Producer's Series Spell Success

Wednesday, September 27th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW YORK – Say, Dick Wolf: How's it feel to be a television magnate?

"I wish I knew," he replies.

False modesty? Prudent restraint? Either way, let's examine the record:

Mr. Wolf's Law & Order begins its 11th season Oct. 18 on NBC. This celebrated cops-and-courtroom drama is not only the oldest dramatic series on the air, but with its guaranteed renewal through 2004-05, will stand second only to Gunsmoke as the longest-running non-news-or-sports series in TV history.

Spinoff Law & Order: Special Victims Unit returns for its second season on Oct. 20, already blessed by NBC with a pickup through 2001-02.

Deadline, starring Oliver Platt as a crusading newspaper columnist, premieres on NBC on Monday.

Arrest & Trial, Mr. Wolf's first venture into reality fare, begins a weekday syndicated run on Monday on 170 stations, locally at 9:30 p.m. on Channel 33. Hosted by Brian Dennehy, each half-hour examines a criminal case through interviews, news footage and dramatic re-creations.

And a third series carrying the Law & Order imprint could be in production as soon as January.

"That deal isn't closed-closed," Mr. Wolf says, "but I would say that there's a pretty good chance."

Not bad, not bad at all for the 53-year-old ad-man-turned-producer who, during the past decade, logged his share of flops, including Gideon Oliver, Christine Cromwell, Nasty Boys, Mann & Machine, Crime & Punishment, The Wright Verdicts, Feds and D.C.

All the while, he had Law & Order, which premiered on Sept. 13, 1990. But for years, even this series struggled in the ratings.

"Law & Order can hardly be thought of as a commercial hit," Mr. Wolf told the Associated Press in 1994. "It's a critical success that people know about and think fondly of, but I'm still looking for a show that's a commercial hit."

Happily for Mr. Wolf, that first hit was right under his nose. After enjoying steady growth, Law & has landed just outside the Top 10 in households.

These days, not only is the Law & Order franchise a linchpin of NBC's prime-time schedule, but also, according to a report in the New York Post, it may even inspire a true-crime magazine from Time Inc. (On this, Mr. Wolf isn't commenting.)

"Law & Order," says Mr. Wolf, "kind of settled into the consciousness." The Little Engine That Could became the Bullet Train.

And so has Mr. Wolf. Watch him move through the newsroom set of Deadline (actually, the Post's old newsroom), a big man with a big voice and laugh who, not infrequently, wears the look of a cat after lunching on canary.

Between fielding calls on his cell phone, he watches the filming approvingly and huddles with his stars between takes. He is particularly proud of Deadline, a fresh dramatic take on crime fighting that also captures the quirkiness of journalists and of New Yorkers overall.

"It's the best first-year cast I've ever been associated with or can remember," he declares a week or so later from Los Angeles, en route from one meeting to another. Into his cell phone he lists names that include Mr. Platt, Bebe Neuwirth, Lili Taylor, Tom Conti and Hope Davis.

"But the strongest element of Deadline is the storytelling," he adds.

Unlike most of the new series, Deadline won its 13-episode deal not with an expensive pilot episode but with a thrifty three-minute presentation.

"We're not making pilots anymore," he says. "As far as we're concerned, the pilot process on shows that I create for NBC is over."

Another way Mr. Wolf breaks ranks: In a youth-obsessed business, he doesn't mind a graying staff.

He took one conspicuous blow against ageism this season by signing Arthur Penn as the new executive producer of Law & Order. The director of the 1967 masterpiece Bonnie and Clyde turns 78 on Wednesday.

"He's one of the great American filmmakers," Mr. Wolf explains. "The essence of drama is a depth of experience in the human condition," says Mr. Wolf, who pegs the average age of the Law & Order writing staff at 46. "It's pretty hard to write about adult problems if you're 22."