Balcer’s storytelling drawn from diverse life experiences

Exec producer inspired by detective fiction, how it reflects different cultures

RENE BALCER
Born: Montreal, Canada
College: McGill U
Television credits: “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” “Hopewell,” “NYPD Blue,” “Out on the Edge,” “Law & Order,” “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” Law & Order: Criminal Intent”
Movies: Was a documentary filmmaker at Canada’s National Film Board
Awards: Edgar Allan Poe, Emmy, Producers Guild, Writers Guild
Did you know?: Attended the Bed-In peace event in Montreal in 1969 with John Lennon and Yoko Ono and can be seen in photos

If “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” exec producer Rene Balcer’s experience as a journalist gave him anything for his job now, it’s a nose for narrative.

“It’s a good instinct to have when you’re breaking a story,” says the Emmy- and Peabody Award-winning Balcer, who has been a part of the “L&O” franchise — first as a story editor, then a showrunner — since the mothership’s debut in 1990. “We’re always looking at what a story tells us about people.”

Born and raised in Montreal, Balcer — whose first language is French — gave up his fantasy of being a Beatle and settled on writing. As a young man he kept busy writing for newspapers, editing documentaries and grabbing P.A. work on film sets.

“It was very eclectic,” he says. “I just never said no to any job offer.”

Like when he was 18 and flew to Israel to visit a girlfriend, but the Yom Kippur War had just started and the need arose for combat cameramen.

“I happened to be able to operate a hand-cranked Bolex, so (I was told), ‘OK, report here.’ It was kind of hallucinatory.”

Coppola conundrum

Later, when Balcer moved to Los Angeles and started co-writing scripts, showbiz offered its own share of head-scratching tales. At one point he was working on a screenplay about the cocaine trade for Francis Ford Coppola.

“Then he decided he wanted to make it into a musical,” says Balcer, laughing. “We exist at the whimsy of others.”

“L&O” impresario-creator Dick Wolf, however, was different. “You know exactly where you stand with him,” says Balcer. “One aspect of his genius is he hires obsessive-compulsive people to run his shows and then gets out of their way.”

“CI” started out of a desire for Balcer to delve deeper into the psychology of criminals, then pit them against a “hyper-vigilant” sleuth out of the Sherlock Holmes mold, which became Vincent D’Onofrio’s Det. Robert Goren. Inspired by the ways detective fiction uniquely reflects different cultures around the world, Balcer sought something similar for Goren.

“What makes him American is a basic belief in people, in an innate goodness,” says Balcer. “If he can tap into that, get them to reveal themselves, he can get them to confess.”

Right now, Balcer is exploring how best to fit Chris Noth’s less-twitchy, more intemperate Mike Logan into the “CI” universe now that Noth alternates episodes with D’Onofrio. Balcer says it’s still a work in progress.

Like the other “Law & Order” skeins that are often ignored by the kudo, “Criminal Intent” does have a strong fan base … of off-the-wall editors.

“We got parodied by Mad magazine, which I think rates better than getting a parody of an award,” Balcer quips.

Meanwhile, Balcer continue to draw on headlines to explore issues other shows won’t touch — from Tom DeLay-like politicians to the news media’s insatiable appetite for blond women in peril, and, recently, a creepy episode about a psychiatrist-turned-interrogator at Guantanamo.

“We can stay under the radar and take swipes at sacred cows. Sometimes people notice, and sometimes they don’t.”

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