Dick Wolf strolled down memory lane Saturday night at PaleyFest at the Dolby Theatre, surrounded by stars of his current Chicago trilogy shows “Chicago P.D.,” “Chicago Med” and “Chicago Fire,” as well as “Law and Order: SVU.” Clad in his usual uniform of all-black and bright orange socks, the actors paid tribute to Wolf as they talked about being part of his television empire.
The Chicago table is getting “a fourth leg” as Wolf described it, with “Chicago Justice.” Wolf announced that Carl Weathers will be part of the “Chicago Justice” cast, playing Illinois State’s attorney Mark Jefferies, and co-star opposite Philip Winchester, Nazneen Contractor and Joelle Carter.
About the assembled panel of talent that included Oliver Platt, S. Epatha Merkerson, Ice-T, Jason Beghe, Taylor Kinney, Jesse Spencer, Sophia Bush and Torrey DeVitto, Wolf said, “the thing all these actors have in common is that they’re all really good actors and supportive of each other.”
Merkerson remembered being in the first season of “Law And Order” when she played a woman named Denise Winters. Then she was cast as Lt. Anita Van Buren, who she described as “a tough cookie. There weren’t many female lieutenants when I started playing her. There are worse things you can do than to be able to be an actor of some substance and have people love what you do. When you watch a Dick Wolf show, you sit down to be entertained, you get up and you’re educated.”
“Wolf Pack” veteran Ice-T has worked on five of Wolf’s shows: “New York Undercover,” “Swift Justice,” the “Law And Order: Exile” TV movie, “Players” and then “Law & Order: SVU.” He says he didn’t quite believe it when Wolf said he wanted a better vehicle for him, then Wolf cast him in “SVU” “and it’s been 17 years.” Ice-T stole the panel as he described trying to keep track of all the stories involved when Wolf shows do crossovers, which is basically impossible. He also got a huge laugh when he talked about fans who come up to him on the streets of New York asking for a part in the show, “Do not ask to be a corpse on my show — we will throw your ass in the East River.”
What about the newbies? They’re thankful to be part of Wolf’s world. Colin Donnell described being cast on “Chicago Med,”: “It’s like the lottery getting cast in a Dick Wolf show. I’m a New York theater actor. To meet with the man himself, it’s amazing. It’s like having a one in a million shot.”
Bush emphasized how gratifying it is to play a strong woman on “Chicago P.D.”: “It’s not an accident I play women who are strong and outspoken. I don’t know how to be anything but that. I like that my role conveys to young women that they can be the hero of their own story. It gives you purpose.” On a lighter note, Bush joked about her crossover colleagues on “Chicago Fire,” “If these were the firemen, I’d light s–t on fire all the time!”
Spencer went from practicing medicine on “House” to fighting fires on “Chicago Fire” and he said, “I’ve been trying for four years to lose my accent. They think I’m Crocodile Dundee.” Spencer added that he loves getting to knock down doors and bust stuff up on “Chicago Fire.”
Kinney shared that he hopes they portray firemen in a positive light. He says that when shooting in Chicago, “I am Severide” and fans come up to him and ask about other “Chicago Fire” characters. One devoted fan in the audience wore a Molly’s t-shirt, which is where the show’s characters hang out.
Wolf recounted his time as a screenwriter (“School Ties”) before he became a showrunner on “Miami Vice” and then created “Law and Order” which lasted far longer than the 13 episodes many predicted. Wolf said, “these shows are old-fashioned broadcast TV, we want to get as many people in the tent as possible every week. We’re doing 87 hours of TV this year. There have been over 40,000 actors employed on Dick Wolf shows, counting NYC and Chicago shows.”
Wolf was also generous about sharing credit, noting “TV is the most collaborative art form in history, more than movies. I get way too much credit but then I get all of the blame. The idea is to go eight or ten years or longer. I hire great people like Oliver Platt, who goes to hospitals to meet people to do research for his role. I get to work with incredibly talented writers, producers and actors. Peter Jankowski and Arthur Forney have been with me for years.”
About the crossover episodes that have become big ratings boosters, Wolf said, “I think Tom Fontana and I started the crossover business with the ‘Law And Order’/ ‘Homicide’ crossover.” Summing it all up, Wolf thanked the fans, saying “This has been the best ride that anybody’s ever had in this medium. It’s incredibly gratifying. The best stories come out of real life and real people. Great writers and actors make it fun to watch.”