'Law & Order' Producer On His Favorite Cast

Law & Order, the much beloved, and long-running crime procedural, ends its 20-year run Monday night. Emmy-award winning writer and executive producer Rene Balcer talks about the stories he ripped from the headlines, and which cast line-up is his favorite.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Tonight, it's the end of an era.

(Soundbite of "Law & Order" transition sound)

CONAN: After 20 seasons, the crime procedural and progenitor of even more crime procedurals, the original "Law & Order," ends its run. Reruns will continue to be a staple on cable TV probably for the remainder of time, so you'll have every chance to catch up on more stories ripped from the headlines.

We've invited our friend Rene Balcer to join us to remember one of the great programs in the history of television. He won an Emmy as a writer on "Law & Order," served as executive producer of both "Law & Order" and on "Law & Order: Criminal Intent," a spinoff which will leave on next season. But our focus today is on the mother ship. What made it work so well for so long?

Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can join the conversation at our website, as well. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And, Rene Balcer, nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION today.

Mr. RENE BALCER (Executive Producer and Writer, "Law & Order"): Nice to be back, Neal.

CONAN: And it's been an incredible run. I'm sure all your children are your favorites, but do you have an actual favorite "Law & Order" episode?

Mr. BALCER: No. But I have to put a little caveat, in the words of "Monty Python's Spamalot," we're not dead yet.

CONAN: Not dead yet.

Mr. BALCER: Not dead yet.

CONAN: Now, well, your show continues, and "Law & Order: Los Angeles" will be starting.

Mr. BALCER: Well, aside from that, there's still negotiations going on with the different cable outlets to see if we...

CONAN: Ah, really.

Mr. BALCER: Yes. So...

CONAN: To see if the original, the mother ship could be refloated.

Mr. BALCER: Yes. It's in a, as Dick said, a medically-induced coma right now. So we'll see if we can bring it out.

CONAN: On TV, don't they call that hiatus?

Mr. BALCER: No. Haitus is usually it's a break between seasons, when you already know you're coming back. No, this is definitely a medically-induced, or a corporately-induced coma.

CONAN: So there's we had also heard, at least, the possibility of a two-hour wrap up.

Mr. BALCER: Yeah. That one, I don't know much about. But...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BALCER: ...I think a season would be terrific just to build up to a nice finale. But...

CONAN: So "Law & Order" is just pioneering pining for the fjords?

Mr. BALCER: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: What made the show, in your opinion, work so well for so long?

Mr. BALCER: I think the fact that, you know, it was close-ended stories every week, and it served as a chronicle for the times. So I think that's what kept people coming back every week. I think, you know, they kind of relied on our point of view, or us as storytellers and honest witnesses. And it allowed them to sort of play out issues that might have been of interest to them or of concern to them, and, you know, do it in a relatively safe environment. And - so...

CONAN: But it was a show that was both famous for predictability. You had the same characters - from season to season, anyway. For several seasons, the pretty much the same cast continued. But also, the show was famous for its twist, the internal turns that every story we take.

Mr. BALCER: That's correct. And, you never knew at the end of the show whether the bad guys would get convicted or not. You know, there was always question mark. So that's why the - predictability, I don't know how predictable it was, ultimately.

CONAN: Because of the changes, nevertheless, you pretty much knew that the cops would run the show for the first half hour, and then the prosecutors for the last half hour.

Mr. BALCER: Well, even with that, we played with that format. So...

CONAN: There it was also the famous ripped from the headlines, the investigation there's an episode you ripped from the headlines. The investigations covers an upscale prostitution ring that implicates the governor of the state of New York, I don't know where you come up with these things.

Mr. BALCER: I don't know. It's just complete fiction, isn't it?

CONAN: And it happens to be an ally of Jack McCoy - at this point, the DA. But loyalty has its price.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Law & Order")

Mr. SAM WATERSTON (Actor): (as Jack McCoy) I came to you to the decent thing, to give you a chance to square up with your family before your indiscretions blow up in your face.

Mr. TOM EVERETT SCOTT (Actor): (as Governor Donald Shalvoy) Nothing's gonna blow up, Jack, because you're not going to allow that. You like being district attorney. More to the point: You'd like to keeping district attorney . And you can do that without me.

Mr. WATERSTON: (As Jack McCoy) Don, you can't dodge the scandal. You can only make it worse.

Mr. SCOTT: (as Governor Donald Shalvoy) It's in your interest to cover my back, so that's what you're gonna do.

CONAN: And Jack McCoy walking out of the room at that point. Can you take us a little bit into the process? How do you take a story like obviously the Eliot Spitzer story, and put the personal "Law & Order" spin on it?

Mr. BALCER: Boy, I mean, that's a - it's not easily describable because it is - yes, we want to play to the expectations of the audience, but then we want to take them somewhere else and we may end up with a story that has nothing to do with the headline we started off with. So it really follows the whims and whimsies of the writers involved and, you know, what's of particular concern to them, you know, at the moment. And also, what we try and distill from the headline at hand.

So it's - what we - I think the cardinal rule is just not to bore ourselves. And if we don't bore ourselves, hopefully we won't bore the audience.

CONAN: Does it start with one writer? Do you bat it around with two or three people and then one...

Mr. BALCER: No, usually it starts with the show runner, the head writer you know, in this case myself and one or two writers, and we just start talking about the story, the themes, which sometimes we'll discover as we're breaking the story. Quite often, we might start with the legal twist, you know, letting the tail wag the dog a bit.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. And do you do a lot of research? Do you read a lot of newspaper clippings?

Mr. BALCER: Yeah, I read a lot - you know, the stories are pulled from not just The New York Post, not even just from New York newspapers. It's pulled The New York Posts of this world.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BALCER: You know, last season, we had stories that came - two stories that came out of China. Weve done stories that came out of France, pulled from a 1930s era crime there. So it's pretty wide-ranging. You know, when you do 456 episodes, you have to look far and afield for stories.

CONAN: Ripped from les headlines...

Mr. BALCER: Yeah.

CONAN: Perhaps. Anyway, let's get some callers in on the conversation. We're talking with Rene Balcer, Emmy Award-winning writer, "Law & Order" lifer, I think it's probably fair to say.

Let's go Kathleen(ph), Kathleen with us from Berkeley.

KATHLEEN (Caller): Yes. One of the things I thought made it most compelling is that it dealt often with ethical issues, not just issues that were ripped from the headlines but where there was a really interesting value issue in the law that could be decided in different directions and where it was not a black and white issue at all. I also thought the performance of the guy who was the major attorney forever and whose name I now am drawing a blank on was fabulous.

CONAN: Sam Waterston, you mean?

KATHLEEN: Yes, yes. But I really - there were many times when I really was pressed to decide, where do I come down ethically on this issue? And I thought that that made it riveting and informative and important.

CONAN: Yeah, the legal issues, indeed a lot of the moral issues, were not black and white.

KATHLEEN: Exactly. And that is such a refreshing thing in today's television world where things are less than blank and white.

CONAN: And Rene Balcer, and a fair amount of the time, the prosecutors lost.

Mr. BALCER: Probably a third of the time. You know, we also like to take issues and sort of turn them on their heads and sort of - and go against conventional wisdom. We did - for example, at the beginning of this season we did an episode about the torture memos...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BALCER: ...that were authored by, you know, Justice Department officials under the Bush administration.

KATHLEEN: I remember one episode which, for some reason, really sticks in my mind about, of all things, dwarf tossing. And the attorney who was supporting that position was indeed himself a dwarf. And it was just fascinating to think that this was - I mean, as a good liberal, I, of course, have a lot of opinions about a lot of things. And I found myself pressed to ask, okay, so on what basis am I making this decision?

CONAN: Hmm. Well, thanks very much for the call, Kathleen. Appreciate it.

KATHLEEN: Thank you, and thank you for the program.

CONAN: Oh, thank you. But you were about to make, Rene, a point about the torture memos episode?

Mr. BALCER: Yes. Well, so we had this as our season premiere. And of course, the conservative media lambasted us. And then three weeks later, we had an episode that sort of reexamined abortion, you know, 40 years after Roe v. Wade and whether with the advances of medical science and pre and post-natal care, did that change the equations and the matrixes for - on abortion? And in that case, it was the liberal media that came after us.

So the same people who were, you know, hailing us one week, three weeks later where, you know, roasting us over the coals. So - and we like that.

CONAN: Hmm. Let's go next to Jill(ph), And Jill is calling us from Columbia, South Carolina.

JILL (Caller): I love the show. I'm going to miss it so much. I think one of the things that made it so great was you didn't have all the personal stuff behind. I mean, you really stuck to the stories and you got a little bit of the personal, like what the cancer issue, but not the whole, this person is married to this person, now they're divorcing and now - there wasn't a whole soap opera feel to it.

CONAN: There were references to back story, but they were glancing, it seemed, Rene.

JILL: Yeah.

Mr. BALCER: Yeah, it was and by design. And also, I think that's what contributed to the longevity of the show. I think there's, you know, your characters can only get divorced so often. They can only fall off the wagon so often. And once your show starts to be about that, it's not going to have too long a run. And that will get predictable, as well.

JILL: Yeah. I'm going to miss it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JILL: So, thank you.

Mr. BALCER: Thank you.

JILL: Bye-bye.

CONAN: Bye-bye. There is - she was talking about the great cast. And I think all of us miss the great Jerry Orbach who was, of course, a detective on Law & Order for many years. And, indeed, seemed to have a lot of the best lines designed for his delivery. Heres one of those Orbach moments.

(Soundbite of TV program, Law & Order)

Unidentified Man: (as Character) They think were common criminals.

Mr. JERRY ORBACH (Actor): (as Detective Lennie Briscoe) You did break into a car.

Unidentified Man: (as Character) It was a prank, you know, ha-ha. We work at Bennings and Harps on Wall Street.

Mr. ORBACH: (as Detective Briscoe) Oh, so the thing about being common criminals wasnt that far off.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Pretty telling for this day and time.

Mr. BALCER: Jerry, you know, I think of the show as before Jerry and then after Jerry. He changed the tenor of the show and really sort of catapulted us into the public eye.

CONAN: Were talking with Rene Balcer, who's long been involved with Law & Order, an Emmy Award-winning writer, executive producer and head writer, also involved with Law & Order: Criminal Intent," and the new spinoff series Law & Order: Los Angeles." Hes with us from our bureau in New York. Youre listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And you denied having a favorite episode. Do you have a favorite crew?

Mr. BALCER: A favorite crew as in...

CONAN: The cast, the core cast.

Mr. BALCER: Well, of course, Ill always have a soft spot for Sam.

CONAN: Absolutely.

Mr. BALCER: He is sort of a bit of my doppelganger. I think the crew we had this year, the Jeremy Sisto and Anthony Anderson, Linus and a lot of...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BALCER: I think they were terrific. You know, Jerry was just a pleasure to work for. Every day he had a joke. And, you know, his favorite joke was the one were the ones that were the shortest. You know, never complained about the hours or - he was just happy to have a regular job. And, you know, so those would be my favorites.

CONAN: Were talking again Rene Balcer. 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. Lets go next to Jacob(ph), Jacob with us from Tallahassee.

JACOB (Caller): Hi. Yeah. What was interesting about the show for me is that my entire family was basically the different people in the show. My dads a judge. My moms a social worker. My sister-in-law is a victim advocate. My great-grandfather was a homicide detective. So we could all sit there together and watch the show, and theyd be able to point out, oh, yeah, thats pretty much how it goes down.

And most of what they left out though in the show it seems were the boring paperwork procedures and things like that, which take up most of the time in the legal system.

CONAN: Indeed, theres very little paperwork filling out except as -just as youre going to commercial.

JACOB: Right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Jacob, thanks very much. Did you have that reaction from lawyers and judges and detectives?

Mr. BALCER: Yeah. Generally, that we did the law and we left the boring parts out. Usually well, defense lawyers were probably of the bunch the less complementary cause we tended to give them short shrift. But, you know, the show really wasnt about them, it was about the prosecutors, the cops and, of course you know, but the best shows were when we we created defense attorneys who were a match...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BALCER: ...intellectually for our, you know, for Sam or Michael Moriarty.

CONAN: He was - preceded Sam in the ADA chair.

Mr. BALCER: Yes.

CONAN: Becky(ph) is on the line from Oswego in New York.

BECKY (Caller): Hello. Its nice to talk to you.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

BECKY: Yes. I just wanted to tell you that my favorite character from Law & Order was Lennie Briscoe because that character was just like cops that I know. And there were so many characters on that show where you just groan and like, oh, cops dont do that.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

BECKY: But Lennie Briscoe was like so many cops that I know honest and fatherly and to the point and funny and irreverent and I just loved it.

CONAN: Now, you want a copy for yourself, Becky?

BECKY: Yes, I am.

CONAN: Well, so you enjoy the program?

BECKY: Well that character, yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: That character, yes. All right, were not going to push you beyond where youre ready to go.

BECKY: Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it. Lets see if we can go to Dan(ph), Dan with us from Kalamazoo.

DAN (Caller): Hi, Neal. I love your show.

CONAN: Thank you.

DAN: And I absolutely love Law & Order.

CONAN: Well, we should only hope to run as long as Law & Order.

DAN: Yeah, yeah. My favorites are Law & Order and then SVU. And I just think that Law & Order was such a great show because no matter how I was ever feeling, it was always something that I could watch. And it, you know, is on TV all the time on a plethora of different channels. And...

CONAN: Yeah. I wanted to ask Rene about that. Do you think to some degree that Law & Order was competing with itself, because you could watch it so often during the day on another channel than and you didnt have to tune on Monday nights on NBC?

Mr. BALCER: Well, I think thats true, and internationally, it was competing against international iterations of itself. In Australia, there'd be a Law & Order U.K. against the mother ship and it got very confusing. But, you know, it was used by the networks as a kind of a quick patch...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BALCER: ...you know, for their schedules. And they, you know, they ran us at all different times, you know, which is both it's sort of a backhanded compliment. And you know, were quite happy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BALCER: You know, we were the heroin they were addicted to.

CONAN: And when will we know if youre going to get that shot of adrenalin to the heart?

Mr. BALCER: I would think within the next couple of weeks.

CONAN: Good luck with that. We all wish you luck with that.

Mr. BALCER: Well, thank you.

CONAN: Wed love to see another season. Rene Balcer joined us from our bureau in New York. Hes the executive producer of Law & Order, Law & Order: Criminal Intent and the upcoming season, Law & Order: Los Angeles.

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