Dick Wolf had a great idea for a TV series. It was a hour-long crime show in which the first half showed a crime being committed, and the second half dealt with the criminals going to trial.
He went to see Kerry McCluggage, then-president of Universal TV, now, president of Paramount TV, who told him: “We did that show.” It was a 1963-64 ABC series, “Arrest and Trial.” Ben Gazzara played a cop and Chuck Connors played a hotshot defense attorney. “We got the pilot and looked at it together,” recalls Wolf.
“Sure enough, there was a crime and the cop arrested a guy for armed robbery at the end of the first 45 minutes. Then, they went into the court case and Chuck Connors got the guy off. He was the wrong guy.”
The lights came up at the end of the screening and Wolf said to McCluggage: “Wait a second! He arrested the wrong guy every week?”
“Yeah,” answered McCluggage.”That was the problem.” Wolf sawimmediately that his own project, “Law & Order,” was on safeground. “Our show was com-pletely different because we were dealing with the criminal justice system from both sides. After 90 years of filmmaking, there are no truly original ideas. No one’s going to invent the wheel,” he says. “But I felt fairly confident that we had come up with a better mousetrap.”
“Law & Order” is now in the middle of its third season on NBC. Michael Moriarty, Richard Brooksand Steven Hill are the prosecuting attorneys. Carolyn McCormick plays a forensic psychiatrist.
Christopher Noth and Dann Florek are the detectives, joined this season by Jerry Orbach, taking over from Paul Sorvino, who replaced George Dzundza in the second season.
“We have a very loyal core that has seemingly done the impossible and followed us around to four time slots in one year,” says Wolf. “Tuesday at 10; Tuesday at 9;Friday at 10; now, Wednesday at10.”
The show has also had to weather two major cast changes, the latest this season.
“Nobody in his right mindwould ever want to lose Paul Sorvino,” says Wolf, “but if you had to, to get Jerry Orbach, you feel blessed. From George Dzundza to Paul to Jerry, it’s been remarkable.”
He says that everybody at NBC had trepidations about the structure of “Law & Order,” but they did not interfere. “It was the type of network-producer relationship that you dream about,” he says.
“They made their concerns very clear and at the same time they did not legislate anything although at times it was, ‘We don’t understand what you’re doing but we sure hope it works.”‘
Wolf admits that his initialthinking about the structure of the show was more business oriented than creative.
“It was at the period when hour syndication dollars were really going through the floor and half-hours were going through the roof,” he says. “The thought was:’Is there a way to do an hour show so that it can be broken down into both hour and half-hour sales?”
That has been in the back of his mind since the start. “Whether that will take place or not, I have no idea,” he says. “But it was the spark that ignited the concept.”
Formerly a writer on “Hill Street Blues” and an executive producer of “Miami Vice,” Wolf has used the realistic format of “Law & Order” to explore some controversial issues.
An episode from the first season about the bombing of an abortion clinic has not been rerun, he says, because the network had so many advertiser pull-outs.
Wolf says he showed the script of the episode to groups on both sides of the issue and they each hated it. Both felt it was too supportive of the other side’s position. “Shows that deal with social issues and have no answers, those are the ones that are the best because life is shades of gray,” he says. A perfect “Law & Order,” Wolf says would end with all seven of the main characters on different sides of the same issue. The first episode of the sweeps period this year has a Holocaust theme.
“An incident 50 years after deals with one of the Jewish policemen in the Warsaw ghetto,” he says. “It’s really a study of evil. How did the Nazis manage to make people work against their own? It’s almost 180 degrees away from what Michael Moriarty won an Emmy for doing in the miniseries, ‘Holocaust.’ ”
Starting in March, Wolf has another split-format series debuting on NBC, “Crime & Punishment,” starring John Tenney (“Equal Justice”) and Rachel Picotin (“Total Recall”). The first 20 minutes will depict the execution of a crime from the criminals’ point of view and then the police investigation begins.
Throughout the second segment, Wolf plans a device similar to one used for the witnesses in Warren Beatty’s film, “Reds.” The criminals involved will respond to an unseen interrogator, observing the police investigation as it goes along.
“It’s a way to break the fourth wall in a unique fashion and to get inside the mind of a criminal,” says Wolf. “That is the biggest factor that differentiates ‘Crime & Punishment’ from anything else I can think of: It really takes you inside the way criminals think, how they act and how hey see the world.”
“Law & Order,” meanwhile, has been up against “48 Hours” on CBS and “Civil Wars” on ABC on Wednesday nights. ABC just moved “Civil Wars” out of the way and that pleases Wolf for more than one reason.
“It’s a very well-written, entertaining show,” says Wolf. “I hope it does well. But when you get two intelligent adult shows on at the same time, they do run the risk of almost cancelling each other out,” he says.
“In the best of all possible worlds, you’d have ’48 Hours’ on CBS, that appeals to a certain audience; ‘Law & Order,’ that appeals to a certain audience , and then maybe some sitcom, or a drama that appealed to an altogether different audience. Then, we’d all do well.”