In playing online pharmaceutical titan and mob boss Richard Wheatley on NBC’s “Law & Order: Organized Crime,” Dylan McDermott gets to go toe-to-toe with Christopher Meloni’s detective Elliot Stabler, chests puffed and expressions snarled. The show marks a return for Meloni’s beloved “Law & Order” character and a return to the primetime procedural beat for McDermott, who enjoyed a long and Emmy-nominated run as defense attorney Bobby Donnell on ABC’s “The Practice.”
McDermott, who has long had a fascination with organized crime, spoke with Variety ahead of Episode 2, “Not Your Father’s Organized Crime,” about the appeal of playing a kingpin, the unexpected intensity of the “Law & Order” fandom and filming in New York the middle of a pandemic.
Your character Richard Wheatley is, as the title of the second episode suggests, not your father’s organized crime boss. How were you approached about this role, and what about it did you find appealing?
They sent me the script, and I initially thought that it was fascinating, you know, growing up in New York and being around these mobsters here and there. I remember when [Mafia figure] Joey Gallo got killed. My father and I went down to Umberto’s Clam House [where Gallo was shot] and looked around, and it was all cordoned off. And you know, I was a bartender, busboy and a waiter, so I’ve been around these guys a little bit.
When you were a bartender and you got a chance to interact with some of these folks, what was the most interesting interaction you can recall?
Well, you know, it would be closing time and a couple of guys would come in and I’d be like, ‘Oh guys, sorry, we’re closing up.’ And they’d be like, ‘No, you’re not.’ And I was like, ‘Okay. Sure. Whatever you want.’ I would have to wait till they were done, and I’d bullshit with them a little bit… I remember when [mob boss] Paul Castellano got killed at Sparks Steakhouse uptown. That was initially interesting to me, the idea of organized crime and [Richard Wheatley] being a high-level new criminal new kingpin. I always look for an animal when I’m playing a role, and Richard is the octopus, because he’s changing form and shapes, and he’s got tentacles everywhere and he will attack. I thought the diversity of the show was incredible. It’s just a modern take on the world. For me, it’s the psychology that grabs me — what makes a person a person.
So much of these first two episodes focus on how things have changed, both for career criminals as well as the way we view law enforcement in this day and age. That’s something we see with both Richard and Elliot. What kind of conversations did you have with the showrunner and writers about that?
I can’t tell you who it is, but [Richard Wheatley] is based on a real guy. And I think this whole idea of the online pharmacy is fascinating, because these people make a lot of money quickly. And he’s distanced himself from his father; he knew that the Italian mob was on its way out, and he had to find a new way to live. And he certainly did that by changing his name, changing form and shape, disguising himself, distancing himself from his father. He knew all that because Richard’s the smartest guy in the room, and he will tell you that and it’s just what he does — it’s what keeps him active and motivated and interested. He wants people to come up against him. He enjoys it — he enjoys the fight, he enjoys the challenge, because he knows he’s gonna win. One way or another.
How much of a “Law & Order” buff were you before joining the cast?
Obviously, I was aware of it. I had watched some of it over time. But honestly, I didn’t know how successful it was until I signed on, and there was like, whoa, a rush of fans and news and publicity. And I was like, whoa, this is a world here, I had no idea how dedicated the fans are. I mean, people love this show. It’s a comfort show. They watch the DVDs over and over again… I’ve never heard of such a thing.
What has the filming process been like under pandemic conditions? Were there any kinds of conversations around whether characters would wear masks?
There was one scene I wore the mask when I was walking in, but that was about it. Listen, I did a movie from Warner Bros. called “King Richard” with Will Smith and Warner Bros. protocol was enormous. NBC has certainly done a great job in terms of COVID protocol: masks, testing, shields and everything else. But this is an invisible enemy. People have done a good job. And now there’s light at the end of the tunnel because the vaccines are out there… But we’re certainly filming in the storm, between “King Richard” and “Organized Crime,” so it’s difficult. It really is difficult and challenging, never mind without COVID. So putting COVID on top of everything else makes it quadruply hard on everyone. We’re on Episode 4 of eight now, and you know, the show must go on.
What’s it like filming in the middle of New York City right now?
I mean, for me, it’s a dream come true. You know, growing up in New York and watching different TV shows and movies as a kid, and having the dream of being an actor and looking over someone’s shoulder on the street on the scene — for me personally, it really is a dream. I love shooting in New York. There’s something about it, maybe because I’ve been here since the ’60s. I’ve been waiting on actors — I used to wait on John Belushi. So the fact that I get to do this and be here — I’m a grateful man.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.