Dick Wolf

Throughout a career spanning four decades, Dick Wolf has produced some of the most successful and longest-running series in television history. Law & Order was on the air for 20 years, and this year, Law & Order: SVU starts its 20th season. Chicago Fire first aired in 2012 and has since been followed by three other Chicago-based shows. FBI premiered this fall, and Wolf hopes that it, too, will become a franchise. In all his shows he maintains his signature approach to TV drama: conflict or life-and-death situations often wrapped in a moral dilemma.

WS: How did Law & Order start?
WOLF: In 1987 and 1988, you could not give away one-hour shows in syndication; nobody wanted them. They only wanted half-hour shows. The strike by the Writers Guild of America in 1988 exacerbated that; there was no development going on. So I was trying to come up with shows that could run either as half-hours or hours. We did Law & Order [structured as two half-hours: during the first half, a crime is investigated, and in the second half the suspect is prosecuted] and we also did a hospital show. Luckily, we never had to split them, because they wouldn’t have worked, but it would have been better than not getting them on the air at all.

WS: How did SVU come about compared with how the Chicago franchise evolved?
WOLF: SVU premiered nine years after Law & Order. It was not quick. It was not like Chicago, where all three shows were on in three or four years. Every time we start talking about it, I still get upset about Chicago Justice. The show should have never been canceled.

WS: Why was it canceled?
WOLF: It was a political decision, not a ratings decision, and I understood the decision. I had too much beachfront real estate on NBC.

WS: What has given Law & Order: SVU its longevity?
WOLF: Mariska Hargitay. I hate to be that simple, but it’s unprecedented. I don’t know of any show that went from a two-hander with equals [two lead actors: Christopher Meloni as Detective Elliot Stabler and Hargitay as Detective Olivia Benson] to a single-lead drama, ever, and that’s all Mariska.

The wonderful thing about SVU, specifically, is that the audience is renewed like clockwork every fall and expands because girls find SVU at 13, 14, 15 years old, and it becomes an obsession. Boys not so much, but the girls buy into Mariska so completely as a spokesperson for them. It’s amazing; every year we get more teens.

WS: Across all your shows, what are the most important qualities actors bring to their roles?
WOLF: Honesty. Acting is being more honest than most people would care to be in terms of what they believe in, their emotions, and how they handle very, very upsetting situations. On all the shows, the drama is conflict, and the most important aspect of that conflict is being able to connect with the audience on an emotional level.

WS: And there’s also honesty in the writing?
WOLF: We try to tell the truth. That’s the bottom line. And some of the truths aren’t pretty.

WS: SVU is about sexual abuse and the victims. What are your thoughts on the #MeToo campaign?
WOLF: Way overdue. It’s not a new story. As I’ve said, we’ve done [several] episodes on this show alone over the past 20 years that are directly on that point. The fact is, a percentage of men are absolute pigs. That’s just a reality. I don’t think the percentage has gone up. I think that it’s just talked about more and it is visible. [Some people have said,] “The casting couch has been around since entertainment began.” It’s an attitude that has [prevailed] throughout the [entertainment] industry—it’s not a new story. There is a subset of men who will be pigs; that’s, unfortunately, the real world we live in.

WS: All your shows have tackled important issues. Now Chicago Med is as well.
WOLF: The medicine in Chicago Med is really important and heavy and dynamic. [Some time ago] I was flying back to Chicago [where the Chicago shows are produced] with the showrunners, Diane Frolov and Andrew Schneider, and I said, “How do you guys know so much about medicine?” This is what I discovered that I didn’t know: Andy’s mother and father were both doctors and Diane’s first husband was a doctor. So I said, “Oh, OK, now I get it.” Chicago Med has insights that go beyond the disease protocols. S. Epatha Merkerson’s character, Dr. Sharon Goodwin, is at the crest point of money and care, and it’s a constant battle of who gets the money. There are horrible statistics with medical care in the United States: 90 percent of medical costs occur in the last year of life, so what should be spent on keeping people, who 20 years ago would have died, alive? It’s something that in the United States we obviously still haven’t dealt with properly; it’s a work in progress, but Dr. Goodwin gets to explain to ten million people every week why certain things happen the way they do.

WS: Would you have any more freedom if you were to do a show on a cable network or Netflix?
WOLF: I can tell you exactly what the freedom would be. The one thing you can’t do on broadcast television is say “fuck.” Everything else is the same as it is on cable. I’d rather have the extra 14 episodes [of a broadcast network season] than say a word that is vastly overused and doesn’t really upset people anymore.

We have never, in the 35 years I’ve been on NBC, been prevented from doing any story, because [we’re] dealing with issues that most shows don’t deal with. We get a pass. It really is a pass.

WS: What are the biggest decisions you have to make on your shows?
WOLF: The biggest decision that I have to make is about crossovers; because the showrunners are all incredibly competent, [they handle the rest]. Mike Chernuchin is now running SVU. He started out as a staff writer on the first season of Law & Order. Most of the people who run multiple shows are still there, and these are relationships that are all more than 20 years old. It’s pretty extraordinary.

WS: Where did the idea for the crossover episodes come from?
WOLF: The first two crossovers we ever did [were between] Homicide: Life on the Street and Law & Order. They’re a huge [amount of work]. But there will be crossovers [among the Chicago series] every year that these shows are on, because they are too much fun for me not to do! The Chicago shows are a continuing joy, and I’m amazed [at how close the casts are]. We always try to establish a family on each of the shows, because [there has to be an atmosphere of] mutual support. On the Law & Order shows there were no feuds, but I was amazed at the casts of the Chicago shows—they hang out together!

WS: What other projects do you have in the works?
WOLF: FBI [premiered] on CBS in September, and there are future chapters yet to be written on new shows, other potential crossover shows. It’s a very exciting period in television, generally, but I’m one of the last people doing traditional, mainstream network, 22-episode-order shows as opposed to cable, where you do eight.

WS: How did the move to CBS come about?
WOLF: There was no more space on NBC. FBI is a joint production between Universal Television and CBS Television Studios.

WS: How have you seen audience expectations change, and how do you satisfy those changes as you develop and produce shows?
WOLF: Luckily, I’m in a position where I only make shows that I like. There is no need to do another series for the sake of doing it, but if you can do another one, and set up a base show that can be expanded on in the same way that, I hope, FBI will on CBS, [that’s great]. There are easily three shows based around FBI.