|Andrew Murfett meets the man behind Law & Order's Detective Green.|
WHEN Jesse L. Martin heard eight years ago that Benjamin Bratt planned to leave Law & Order, he assumed that he could convince series creator Dick Wolf that he was right for the part.
"That was the first time I'd ever met Dick Wolf," Martin says from his Manhattan apartment, "when I begged him for the role of Ed Green. I was naive; I didn't know that you don't usually just call the creator and ask him for a job."
Still, it worked. Wolf invited Martin, who was working in Los Angeles on Ally McBeal, to come to New York to read for the part with Jerry Orbach (L&O's Detective Lennie Briscoe).
Martin's success as Detective Green has given him a long-term job and his first stable tenure on a television series.
So highly regarded is Martin by Wolf, he was given a leave of absence last season for four episodes to film his part in the film adaption of Rent (he appeared in the Broadway production). "It's not often that happens on an hour-long drama," Martin says.
Martin's return to the series comes as its ratings decline on free-to-air - in Australia it is regularly beaten by CSI:NY in the US, and The Amazing Race and The Footy Show .
"That's something we try not to concentrate on. You can't help but notice the Nielsens (US TV ratings) - they're everywhere over here. As actors, you just want there to be a show to come to work at."
L&O has experienced a rebirth as a rerun fixture on pay TV, here and in the US, where it is screened constantly.
Remarkably, after seven seasons as Detective Green, even loyal viewers would probably not know much of anything about Martin, apart from his dedication to the job.
The actor says this is his preference. "There's a structure that's been there for us from day one. SVU was created seven years ago so they could start the way they wanted to. Us veering off in that direction wouldn't be good."
There are aspects to Green that only the man who plays him can reveal.
"Well, there's little things I've been told about my character that nobody would really ever know. His father is a wealthy petro-chemical engineer who has spent most of his life in Saudi Arabia. But who would know that? There's no space to tell people that - it only helps me - it wouldn't really do our audience any good."
Keeping with that low-key aesthetic, little fuss was made when it was revealed that Jerry Orbach, who played Martin's partner Detective Briscoe for 12 seasons, had cancer.
Off screen, producers offered Orbach a role in the now defunct Trial by Jury, to ease his workload. He made just four episodes before he died.
Martin says they knew of his illness, but the loss of Orbach shocked the cast and crew.
"He was almost the exact opposite of Lennie," Martin says. Jerry wasn't a moody, sardonic guy. He was always very upbeat, he would tell jokes and he sang constantly.
"Even when he was sick, Jerry gave him no indication that there was anything seriously wrong with him. None. It was devastating when we found out how bad things were. Jerry is Law & Order, so it was like, 'what to do without him?' "
Enter veteran actor Dennis Farina, who is in his second season as Detective Fontana. Farina was a real police officer for 23 years. Whenever a question about police procedure or the viability of a scene arises, Farina is able to offer advice.
"He's also very good at would could be humorous to detectives," Martin adds. "Dennis would have you laugh, because, he says, it's such a difficult job, you just have to laugh."
Recently US audiences saw the premier of Conviction, a new series from creator Dick Wolf. The series focuses on the lives of a younger set of assistant district attorneys. Although it uses the sets from Trial by Jury, it has ditched the L&O logo and the iconic percussive-based theme song. Wolf is clearly a busy man.
"I don't think he's a part of day-to-day stuff but his presence is still definitely felt," Martin notes.
"If there's something he wants to inject into any of his shows, he's right there to do it. He is hands-on; yes, there's a whole lot of hands between him and us, but it certainly all comes from him."
Law & Order screens Thursdays at 9.30pm on Channel Ten.