Dick Wolf. Pause a moment and let it sink in. You see a TV, right? Of course you do – and so much more. Dick Wolf’s name is synonymous with quality TV shows whose plots are ripped from the headlines and turned into ratings. His writers and actors talk about his sharp eye for talent, insistence on excellent writing, attention to detail, his devotion to a formula that works, and his loyalty. “Dick is just the best,” says Chicago Med’s S. Epatha Merkerson. He’s also responsible for turning dramas set in Chicago into an empire that comprises a significant percentage of NBC’s prime time lineup.
We caught up with the veteran producer in Chicago – where else – for a celebration of his TV empire, including Chicago Fire’s 100th episode, which airs December 6 and will be available the next day along with all of this season’s episodes with Xfinity On Demand.
Two years ago we spoke and you said you envisioned shows where actors were crossing over and the lines between them were , blurred as if it were one big Dickens novel. Where are you with that vision? Further along than I thought I’d be. Chicago Justice, knock wood, is very good. We have four shows. The casts migrate between them effortlessly. Not full crossovers but just sort of incidental cast transfers in and out. And it’s working, as I said, beyond my expectations. We’ve even managed to get in SVU, which has been entertaining. What part of this was your original vision? Not SVU. But people forget that Jason and Jon Seda were in the first season of Fire – and in major roles. Describe this now complex world for us? I look at the four shows as parts of the human body. Fire is the crotch – it’s the soap opera. P.D. is the fist – and kind of unapologetically. Med is the heart, and Justice is the brain. It works. And the integrations are becoming seamless. Does this mean we’ll see fewer crossovers? We don’t have to do them and the one thing I said to Bob [Greenblatt] is I don’t want anybody to get addicted to them. When we do a big crossover it has to remain an event. When you look back on your career, any regrets? I really, loved Deadline. I wish that it survived because I think newspapers are fascinating, more than the news business. So there are a couple that I wish had survived. But you can say the audience is never wrong, either. What’s the secret to a good show? A good script. Twenty-five years ago, right around Christmas, I gave the heads of all the networks little leather desk cards that said, “It’s the writing stupid.” That’s not to put down anybody else’s contribution. But it’s always the writing. When you were coming up, what was the best advice you got? I was in the movie business for 10 years before I got into television, and one of my first meetings was with Howard Koch, who was one of the giants of the business. He said, “Let me tell you something. At any given point in Hollywood there are 10,000 people who can start a screenplay and about 10 who can finish them properly.” And the ratio is about the same in television. The most interesting writer I have worked for in 40 years out here is David Milch. He’s the only genius I’ve met.” Outside of your shows, what do you watch on television? That’s a terrible question to ask me. My wallpaper is CNN; it’s always on. Or various Law and Order reruns, because they run continuously, which is very reassuring. My favorite show that I didn’t do in the last 10 years by far … I mean from here to the end of the wall … is Breaking Bad. You have to put Bryan Cranston in the category of all-time great television performances.