bully pulpit, because it still has maintained this cutting edge on storytelling. I think the shows are stronger than they've ever been. We haven't jumped the shark yet, thank God."