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12 Things You Didn’t Know About Law & Order9

By Chris Littler

If you’ve ever turned on a television, odds are you’ve seen Law & Order. Since its debut in 1990, it’s been a steady presence in our lives, delivering on the promise of crimes that needs to be solved and cases that need to be closed. A stream of actors have travelled through the district in its 20-year history, some moving on to better things, others moving on to Congress. It’s become a juggernaut of the entertainment industry, and although it’s been on for decades, it’s still fresh.

The show is a bare-bones look at the criminal justice system, one that creator Dick Wolf based on several dramas that came before it. One that he had hoped would be “real,” but “optimistic.” Whether or not he succeeded in that goal we leave up to you. But when all’s said and done, the court is adjourned and the jury’s gone home, there’s no denying the impact the series has had on our view of the criminal justice system and on similar programming since. Regardless of how real its portrayed, however, Law & Order is a TV show, one that depends on twists and turns to keep our attention, and despite Dick Wolf’s hopes to keep it real, you can’t deny that it’s partly responsible for the idealistic visions people have today of what cops and lawyers do, just like the skewed perceptions of the bored criminologists in the comedic procedural Show Murder Squad.

But despite its overwhelming presence in our communal pop culture group mind, there’s quite a bit about Law & Order – the procedural mothership – that isn’t necessarily public knowledge.

Murder Squad – Field Trip

1. It’s tied with Gunsmoke as the longest running American drama of all time.

Over the course of 20 seasons, Law & Order has managed to churn out a whopping 456 episodes. That means that if you sat down and watched every episode back to back, with commercials, you wouldn’t finish for a full 19 days. And it’d be a great 19 days, too. The only other dramatic show to reach 20 seasons was Gunsmoke, a western set in Dodge City, Kansas during the settlement of the American West. There are 635 episodes of Gunsmoke, which is one hell of an impressive number, but not so much when you consider that that number encompasses two very different shows. The first 233 were a half hour, now re-titled Marshal Dillon in syndication, while the remaining 402 were one-hour, commonly referred to as Gunsmoke proper. That means that Law and Order is the longest running American drama to never change format, beating out Gunsmoke by 54 episodes.

2. S. Epatha Merkerson wears her hair in dreadlocks.

Merkerson has appeared in 390 episodes of Law & Order, more than any other cast member; which is why it’s so shocking to discover that she’s been wearing a wig this entire time. That’s right; the woman who plays Lt. Anita Van Buren wears her hair naturally as dreadlocks. Interestingly enough, she’s played officers in other shows in her natural style – 1992’s Mann & Machine for example – but if she felt for the character of a New York City Police Lieutenant it wouldn’t be realistic.

3. It’s based on a show called Arrest and Trial.

When Dick Wolf came to Universal Television’s Kerry McCluggage with the idea for Law & Order, McCluggage pointed out that the arrest-to-prosecution formula had been done before. The pioneer of the format was a show called Arrest and Trial, a 90-minute 1963 crime-drama starring Ben Gazzara that lasted for one season on ABC. Despite it only lasting one season, Wolf proposed that he could make the concept work by making the characters less fallible, and by making the prosecution the hero, as opposed to the defense.

4. One guest star has played 12 different characters.

Adam Sandler movies have Rob Schneider, Ron Howard movies have Cliff Howard, and Law & Order has Edward D. Murphy. Murphy, a character actor in the most literal sense, has portrayed 12 different characters over the course of ten episodes. The only other actor who’s come anywhere close to that was actor Lee Shepherd, who played 7 different characters over the course of 9 seasons. That’s a lot of times getting killed, or being tried as the killer. Or both.

5. It was supposed to premier on Fox, but Barry Diller reversed the decision.

Fox ordered thirteen episodes of Law & Order based on nothing but Dick Wolf’s pitch. The decision was reversed shortly after by network head Barry Diller, who didn’t believe the show was a good fit for Fox. Diller had practically invented the idea of the made-for-tv movie, as well as produced megahits like Cheers, Taxi, and Laverne and Shirley, so he’s probably not beating himself up too much over passing on Law & Order. Of course, no one likes to be the guy who kicked away the show that went on to create a franchise.

6. There’s a road named “Law & Order Way” at Chelsea Piers.

On September 14, 2004, Katherine Oliver, New York’s Commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting renamed a road leading to Pier 62 “Law and Order Way” in commemoration of all that the series has done for the city. What has the series done for the City, you ask? Besides pumping over 700 million bucks into the economy, the show employed 1,800 New Yorkers every single season. That’s a good reason to rename a street, but an even better reason to give a huge hug to Dick Wolf and Jeff Zucker.

7. Two years passed between the pilot and production of the series.

Fox ordered the first thirteen episodes of Law & Order, and then famously reversed their decision after seeing the pilot. The pilot, titled “Everyone’s Favorite Bagman,” is about a city councilman being robbed and murdered and the ensuing investigation uncovering a huge scandal within the city government. The pilot then went on to CBS, who turned it down because it didn’t have any stars in it. A year later, NBC’s Brandon Tartikoff and Warren Littlefield screened the pilot and liked it but were hesitant that the intensity could be matched on a week by week basis. Dick Wolf ensured them that it could, and the series was officially picked up in 1990 with one caveat: the pilot was pushed to the sixth episode.

8. The trademark Clang incorporates almost a dozen different sounds.

It’s impossible to imagine Law & Order without “The Clang.” It the sound that moves us from scene to scene, jumping forward in time with all the importance and immediacy of a judge’s gavel – which is exactly what composer Mike Post was aiming for when he created it. Not many people know that The Clang is an amalgamation of nearly a dozen sounds, including an actual gavel, a jail door slamming, and the sound of five hundred Japanese monks walking across a hardwood floor.

9. Actor Michael Moriarty called Janet Reno a psychopath Nazi.

When casting a television show, the best you can hope for is that your actors will consistently produce quality work. Failing that, the next best thing you can hope for is that they won’t be politically active. Michael Moriarty, who played Executive Assistant DA Ben Stone from 1990 to 1994, departed from the show after a dispute with the network in which they asked him to apologize for calling then Attorney General Janet Reno a “psychopathic Nazi.” Moriarty was only defending the show from Reno’s claims that it was excessively violent, but his overreaction to the situation was clearly not what Wolf and Co. were looking for.

10. Actress Jill Hennessy didn’t know her character was dead until she watched the episode.

Assistant District Attorney Claire Briscow is killed by a drunk driver as she drives her friend Lennie Briscoe home from the bar. That was a surprise to Hennessy, who portrayed her, once the episode aired. The script left Claire’s fate ambiguous, and the writer’s intention was to have her come back paralyzed in the next season – but sometimes things change in the writer’s room. Hennessy was notified of her character’s death by a friend who had watched the premiere of the next season. After getting over her disappointment, Hennessy sucked it up and offered to come back for “some bizarre flashbacks.”

11. Sometimes the headlines are ripped a little too soon.

Law & Order’s advertising has always pushed that its cases are ripped from the headlines. What they really mean is that basic details of real-life situations are mined by the writers and then twisted and heightened for dramatic purposes. Most of the time this made for exciting television, but sometimes the writers go a little too far. The show was sued for libel by Ravi Batra, a lawyer who felt that the character of Ravi Patel in the episode “Floater” was based on his real-life interactions with a judge who was convicted of accepting bribes. The least they could have done was change his WHOLE name.

12. Those Coke cans were inserted digitally.

This one’s a little difficult for us to believe. Apparently, when the show started airing in syndication on TNT, product placements were inserted digitally. That means that whenever you see a Coke can, it wasn’t there when the episode originally aired. It might seem a little silly that a company would pay so much money to have their product appear on a fictional detective’s desk, but market research has shown that the method really works. It generates serious business.

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Watch more episodes of procedural comedy Murder Squad

Chris Littler lives in Hollywood. He has a degree in Dramatic Writing from the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, one of the most prestigious writing programs in America, which he totally plans to hang on the wall when he has a Study. Chris currently covers video games at UGO.com when he’s not performing improv at iO, and is currently writing a one-hour TV pilot with his friend Wes. Like everyone else you know, he has an album available to purchase on iTunes and has lots of things to say on his blog: chrislittler[dot]com.

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Must Reads 7/23/2014