|To the residents of Craig Walker's SoHo neighborhood, he is mostly known as a talented barista. From 8 until noon, he plies his trade at Porto Rico Coffee on Thompson Street, a dimly lighted anti-Starbucks with the Rolling Stones on the stereo, paperback copies of Jacques Derrida in the sagging bookcase and a cluttered bulletin board advertising giveaway futons and classes at a local "D. J. university." |
But Mr. Walker, 35, who has a shaved head and stands 6-foot-3, is also sometimes recognized for achievements beyond the espresso machine. "I was watching a 'Law & Order' rerun last night with my girl," a customer in chunky glasses told him the other day, "and I was like: `I know that guy! How do I know that guy?' "
Mr. Walker grinned. "You know, man, I get that all the time," he said, grinding a pound of dark roast.
Mr. Walker is one of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of struggling New York actors who owe their fame, and a share of their financial solvency, to the ever-expanding "Law & Order" franchise on NBC, which now includes the original crime drama, 13 years old, and two spinoffs. With each of the three shows producing about 22 episodes a season, and a supporting cast of at least 20 needed to play each episode's lawyers, police officers and gruesomely slain paralegals, the "Law & Order" industry has become the most important staple in a traditionally lean New York acting diet.
"We have students who've been on it, instructors on it, even the artistic director of our playwriting affiliate," said Kathryn Eaker, managing director of HB Studio, which has been an acting school in Greenwich Village for over 50 years. "It's become a benchmark in an acting career: 'Yippee, I landed my first spot on "Law & Order"!' "
A quick scan of Playbills from the Broadway hits "Nine," "Gypsy" and "Oscar Wilde's 'Salome' " shows 15 biographies listing a credit for "Law & Order."
Dick Wolf, who created the redoubtable franchise: its producer, Universal Television, is asking NBC for more than $550 million a year to keep it going, and a fourth spinoff is in the works, he said, "It's actually gotten to the point where if I go to the theater and open the Playbill and the actor doesn't have one of the 'Law & Orders' in his or her credits, I figure they either just got off the bus or they are really bad."
The "Law & Order" shows are not the only game in town. "Sex and the City," "The Sopranos" and "Third Watch" are also produced locally. But for character-actor roles of all ages and ethnicities, the "Law & Order" troika is unrivaled: the original series alone has meant over 36,400 days of work for New York actors since 1990 and has injected $602 million into the city's economy, the Mayor's Office of Film, Theater and Broadcasting said. The three series -- the others are "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," which began in 1999, and "Law & Order: Criminal Intent," dating from 2001, have so far produced 449 shows.
"Quite frankly, I've started to think about holding an acting seminar for New York actors called 'Let's Talk About the Victim,' " said Roger Bart, a former star of "The Producers" on Broadway and a two-time "Law & Order" guest actor. "We'd only do monologues that begin with, 'Well, I didn't think much of him at first,' 'He was just a quiet neighbor,' 'I'd only dated her for two months.' "
For bit players used to scraping by on temping and coffee-bar tips, a "Law & Order" check can be the difference between canned tuna and sashimi. Those hired for a single day earn a Screen Actors Guild minimum of $655. Weekly performers are paid $2,272 and a lead guest star, $5,240. Residual fees from reruns can also be lucrative since the repeats are among the most popular on television.
But even when the checks, which generally shrink with each rerun of an episode, grow tiny, they can still represent a lifeline for the proverbially starving New York actor. George Demas, who played the husband of a victim of medical malpractice ("She died during a routine laparoscopy -- don't ask me what that is"), said he received $1.22 for one rerun of the episode on TNT. "I didn't even frame that check," Mr. Demas said. "I cashed it. Now that's sad."
Aside from payment in whatever amount, "Law & Order" appearances add prestige to an actor's resume because the shows are critically respected, and even small parts are written with more depth than most television and film roles. With plot lines spun from headlines -- P. Diddy's trial after a nightclub shooting, Michael Jackson's dangling of his infant son from a window -- each episode follows a foolproof formula of crime, investigation and trial, presented with the methodical chronology of a police report and usually leading to the satisfaction of a conviction.
"If you choose to make your life in New York as an actor because you love theater and want to do theater or independent film, it's one of the only ways you can make some kind of money as an actor and still have integrity," said Marianne Hagan, a pretty strawberry blonde in a flowing blue caftan, who was nursing a cafe-au-lait-size cup of coffee alfresco at Les Deux Gamins, a cafe on Houston Street.
Ms. Hagan was first cast on "Law & Order" when she returned from Los Angeles in 1997, fresh from a starring role in "Halloween 6." "I came back to New York to try to do theater, but everyone in New York was doing `Law & Order,' " Ms. Hagan said. She was cast almost immediately. "I was like, `Yes!' " she said, raising her cup in a toast. "I've returned back to New York, like Caesar returning from Gaul."
The original "Law & Order" has a history of showcasing future stars, with Julianna Margulies (as a navy lieutenant), Claire Danes (child model) and Laura Linney (in a Japanese white slavery ring) all appearing during their salad days.
The jury is still out on what a guest spot actually does for a supporting actor's career. "The credit hasn't superseded Broadway in terms of casting, but it's allowed all of us who work in the business to see actors we might not have seen otherwise," said Tara Rubin, a casting director for "Mama Mia!" and "The Producers."
But the parts these actors are playing might not be the ones they want casting directors to see. "I don't feel like a lawyer, but they always cast me as a lawyer," said Bob LuPone, who has appeared in six episodes. "It hasn't done anything for my career to bring me out of the fray, as it were, as a career actor."
Nor has Mr. Walker been able to turn his appearances into a career that lifts him out of his SoHo coffee bar. So far, he has made $15,000 to $20,000 for three guest spots on the "Law & Order" shows, but has yet to find an agent. "They can't figure out my type," he said, referring to Manhattan agents and casting directors. "I get a lot of 'downtown hipster guy.' I mean, what does that mean?"
So Mr. Walker auditions mostly for commercials, like one for a beer. "It was a party scene," he said. "They hired a hypnotist, and the hypnotist says to one of the guys, 'You are a dog.' " Then another guest appears with beer. Everyone runs over to him, and the scene shifts to the hypnotized guest lapping water out of the toilet bowl -- " 'cause he's still a dog," Mr. Walker explained grimly. "And they wanted me to play the dog."
On the other hand, John Dossett, who is starring in "Gypsy" on Broadway, recalled that last year he missed an audition for "Dinner at Eight" at Lincoln Center but was cast anyway from a "Law & Order" tape.
Casting directors on the "Law & Order" shows maintain they now have a difficult time finding new faces -- which might be the first time in the history of the New York acting world that demand has outstripped supply. Last season, Mr. Wolf ordered directors to wait 60 days between casting the same actor twice in prominent guest roles on any of the three shows. "We don't want someone to tune in Wednesday night for `Law & Order' and then Sunday night for 'Criminal Intent' and see the same actor playing the villain in one show and the cop in the other," said Gayle Keller, the casting director of "Criminal Intent."
But as surely as BackStage appears once a week, New York actors will show up for an audition. On a rainy Thursday in June, 30 of them lined the gray-carpeted hallway of the Chelsea Piers offices where the three series are cast. This call was for an episode in the third season of "Criminal Intent," the story of a woman who avenges the death of her husband, a hit man, by marrying and then murdering the killer. (Kinky!)
A New Yorker cartoon is on the casting assistant's corkboard: "In the criminal justice system, the courtrooms are cleaned every night by members of the cleaning crew. These are their stories."
Gripping dog-eared pages of script, actors trying out for mobster roles wore heavy gold chains and tight white T-shirts. Those reading for lawyers wore suits and carried leather portfolios under an arm. They had all dressed the part on their own --including Peter Mele, in a bright orange jumpsuit with "State Prison" stenciled on the back, hoping to be cast as convict. "I'm a Mafioso about to be paroled in a week, but there have been some complications because my son took it upon himself to do some dirty work on my behalf," Mr. Mele said, explaining the role. "But business is business in the mob world," he continued. "When you come down to it, family don't mean nothing."
Mr. Mele shot a sideways glance at the "lawyers." "I don't know who these suits are," he grumbled.
Stevie Ray Dallimore, auditioning for the part of a prosecutor, strode out of the casting room confidently, holding the hand of his 3-year-old daughter, Rose, in green galoshes. (Mr. Dallimore had brought her to save on the cost of baby-sitting.)
"It went well," he said, "though she" -- he indicated Rose -- "stopped me in one of my speeches. She just said, 'I'm finished with my fruit snacks.' I stopped and then went on. It was O.K."
Later, he learned he did not get the part. "They're saving me for something better," he said.