|Say, Dick Wolf: How's it feel to be a television magnate? |
"I wish I knew," he replies.
False modesty? Prudent restraint? Either way, let's examine the record:
* Wolf's "Law & Order" begins its 11th season Oct. 18 on NBC. This celebrated cops-and-courtroom drama is not only the oldest dramatic series on the air, but with its guaranteed renewal through 2004-05, will stand second only to "Gunsmoke" as the longest-running non-news-or-sports series in TV history.
* Spinoff "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" returns for its second season on Oct. 20, already blessed by NBC with a pickup through 2001-02.
* "Deadline," starring Oliver Platt as a crusading newspaper columnist, premieres on NBC next Monday (Oct. 2).
* "Arrest & Trial," Wolf's first venture into reality fare, begins a weekday syndicated run next Monday (Oct. 2) on 170 stations. Hosted by Brian Dennehy, each half-hour examines a criminal case through interviews, news footage and dramatic re-creations.
* And a third series carrying the "Law & Order" imprint could be in production as soon as January.
"That deal isn't closed-closed," Wolf says, "but I would say that there's a pretty good chance."
Not bad, not bad at all for the 53-year-old ad-man-turned-producer who, during the past decade, logged his share of flops, including "Gideon Oliver," "Christine Cromwell," "Nasty Boys," "Mann & Machine," "Crime & Punishment," "The Wright Verdicts," "Feds" and "D.C."
All the while, he had "Law & Order," which premiered on Sept. 13, 1990. But for years, even this series struggled in the ratings.
"'Law & Order' can hardly be thought of as a commercial hit," Wolf told The Associated Press in 1994. "It's a critical success that people know about and think fondly of, but I'm still looking for a show that's a commercial hit."
Happily for Wolf, that first hit was right under his nose. After enjoying steady growth, "Law & Order" the last couple of seasons has landed just outside the Top 10 in households.
These days, not only is the "Law & Order" franchise a linchpin of NBC's prime-time schedule, but also, according to a report in the New York Post, it may even inspire a true-crime magazine from Time Inc. (On this, Wolf isn't commenting.)
"Law & Order," says Wolf, "kind of settled into the consciousness." The Little Engine That Could became the Bullet Train.
And so has Wolf. Watch him move through the newsroom set of "Deadline" (actually, the Post's old newsroom), a big man with a big voice and laugh who, not infrequently, wears the look of a cat after lunching on canary.
Between fielding calls on his cell phone, he watches the filming approvingly and huddles with his stars between takes. He is particularly proud of "Deadline," a fresh dramatic take on crimefighting that also captures the quirkiness of journalists and of New Yorkers overall.
"It's the best first-year cast I've ever been associated with or can remember," he declares a week or so later from Los Angeles, en route from one meeting to another. Into his cell phone he lists names that include Platt, Bebe Neuwirth, Lili Taylor, Tom Conti and Hope Davis.
"But the strongest element of 'Deadline' is the storytelling," he adds just before he loses contact in the Valley.
Unlike most of the new series, "Deadline" won its 13-episode deal not with an expensive pilot episode but with a thrifty three-minute presentation.
Each year, scores of pilots are filmed for network consideration. Just a handful win a series order. The rest -- to quote an old joke -- are only good as raw material for guitar picks. Wolf has been among the most vocal critics of this system, describing it as "broken." Now he's broken free.
"We're not making pilots anymore," he says once phone contact is restored. "As far as we're concerned, the pilot process on shows that I create for NBC is over."
Another way Wolf breaks ranks: In a youth-obsessed business, he doesn't mind a graying staff.
He took one conspicuous blow against ageism this season by signing Arthur Penn as the new executive producer of "Law & Order." The director of the 1967 masterpiece "Bonnie and Clyde" turns 78 on Wednesday.
"He's one of the great American filmmakers," Wolf explains in a what's-the-big-deal? tone.
But don't forget the trend Wolf is bucking in his industry: Two years ago, a writer for "Felicity" was outed as being not 19, as she had claimed, but 32 -- an age she had feared put her over the hill.
"The essence of drama is a depth of experience in the human condition," says Wolf, who pegs the average age of the "Law & Order" writing staff at 46. "It's pretty hard to write about adult problems if you're 22."
Maintaining a pace that could age anyone, Wolf a day later will be back in New York, where all his drama shows are filmed. Meanwhile, the question persists: Shouldn't two coasts and four, maybe five, TV series certify Wolf as a magnate?
"The question's a little premature," he insists. "Ask me in November or December if everything is happening the way I hope it will."