In the television programming system, Dick Wolf’s long-running NBC crime drama Law & Order is represented by two separate yet equally important groups: The artists who made the show, and the fans who are craving that juicy behind-the-scenes gossip.
These are their stories. CHUNK-CHUNK.
The series’ beginning was difficult
Executive producer Dick Wolf’s original pitch for the show? A more optimistic look at law enforcement, after a deluge of darkness in detective shows. He also wanted to show the first half focusing on the police, and the second half on the attorneys. His title?
Night & Day.
Eventually, he found his better title, and took it to networks to pitch. Fox was interested and ordered 13 episodes — before they cancelled their decision. CBS ordered a pilot, but passed on the series. Finally, NBC skeptically gave it a first season, using the CBS pilot as its sixth episode.
The opening voiceover guy has an interesting story
After working for a local Maine radio station post-college-graduation, Steven Zirnkilton got into politics, serving as a state Congressman from 1982-1988, and then again from 1992-1994. What happened in that break?
Why, he recorded one of the most iconic voiceovers of all time.
That’s right: The deep-voiced guy who tells us about the criminal justice system is a Maine politician named Steven Zirnkilton. Zirnkilton has also done voiceover work for The Rugrats Movie, Family Guy, and several criminal justice-related documentaries. Zirnkilton does appear onscreen in season one Law & Order episode “Everybody’s Favorite Bagman.”
So, like, what the heck is that sound?
You know the one. Whenever they move to a new location, we hear that “chunk chunk.” Richard Belzer jokingly called it “the Dick Wolf Cash Register Sound.” But what actually is it? Besides the sound that will make us crave a lazy Sunday L&O marathon, Pavlov-style?
Composer Mike Post, who also wrote the minimalist clarinet-funk theme song, knows the secrets of the “chunk chunk.” And while he won’t give it all away, he did say it’s “six or seven” sounds put together. Among its bonkers soundscapes, you hear 500 Japanese men walking across a hardwood floor.
There were lots of casting arguments
For Detective Mike Logan, producers got stuck between Chris Noth and Reservoir Dogs’ Michael Madsen. They ultimately thought Madsen would be too repetitive, and went with Noth instead.
George Dzundza, the other original detective, quit after the first season because he didn’t like its ensemble nature.
NBC wanted Wolf to add women, or the show would be cancelled. So he created Dr. Elizabeth Olivet, a psychologist played by Carolyn McCormick. McCormick grew dissatisfied with her “psychobabble” role, and quit after season seven for another show. But then, she recurred from season 13 until the show’s end.
One actor got himself into a lot of trouble
Tony and Emmy-winning Michael Moriarty played Executive Assistant District Attorney Ben Stone, Wolf’s choice for the role (NBC wanted James Naughton). And the creative partnership was fruitful. Until Attorney General Janet Reno made public statements about violence in TV. And then all heck broke loose.
Moriarty, who later admitted his alcoholism, gave a fiery public statement calling Reno “psychopathic” and comparing her to a fascist. Then, at a dinner Reno had with Wolf, Moriarty burst in and confronted her aggressively. He quit the show the following week, being replaced by Sam Waterston as Jack McCoy.
Real life disagreements led to creative decisions for one actor
After Wolf fired Richard Brooks and Dann Florek from the show (Florek later moving to Special Victims Unit), Noth became annoyed. He felt that Wolf no longer had his actors interests at heart, and expressed his displeasures.
So Wolf… fired him.
Wolf replaced Noth with Benjamin Bratt, and exiled Noth’s character to a different precinct after he punched someone who got away with a hate crime. Later, the Law & Order made-for-TV movie Exiled dealt with Noth’s character trying to get back in with the NYPD.
All from one disagreement.
One off-screen story was more tragic than anything onscreen
Jerry Orbach is a damn icon. Before teaming up with Jesse L. Martin to make, in our opinion, the best detective team on Law & Order, he originated roles in The Fantasticks and Chicago, before playing Lumière in the OG Beauty and the Beast. A perfect actor, with a bittersweet ending.
Orbach was diagnosed with prostate cancer two years into his Law & Order run, but treated it with hormone therapy. In 2004, he left the show to star on Law & Order: Trial By Jury — and secretly undergo more intense chemotherapy. Unfortunately, he died from the disease in December of that year.
The show’s last seasons were difficult for everyone
After the departures of Orbach and Martin, Wolf threw everyone at the screen to see if it would stick. Dennis Farina started as Orbach’s replacement. Michael Imperioli, who had previously played a murder suspect, was hired as Martin’s replacement.
But nobody, from Wolf to the fans, was happy.
Wolf brought back Martin, got rid of Farina and Imperioli, and cast Milena Govich as Martin’s new partner and Alana de la Garza as the new ADA. NBC was still unhappy, so in its final season, the two detectives were Jeremy Sisto and Anthony Anderson.
“Ripped From the Headlines” caused some legal trouble
In its need for over 20 crimes a season, Wolf and his writers and producers perfected the “ripped from the headlines” method, where they would use real life cases as inspiration. Usually, Wolf and his crew would add revisionist elements to their new stories.
But sometimes they struck too close.
Attorney Ravi Batra sued NBC over “Floater,” an episode featuring a villainous lawyer named Ravi Patel that Batra asserted was based on him. He said, “Their defense is worthless, because their claim to fame is that they are a reality-based show. How could they not know it was me?”
Dick Wolf has just written all the TV dramas
Before creating the Law & Order media empire, Wolf began his writing career working on the most sterling of television products: commercials. He crafted slogans for airlines and toothpaste companies before getting his break writing for acclaimed cop dramas Hill Street Blues and Miami Vice.
After the L&O train began a-chugging, Wolf created another TV drama empire: the Chicago series. Wolf has Chicago Fire, Chicago P.D., Chicago Med, and Chicago Justice — all detailing the professional lives and cases of that city. Wolf has also developed some unscripted shows and written detective novels.
One actor found his role life-affirming
Steven Hill, known first for his role as the organizer of IMF on the Mission: Impossible series, played DA Adam Schiff for ten years on the show. Schiff was based on the real New York district attorney Robert Morgenthau, who quite liked Hill’s performance.
Hill had trouble with the legal jargon, calling it “acting in a second language.” But he also viewed his experience as a refreshing call of goodness in a dark world. “The positive must be stated to rescue us from pandemonium. To me it lies in that principle: law and order.”
One widely disliked character got a bonkers exit
Elisabeth Röhm played assistant district attorney Serena Southerlyn for four seasons. Critics and fans… really did not like her. To a vicious degree. Words like “tedious monotone,” “robotic actress,” “catastrophe,” and “arguably the most inept cast member” were bandied around.
For Röhm’s final episode, Wolf asked: “Do you want to go out with a bang or a whimper?” And in her final scene, she asks her boss if she’s being let go because she’s a lesbian. The first — and by definition the last — time she ever mentioned her sexuality.
One actor’s art imitated his life, and then vice versa
Fred Thompson first became publicly known as a fierce attorney and lobbyist, whose professional accomplishments on widely publicized scandals reshaped modern political history. And then, in 1985, he was asked to play himself in a movie about a case of his.
And then history changed.
Thompson shifted gears into acting, popping up in Die Hard 2 and Days of Thunder — before taking a break to become a Senator for nine years. Then, after those terms, he played DA Arthur Branch on Law & Order for five years — before quitting again to run for friggin’ President!
One star was struggling behind the scenes
Playing Lieutenant Anita Van Buren from season four until the 20th and final season, S. Epatha Merkerson became an instantly beloved mainstay on Law & Order. But as her character lit up the screen, Merkerson was having off-screen troubles with lighting up.
She smoked three packs of cigarettes a day while shooting. She saw two friends die of lung cancer. And she still kept going, until the pain became so unbearable it felt like an “elephant sitting on my chest.” She quit, and now works as an advocate for anti-smoking organizations.
One celebrity has Law & Order to thank for a huge life event
Amy Poehler, star of Saturday Night Live and Parks and Recreation, was pregnant, sitting at home, and doing what she often did to relax: watching an episode of Law & Order. As the “chunk chunk” sound played, her water broke at the exact same time.
Her daughter’s birth began with Law & Order!
Many superstars have stopped by to guest star on the long-running show. This includes Julia Roberts, who dated star Benjamin Bratt after her appearance, and Sam Rockwell, foreshadowing his Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri performance by playing a homophobic cop.
One actor was able to draw from real life experience
Born and raised in Chicago, Dennis Farina served in their police department for 18 years in the burglary unit. During his time on the force, Michael Mann hired him as a police consultant before asking him to make a small appearance in his James Caan movie Thief.
That kickstarted Farina’s career change, who became a prolific actor in lots of titles before playing Detective Joe Fontana for two seasons on Law & Order. Unfortunately, Farina died in 2013, before he could make a homecoming appearance in any of Wolf’s Chicago-set dramas.
It almost beat a television record
Gunsmoke, a Western television series that started its life as a radio show, ran for 20 seasons and 635 episodes, from 1955 to 1975. It’s the longest-running live action TV series ever produced.
And Law & Order came this close to beating it.
L&O ran for 20 seasons as well — and it was about to get its 21st season, beating Gunsmoke. Instead, thanks in part to some rumors of money issues with Wolf, NBC abruptly cancelled the show, tying it with Gunsmoke.
However, SVU is about to begin its 21st season…
One actor’s family member made a sneaky appearance
For three seasons, Jill Hennessy played assistant district attorney Claire Kincaid, an idealistic figure who (gasp!) had a relationship with Jack McCoy! Except Claire wasn’t always played by Jill Hennessy.
For just one shot in one episode, she was played by someone else. You just didn’t notice.
Jill Hennessy has a twin sister named Jacqueline Hennessy. And when Jill was in Baltimore shooting a crossover episode of Homicide: Life on the Street (as Claire Kincaid), Wolf plugged Jacqueline in to stand in as Claire in some courtroom scenes for Law & Order episode “Corpus Delicti.”
TNT did something weird to the reruns
If you’ve binged episodes of Law & Order lately, it’s likely because you were flipping through the channels, saw Sam Waterston on TNT, and became stuck. That channel’s constant rerunning of the show plays a huge part of its cultural ubiquity.
But TNT changed some episodes in strange ways.
Product placement is the quickest way to take a viewer out of a show. Suddenly, our characters are featuring products, turning the show into a sneaky commercial? Yikes!
Nothing like this existed in the original episodes — but TNT digitally added products into their reruns, including cans of Coca-Cola.
Real life stopped an ambitious crossover
In 2001, Wolf was ready to pull off the Avengers: Endgame of TV cop dramas.
He was going to write and produce a miniseries featuring cast members of Law & Order, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit joining forces to stop a terrorist attack.
But then, September 11 occurred. And while the miniseries wasn’t going to air until the spring of 2002, Wolf and NBC decided it was not the time to explore fake terrorist attacks in New York City. The proposed miniseries was cancelled — but Law & Order started referencing 9/11 soon after.
One actor made a strange movie on the L&O sets
Jill Hennessy stopped playing Claire Kincaid in 1996, before toplining her own NBC crime drama in 2001, Crossing Jordan. In between these two notable gigs, what did Hennessy do in her spare time?
Why, she wrote and directed and starred in a bonkers show-biz comedy film, of course.
Hennessy made The Acting Class in 2000, using some of the standing Law & Order sets to frame her inside-baseball look at the eccentric world of acting teachers. Many of her L&O castmates appeared, including Noth, Orbach, Bratt, and Angie Harmon.
One actor’s reason for leaving will make you go, “Huh?”
After Dzundza left the show, Wolf brought on Paul Sorvino to play Noth’s new partner, Detective Sergeant Phil Cerreta. The two bounced off each other well, with Sorvino’s tired grittiness serving as the perfect foil for Noth’s agitated energy.
But then, two years later…
Sorvino announced he was leaving the show. Why?
Believe it or not — he’s a professional opera singer. And the grueling work schedule of the show was straining his vocal cords. So, after just 29 episodes, Sorvino’s character was shot in the stomach and transferred to a desk job.
There were plenty of “repeat offenders”
In season six episode “Trophy,” Isiah Whitlock Jr. plays a man who eventually confesses to the vicious murders of several children, clearing Jack McCoy’s name in the process.
Then, in season 11 episode “Standoff,” Whitlock plays… the captain of a police department? What happened?
Whitlock is one of many “repeat offenders,” the name production gave actors who played multiple characters over the show’s run (Whitlock has played a total of five characters in Law & Order).
Other notable repeaters? Edward D. Murphy played 13 different characters during the series run. 13!
If an actor wanted to pitch an idea, good luck
Lorraine Toussaint played the recurring role of defense attorney Shambala Green for seven episodes in Law & Order. While shooting her run, she became good friends with Michael Moriarty, who played ADA Ben Stone. So the two of them suggested a star-crossed lovers story to Wolf.
Wolf’s response? A big ol’ “No thanks!”
As Toussaint diplomatically put it, “They weren’t interested in the personal lives of the attorneys or the cops. It really was about the cases.” Despite Moriarty’s reputation for his temper, Toussaint never had a bad day working with him.
One character trait was a sneaky in-joke
Throughout the series, we see Detective Lennie Briscoe absolutely dunk on opera. He makes fun of some of the greatest operatic works ever made, including Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Puccini’s La Boheme. When one suspect complains about opera tickets, Briscoe retorts that they’re doing Carmen at Riker’s.
Pretty funny, right?
Here’s what makes it even funnier: Briscoe is played by Jerry Orbach who, as we mentioned, is a wildly talented and prolific stage singer. He’s making fun of his own trade! Strangely, Wolf had Fred Thompson’s character be an opera singer, despite his having no real-life experience.
The vibe on set is not what you’d think
Vicious murders, morally ambiguous motives, sweaty workers moving crates to and from docks. Law & Order is New York grit personified. You can imagine that the actors and crew take care to preserve this level of intensity while filming.
In fact, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Everyone is constantly goofing off on set! Linus Roache and Alana de la Garza, who played the ADAs in the show’s last few seasons, confirmed that the actors are always breaking the tension. There’s so much joking, that Roache worried that guest stars on the show would feel left out!
One key location changed over the years
Since the beginning, Law & Order shot at Chelsea Piers, overlooking NYC’s Hudson River. And people were like… Yikes!
It was such a bad neighborhood, actors were afraid to audition for the show and cabs wouldn’t stop there. Every actor had to be driven to and from home.
Now? The Piers are hopping.
One road leading to Pier 62 was renamed Law & Order Way. Lots of entertainment centers were built there, including a golf course and two (two!) ice rinks. But don’t worry — it’s still in the actors’ contracts that they get driven to and from work.
For one cast member, justice was a dish served cold
In addition to playing homicide captain Donald Cragen, Dann Florek directed several episodes of the show’s run. One episode featured an exterior scene, which production was going to shoot on Riverside Drive in New York. S. Epatha Merkerson insisted her character would be there, and Florek obliged.
But when Merkerson arrived to set, the temperature was below ten degrees. Which is to say — Merkerson forced herself into a scene where she had to stand outside for hours in the freezing cold. Florek pulled her aside and said, cheekily, “Never volunteer.”
The line between “acting” and “real life” often got blurred
Florek told the story of an unnamed actor’s decision to hail a cab by shouting, “NEW YORK CITY POLICE, WE NEED THIS CAB NOW!” When the cab driver asked for payment, the actor said, “This is New York City police, pal,” and they walked away!
Fans also treated the actors like the real deal. Merkerson often gets asked for legal advice by strangers — she has to remind them, “I just did that on television.” Florek was once accosted by a mafia guy who insisted Florek was a real cop, and threatened to beat him up!
One potential spin-off may have gone too far
Beyond the OG series, SVU, Criminal Intent, and Trial By Jury, other Law & Order spin-offs include Law & Order: LA, Law & Order: UK, and Law & Order: True Crime. But one potential upcoming spin-off might prove too controversial for Wolf and NBC to handle.
In September 2018, NBC announced a 13-episode first season of Law & Order: Hate Crimes, a spin-off focusing on a task force dedicated to stopping crimes related to American hatred. Given the inherent explosivity in the concept, it makes sense that NBC halted the show’s production in 2019 to retool.
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