Photo credit: ©Michael Bulbenko for the Paley Center
Cast members from four “Wolf Pack” shows—a nickname for those TV series created by uber-producer Dick Wolf—gathered in Los Angeles on Saturday night to salute the boss during the annual PaleyFest television festival. Held at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, the panel discussion featured Wolf, along with actors from Law & Order: SVU (Ice T), Chicago Fire (Taylor Kinney and Jesse Spencer), Chicago P.D. (Jason Beghe and Sophia Bush) and his latest Windy City-based installment, Chicago Med (Colin Donnell, Torrey DeVitto, Oliver Platt and S. Epatha Merkerson).
The audience in the packed theater was the perfect visual representation of why Wolf’s shows have traditionally done so well in terms of ratings and longevity. Wolf described his shows as “old-fashioned broadcast television” that cut a wide swath through the American audience. Younger fans in the theater loudly cheered for Bush, Spencer and Kinney, while OG L&O fans were there to support longtime castmembers Ice T and Merkerson, who began on the original Law & Order series as Lt. Van Buren, and now plays the chief hospital administrator on Chicago Med.
The Salute to Dick Wolf was every bit as fun and nostalgic as it should have been. Here are five fun facts we learned on the red carpet and in the theater.
The panelists onstage joked about who hadn’t appeared on a Law & Order show (check out reruns for guest turns by Sarah Paulson, Julie Bowen, Jim Gaffigan, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and countless others). Wolf then threw out this mind-boggling statistic: His three New York shows and his three Chicago shows combined have featured 40,000 speaking actors.
In addition to Law & Order: SVU, Ice T’s appeared on three episodes of Wolf’s New York Undercover (1994-98); one episode of the short-lived 1996 series Swift Justice; all 18 episodes of the single-season show Players (1997-98) and Exiled (A 1998 Law & Order TV Movie starring Chris Noth). “I played a cop on New Jack City, but I never thought I would be on television,” Ice T told Paste backstage. “Now I’m like the longest-running black male cop in history. Imagine that… and Ice T? How did that happen?” (Merkerson’s Lt. Anita Van Buren is the longest-running African-American character on television.)
We also learned a bit of good news for fans of Ice T—the musician. “Bodycount did an album last year called Manslaughter, and we’re doing a new album. We’re getting ready to start on that later this summer… it’s just mayhem and carnage,” he said backstage. “It’s called Bloodlust.”
We asked several actors backstage to give us their best guesses on Wolf’s formula for success. “If we knew that, we’d all be the most successful television producers of all time,” Sophia Bush joked. “I think Dick really is attuned to what works. He has strong opinions, but is also very collaborative, which so many people, when they get tremendously successful, are not; and then they run their shows into the ground. He really is a pleasure to work for and I’m thrilled that his universe keeps growing and [thrilled] to be a part of it.”
Taylor Kinney said, “I think he believes in himself and that permeates to the people he works with. He has vision, and he’s an ambitious guy that wants to always move forward, progress and push the envelope. He started off as a writer; he’s still a writer—he a great writer—and he happens to be a brilliant businessman and producer.”
Wolf (who skipped the red carpet) dropped a few pearls of wisdom during the panel discussion. He recounted the story of then-NBC President Brandon Tartikoff asking Wolf about the Law & Order bible—TV speak for the official guide to the series. He told Tartikoff, “It’s the front page of the New York Post... you can’t make this stuff up.” He went on to proffer another reason for his golden TV touch: “I hire obsessive people.”
We asked Kinney where he’d like to see his firefighter character Lt. Kelly Severide go this season. “On vacation,” Kinney said without missing a beat. “It would be fun to do an episode in Hawaii. We’d win a trip, or something and then we’d go, and then something will come up where we’d have to help with the local fire department there. Something like that would be a really fun episode.” Has he pitched it? “I’m going to now,” he said with a laugh.
Later during the panel discussion, Merkerson talked about her own history with Dick Wolf shows, including the 1992 series Mann & Machine, in which she played a captain with two detectives—one of which was a cyborg. After the laughs died down, Merkerson said, “It was ahead of its time.”
“We start shooting Chicago Justice [spin off] next week,” Wolf told the crowd, describing it as the “fourth leg” of the table in Chicago, complementing the police, fire and medical segments. He also dropped this casting nugget for the PaleyFest audience: Carl Weathers (Rocky) stars as the Cook County State’s Attorney (the District Attorney of Chicago).
Chicago Justice airs later this spring, while fans can catch the other Wolf Pack shows on NBC now.
Christine N. Ziemba is a Los Angeles-based freelance pop culture writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on Twitter.