October 20, 2018

A Wolf Among ‘Sheep’

Dick Wolf

Dick Wolf lets out a low, audible groan at the mention of theV-chip. For years now, the creator and executive producer oftelevision’s longest-running drama has spoken out against what hebelieves are the forces of censorship and intimidation lurking behindthe innocent-enough-sounding fix. A V-chip attached to a ratingssystem would turn any show without a gentle G into “an all-pointsbulletin” for politicians, special-interest groups and, of course,advertisers. “Procter & Gamble doesn’t spend $1 billion a year ontelevision advertising to be controversial,” he says. “Advertisersare sheep.”

And Wolf should know. When his show, “Law and Order,” dramatizedthe bombing of an abortion clinic, $800,000 worth of ads fell out. Ashow dealing with assisted suicide cost NBC $500,000 in yanked ads.These were not hours filled with naked tushies, à la “NYPDBlue,” or the carnage of “Walker, Texas Ranger,” either. Wolf proudlypoints out that in seven seasons, the two detectives on “Law andOrder” have never fired their guns. The lesson for him is clear — arating system would gut television of the thing it does best: seriousadult drama.

Worse, it could open the way for harsher forms of censorship. Fouryears ago, on a PBS symposium, Wolf pressed Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ohio,on whether the congressman would support legislative censorship. Hydeeventually said that he would. In writings and speeches on the issue,that exchange is never far from Wolf’s mind.

“Law and Order,” of course, is one of those serious adult dramasthat TV does best. Equal parts cop show and courtroom thriller, theseries has explored issues such as racism, police brutality andfreedom of speech. Wolf — speaking with The Journal by car phone –says that he “absolutely” seeks out important issues to thread intohis drama. “The show reaches its highest heights in these episodes,”he says.

Case in point: an episode in which a Malcolm X-style black leaderis assassinated and the suspect is a middle-aged Jewish man. When thesuspect’s defense attorney — a Jew — cross-examines a black witnessto the murder, the witness blurts out, “The damn Jew shot Malcolm andthe damn Jew lawyer will get him off!”

Wolf recalls watching that interchange on TV. “The hairs on theback of my neck stood up. That’s what I strive for. The show is meantto wake people up.”

The son of a Jewish father and Irish Catholic mother, Wolf wasraised in Manhattan in a secular home steeped in liberal values. “Myfather’s mother was a Marxist,” he says, “so I guess I came from aliberal tradition.” After graduating from the University ofPennsylvania, he worked on Madison Avenue (“I’m Cheryl, Fly Me”) andthen began a successful second career writing movies. One of his mostmemorable efforts was “School Ties,” which explored anti-Semitism ata prep school. Although Wolf attended Andover, he never experiencedprejudice there. He wrote the script because he cared about the issueand the story. It took him 11 years to get it made.

Since 1988, Wolf has been one of television’s most prolificwriter/producers, having created 11 series, including theEmmy-winning “Law and Order.”

It’s a safe bet that the voluble and articulate Wolf, 50, has hisopinions. But his show doesn’t force-feed viewers a party line. Rightand wrong shift, blend and realign in the course of a single episode.It’s prime-time “Rashomon,” and that’s the way Wolf likes it. Hisideal show? Where each of the six main characters take six sides ofthe same issue, “and they’re all right.”

The complex and thoughtful approach to network television hasearned Wolf accolades from numerous professional and civil rightsgroups. On Oct. 21, he’ll receive the 1997 DistinguishedEntertainment Industry Award from the Anti-Defamation League at adinner at the Century Plaza Hotel Towers.

“Dick’s entire career has been built on free speech andhumanitarianism,” says Universal Television Group Chairman GregMeidel, who is chairing the event. The ADL chose Wolf, says RegionalDirector David Lehrer, because his shows “convey our mission, whichis to fight bigotry and discrimination.”

What Wolf wants is to leave adult TV to the free market andcensorship to parents. (Wolf and his wife, Christine, have threechildren, but only let the oldest watch their dad’s show.)

Advertisers can’t be expected to put a dime behind shows thatreceive a controversial rating. And Congress and network regulatorscan’t be trusted to differentiate between gratuitous violence and sexand issues that may be offensive but are nevertheless crucial.

They can’t be trusted, Wolf believes, because going afterHollywood is loads easier — and makes for much better press — thanwrestling with health care or other weighty issues. The producerpoints a finger at Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who pushes the V-chipwhile voting against gun control and paternity leave. Where are thefamily values there?

“This is the biggest free ride since McCarthy,” he says, “butthese threats are not idle.”

For more information on the ADL dinner, contact Nancy Volpert at(310) 446-8000.