Saturday, July 5, 2014

Law & Order: An Actor’s Paradise

Back in 1998, Susan Green and I wrote the only companion book on the popular legal drama Law & Order. Besides being in the rare and charmed position of having the show's creator, Dick Wolf, give us complete access to cast and crew, we were also allowed complete autonomy to write what we wanted. With that freedom in mind, we both opened up to the possibilities the book offered in terms of content. For instance, we thought why not have other voices besides ours. We quickly conceived a chapter which would include a number of other people who also had an intelligent and probing perspective on the program. After soliciting a number of people, we were thrilled to see that all of them agreed to take part. They included civil rights attorney William Kunstler, former Ontario Premier Bob Rae and theatre and film critic Steve Vineberg. Unfortunately, our publishers didn't share our enthusiasm for broadening the scope of the book and all the pieces were turned down. Speaking with Steve Vineberg recently on the phone, however, he reminded me that he still had that piece he wrote, which was about how a number of great performers provided what he termed an actor's paradise on the show, and it was still unpublished. Since Steve now writes for Critics at Large, that terrific essay has now finally found the home it was once denied.

Kevin Courrier
Critics at Large.

Over seven and a half seasons (at this writing), Law and Order has sustained a remarkably high caliber of performance. It’s arguable that no television series has ever displayed so much terrific acting over such an extended length of time. You might expect the show’s steel-bound structure to hem in actors, and that doubling up the process of policing a case and trying it would strip away character detail, but in fact the set-up of the program operates, for both series regulars and guest stars, like strong, taut staging or the rules governing a verse form: it liberates them. The writing, as stylized in its way as the agit-prop theatre of the thirties or the film noirs of the late forties and early fifties – though the dialogue has a subtler ring and hews more closely than either to the tenets of realism – obliges the actors to sculpt their scenes with sureness and precision, so the characters have to be acutely observed and soaked in the brine of contemporary New York experience. Even the regulars, whose characters devoted viewers assemble for ourselves week upon week, don’t usually have the luxury of relaxing into their roles; the style of the show demands from them, too, an economy of characterization.

The cast changes over the years have made surprisingly little difference to the quality of the ensemble. Only Steven Hill, as District Attorney Adam Schiff, remains from the pilot season, his pebbled voice and gruff wit, which usually emerge midway through the hour, operating as an anchor to ground the show through its shift in personnel. Hill may have a wider array of gestures to suggest disgust than any character actor in memory; in the episodes that have spotlighted him – like “The Working Stiff,” where he has to bring down an old friend and political ally (William Prince), or “Terminal,” the seventh season closer, which fades out on Schiff’s expression as he watches his wife being taken off life support – he’s demonstrated how far a resourceful performer can stretch the emotional expression of a private, laconic man.

For four seasons, Hill’s Schiff provided grumbling commentary for the moral torments of Michael Moriarty’s Ben Stone, a deep-dyed – though renegade (i.e., divorced) – Catholic whose integrity and genteel formality left him in a position of permanent unease in an imperfect world. This profound discomfiture is perhaps most movingly visible in the “American Dream” episode, where a brilliant yuppie sociopath (Željko Ivanek), imprisoned by Stone on a murder charge years ago and now released on (bogus) new evidence, takes revenge on the prosecutor by invading his guarded personal life. When the yuppie insists on addressing Ben by his first name, Moriarty uses his response – pained outrage, as if he’d collided with a wall in the dark – as an indicator of his capacity for being affronted by the unreasonable and the unjust. Law and Order’s writers warmed to the beleaguered crusader Ben Stone and built some of the show’s most memorable episodes around him, like “Sanctuary” (which features an audacious barroom exchange on race between him and a black defense lawyer played by Lorraine Toussaint) and his valedictory “Old Friends,” where his overzealous and – in this case – blinkered pursuit of pure justice hurls his star witness (Allison Janney) straight into the path of a mob bullet. The title “Old Friends” alludes to the unspoken bond between Stone and Schiff, underscored in a brief, uncharacteristic moment of physical connection between them in the final scene that left many of us alone with our tears at the fourth season’s conclusion. It also refers, I think, to our own association with Stone, who rode out on our behalf, week after week, into the complex warfare of the courtroom, and ended up crucified on his own immovable – and finally irreconcilable – principles.

Steven Hill as District Attorney Adam Schiff.  

After Moriarty’s unhappy departure, most of my Law and Order-viewing friends dreaded the succession of Sam Waterston, historically not the most compelling of actors. But Waterston located, almost immediately, a liveliness in the role of Jack McCoy that forced us to re-evaluate him. McCoy isn’t righteous; he’s cagey, competitive, a legal gamesman with some give in his ethics. And he’s the first D.A. on the show who reports to work with a hard-on. With typical understatement, the series moved his assistant, Claire Kincaid (Jill Hennessy), into an affair with McCoy – famous for bedding his associates – that you sensed in their body language long before it was acknowledged in the writing, in the “Trophy” episode that brought Kincaid face to face with McCoy’s ex-wife (the excellent Laila Robins). If Ben Stone’s salient feature was his conscience, Jack McCoy’s is his desire to win at any cost, and Waterston doesn’t shy away from the character’s ruthlessness. He’s least attractive in “Mad Dog,” a superb, unresolvable episode where McCoy attaches himself to a released rapist (Burt Young) whose parole he campaigned tirelessly against. The ingenious title refers both to McCoy’s view of the rapist, whose rehabilitation he abjectly denies, and to McCoy’s own tenaciousness, which is finally, ironically, what loosens the paroled man’s grip on sanity and drives him back to his old habits.

It took Jill Hennessy nearly a season to shake off the slight dullness that may have been her legacy from Richard Brooks, who played Ben Stone’s original sidekick, Paul Robinette. Brooks was very dull indeed – until his guest-star return in “Custody,” where the long-absent Robinette loses the flattop that never looked right on him and is reborn as an activist for the African American causes he had to let pass him by in his days in the Manhattan D.A.’s office. Hennessy, always a trifle cowed by Moriarty, came into her own when Waterston joined the series. She seemed to feel freer to use her body; she turned into the sexiest feminist on TV – a welcome anomaly in a puritanical era. Carey Lowell, who stepped in as D.A. Jamie Ross when Hennessy left, is highly competent and has an underused penchant for comedy: her best moment so far has been the grilling of a credulous attorney (Robert Stanton) who fell for her airhead-novice act in “Shadow.” But the show has yet to spotlight Lowell or Ross in a distinctive way.

Sam Waterston and Jill Hennessy.

Presiding over the “order” side of the series is S. Epatha Merkerson as Lt. Anita Van Buren, following in the footsteps of Captain Don Cragen (Dann Florek). Florek had a kindly, smashed-in face, a low boiling point, and a gift for fed-up sarcasm; Merkerson (who made an early appearance on the show in dreadlocks as a grieving mother in “Mushrooms”) has a matriarchal toughness and a sharp sense of irony that always takes in her position as a black woman in authority over a mostly white male precinct. Merkerson’s burly, wry presence has gone a long way toward compensating for the loss of Florek, a wonderful actor whose performance in “The Blue Wall” at the finish of season one was nonpareil, even in this impeccably acted series. This is the entry where Cragen, like Schiff in “The Working Stiff” and almost every other regular in some later episode, has to betray an old buddy who’s gone bad – in Cragen’s case, his mentor, now a politician. In the climactic scene, wearing a wire, he pretends to be corrupt himself and hungry for a cut of the illicit profits. Florek shows us Cragen playing a role that turns his stomach – a sterling example of how a fine performer conveys a divided consciousness. But Merkerson has had her hours, too: “Competence,” where Van Buren shoots a young thief, and more recently “Blood,” where, in a daringly unorthodox scene, she turns her irony – and a seductive racial camaraderie – on a black man (Stephen Mendillo) who’s spent his adult life passing for white.

A pair of flatfeet patrol the first half of every show: one older, one younger. George Dzundza’s weathered foot soldier, Max Greevey, an NYPD vet cut from the same venerable cloth as his chief, Cragen, died shockingly at the hands of a mob goomba in his own driveway and was replaced by Phil Cerreta (Paul Sorvino), who had good Sicilian manners and carried his compassion around like a badge. It never seemed to occur to this guy that New York cops are supposed to flash a veneer of been-around cynicism. I remember how his face came undone like a hastily wrapped package when he found a murdered child in “Cradle to Grave,” and the tone of his voice in “Heaven” when he murmured, “God save us,” as dozens upon dozens of charred bodies were laid on the pavement outside a torched Latino social club. It would have been harder to see Sorvino leave the show if his replacement hadn’t been the peerless Jerry Orbach, whose Lenny Briscoe is a leathery ex-drunk, way past being surprised by anything his dirty job turns up but still capable of both humor and nausea. My favorite Orbach moment – among many – is during the interrogation of a man (Kevin O’Rourke) who appears to have killed his baby (in “Precious”), when Briscoe has to hood his feelings long enough to coddle the suspect into revealing the corpse’s whereabouts.

S. Epatha Merkerson & Jerry Orbach.
For five seasons one of these aging cops sparred with Chris Noth as Mike Logan, a wiseass bachelor whose capacity for processing new experiences belied his reflex conservatism. Noth played Logan with the pared-down expressiveness of a seasoned Warners character actor from the studio-factory era. (“Confession,” where Mike has to cope with Greevey’s murder, tested Noth’s considerable resources the way “The Working Stiff” tested Steven Hill’s.) And like those beloved types, Noth was a presence we always thought we'd have with us – a reassurance. But he was dropped from the show, and Benjamin Bratt came on as Det. Ray Curtis, a Latino hotshot who’s easy with computers and whose politics make Logan look liberal. Curtis is the Law and Order writers’only ongoing mistake: they appear to have invented him so they can score points against him (mostly via Lenny Briscoe’s wisecracks). It’s not the fault of the actor, Bratt, who seizes every paltry opportunity he’s thrown to humanize his character and who has slowly earned at least this viewer’s admiration for continuing to play a lousy hand with integrity.

Watching Law and Order can give you new respect for the New York working actor. The casting, down to three- and four-line parts, is close to flawless, and the actors burrow into their succinct, line-drawn roles. The featured players fill our consciousness – and I include Carolyn McCormick, in a recurring role, now completed, as the psychiatrist Elizabeth Olivet, who made intellection seem an elegant process and psychology a truly compassionate one. But they’re not the only faces we remember afterwards. We recall the guest-star lawyers (several of whom have appeared more than once), especially Lorraine Toussaint, George Grizzard, Elaine Stritch, Alan King, Bob Dishy, Tovah Feldshuh, Patti LuPone, Ron Leibman, Sandy Duncan, Lee Richardson, Richard Libertini, Elizabeth Ashley, Brooke Smith, John Pankow and the late William Kunstler as himself in “White Rabbit,” a take on the Katherine Ann Powers case and on the legacy of the sixties in general that is my own most treasured hour of the series. (Jerry Orbach’s debut on the show was in the role of a lawyer, in “The Ways of Love.”)

Jerry Orbach and Benjamin Bratt.
We recall Frances Fisher as the erotomaniac in “Animal Instinct,” whose instability – along with the innocence of the fantasy lover she’s framed for murder – is suddenly revealed in her unnerving metallic gaze. We recall Patti D”Arbanville, chilling in “Wedded Bliss” as a woman whose business, run with her weak-kneed husband (Bill Raymond), employs illegals and keeps them chained in their quarters at night so they won’t run away. We recall the sociopaths played by David Groh in “Indifference,” Cynthia Nixon in “Subterranean Homeboy Blues” and Larry Miller in “Coma” and again in “Encore,” each unsettling in a distinctive way. Actors whose bag of tricks you think you know by heart catch you by surprise on this show – Edward Herrmann as a pro-life fanatic in “Progeny,” puffed up like Toad of Toad Hall with the importance of his own God-given mission; Fritz Weaver as a rich man who tries to buy his daughter’s life with an unwitting donor’s kidney in “Sonata for a Solo Organ”; Frances Conroy as a high-society bondage queen in “Prisoners of Love”; Shirley Knight as a discarded wife in “The Ways of Love.” Others do the kind of complex, turbulent work they wouldn’t likely get the opportunity to try in the movies: Adam Arkin as an immigrant jeweler who becomes a neighborhood hero when he shoots a robber in “Self Defense”; Courtney R. Vance as a black stockbroker who murders his white mentor in “Rage”; Francie Swift as a woman with multiple-personality disorder in “Switch”; Regina Taylor in the Anita Hill-inspired “Virtue”; Karen Allen as the deeply neurotic daughter of Holocaust refugees in “Survivor”; Burt Young as the serial rapist in “Mad Dog.”

When you cast your mind back over seven and a half seasons, generally what you end up focusing on is some eloquent acting moment. Jack Gilpin, as a grieving husband, shuffles around, dazed like a man shocked awake by the glare of a klieg light (“Progeny”). Bruce Altman explains tersely to Ben Stone, with a grim laugh, that he won’t give up his Mafia brother-in-law because he prefers to keep breathing (“The Torrents of Greed”). Allison Janney, cornered into giving evidence against a mobster, weeps in terror on the stand (“Old Friends”). Adam Trese, as a reined-in young cop, finally admits to Logan that he’s gay (“Manhood”). Robert Joy cowers in the doorway of his apartment with hunted eyes at Briscoe’s covert threat to expose his secret homosexual life to his family (“Pride”). Peggy Roeder rips open the tender old wound of an unrequited love for a leftist comrade (“White Rabbit”). Caroline Kava blinks, stunned, as Stone fingers the moral contradiction in her defense for blowing up an abortion clinic (“Life Choices”). Marcia Jean Kurtz, as a character suggested by Hedda Nussbaum, looks helplessly at her husband (Groh) after the verdict comes in against them and asks him, “What are we going to do, Daddy?” (“Indifference”). Wil Hornef, as a teen with a homicidal fury whose lawyer’s defense strategy is to prove him physiologically incapable of self-control, insists on being tried as an adult; when Stone intervenes, explaining that he’s trying to save the boy’s life, Hornef replies, “What’s the use?” (“Born Bad”). Wisely, the director fades out on the young actor’s face: what more potent image could he find to follow this? Law and Order’s brightest move, over all these seasons, is its acknowledgement that on the small screen, as on the large one or on the stage, there’s nothing as articulate or affecting as a good actor in the throes of a performance.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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