Above the smog of Los Angeles, a small coterie of writers and producers breathe a rarefied air few in this town ever inhale. They are the showrunners, individuals responsible for running a TV show, a few of whom can sell a new series on their reputations alone.
Although he plays down the power of his position, producer-writer Dick Wolf is one of this elite.
Mr. Wolf is the creator of one of NBC's most widely hyped new dramas, "Deadline" (Mondays, 9-10 p.m.), which stars Oliver Platt as a New York tabloid newspaper columnist. Wolf sold "Deadline" without producing a pilot, a must for almost all writer-producers in Hollywood. A three-minute trailer did the job. In addition to "Deadline," Wolf has four shows on TV this fall (and a fifth on the way), including the second-longest-running drama on TV - "Law & Order." Now in its 11th year, Wolf hopes the show will outdo "Gunsmoke," the record holder at 20.
This New Yorker eschews California's open-necked silk shirts and instead sports a suit and tie.
"I was a screenwriter for 10 years," says Wolf, who worked in advertising for eight years prior to that. He says he left the movie business out of frustration with the process. "You can get old waiting for pictures to get made."
He just wants to work, Wolf says, which is one of the biggest reasons that the man many call a consummate storyteller went from the large to small screen.
His latest show pulls together his favorite themes: crime and punishment, as well as what he calls the thread that unites all his work, "shining a light on the darker parts of the human condition."
After years of mining the law-enforcement world for stories, journalism held out yet another way to feed his love of detective work. It began in childhood through his encounter with Sherlock Holmes in the Arthur Conan Doyle books.
"I think [journalists] do a job that is part of the bread and butter of American life," says Wolf, who has read a steady diet of two newspapers a day "since I think I was six years old."
Although he says he tells his actors to "always be aware of what you're saying to the press,' " he has a certain admiration for journalists. "One of the things that has made this country what it is for the past 225-odd years is the free press," although he adds with a laugh, "I may not always agree with what you write."
Wolf has a track record of doing things his own way. Ignoring the industry obsession with youth, he recently signed an industry veteran, "Bonnie and Clyde" director Arthur Penn, to replace the outgoing executive producer of "Law & Order."
"You have to have a few miles on the odometer to write about mature issues," Wolf says. "It's pretty hard to write about adult problems if you're 22."
He also displays a commitment to women in strong roles. "Women watch women," Wolf says. "They want to see women from their own generation who are doing things that are important and which they're doing as empowered women - that they're not secretaries."
Because of his commitment to high quality, he attracts top talent. Mr. Platt, a veteran character actor in films, says he'd been approached numerous times to do TV. But it was Wolf's reputation that finally persuaded him. "I waited for a storyteller of Dick's ability," Platt says.
It helps that the series shoots in Platt's hometown, New York. "I have three small kids and a wife whom I like a lot," he says, and he enjoys being with them.
When out of town on a shoot, he got a "call saying, 'Dick has got this great idea for a show.' "
The rest, he hopes, is history.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society