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Despite cast changes, NBC's 'Law & Order' has quietly flourished since 1990. Now the show's making noise with an aggressive campaign that's market-driven and . . . : Tactically Alert

April 25, 1999|GREG BRAXTON | Greg Braxton is a Times staff writer who covers the television industry

NEW YORK — A bitter arctic blast gripped the Upper West Side as the wind danced with the yellow police tape surrounding the fashionable restaurant where death had just knocked on the door.

Onlookers wrapped in full-length fur coats and heavy trench coats tried to shield themselves from the cold as they surveyed the scene lit by the flashing lights of a parked ambulance. A man wearing a shirt and silk boxer shorts lay on a stretcher, and the two homicide detectives arriving to investigate pegged him instantly as the newly deceased.

"What happened to him?" asked Det. Reynaldo Curtis, whose matinee-idol looks struck an immediate contrast with his partner, the world-weary veteran Det. Lennie Briscoe.

An emergency services technician informed the investigators that the victim apparently had choked to death.

Not missing a beat, Briscoe said with his typical dark humor: "I had an uncle once, croaked on a piece of steak in a Blarney Stone."

As they say, there are 8 million stories in the naked city. And "Law & Order," NBC's veteran cops-and-courts hit, has told roughly 199 of them since 1990.

On this biting spring day, the cast and crew are in the midst of telling their 200th tale, which begins with the death of a corporate mogul. When they got a break, the actors playing Curtis and Briscoe --Benjamin Bratt and Jerry Orbach--high-fived each other and retreated to the warmth of their trailers.

The heavily promoted episode--which airs May 5 and features Julia Roberts in a guest-starring role that will surely attract even more viewers to the series (see story, Page 82)--is just part of a growing fever of activity swirling around "Law & Order," which has traditionally been one of NBC's most reliable but relatively quiet successes.

Though the series already has a secure status on NBC's schedule and a solid viewer following, producers and the network are revving up to see if they can take "Law & Order," the longest-running drama currently on TV, to a whole new level.

"ER," "NYPD Blue," "Chicago Hope," "Touched by an Angel" and "The X-Files" are regularly showered with publicity and viewer attention over changes in cast and locales, gimmicky story arcs and appearances by major movie stars. But Roberts and occasional crossover episodes with "Homicide: Life on the Street" notwithstanding, "Law & Order" has largely maintained its plain-wrap simplicity without juicing up its elements, even for all-important sweeps periods.

Though "Law & Order" has received more attention in recent years--largely due to its 1997 Emmy win as outstanding drama series and its concurrent run of older episodes on A&E, which has brought a whole new audience to the new installments--NBC and Studios USA, which produces the series, are now preparing to beat the drum loudly.

The 200th episode marks the beginning of an onslaught of merchandising and marketing that executives hope will propel "Law & Order" into the record books as the longest-running drama ever. The record is held by "Gunsmoke," which was on CBS from 1955 to 1975.

NBC has already significantly increased the series' chances with its recent announcement of a three-year commitment for "Law & Order"--a rarity for an older series. The recently minted deal guarantees that "Law & Order" will be on the air for at least 12 seasons.

NBC has already committed to a "Law & Order" spinoff, focusing on the sex crimes unit of the NYPD, for next season. And there are hopes for additional "Law & Order" movies such as last year's hit TV film "Exiled," which featured former cast member Chris Noth. "Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion," from Renaissance Books, recently hit bookstores, and future editions are planned. On May 11, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences will host a tribute to the series.

*

On what should have been one of the best days of his career, Dick Wolf was trapped on a treadmill that wouldn't stop.

It was mid-March, and NBC and Studios USA were throwing a party that evening at the legendary Elaine's restaurant to honor the 200th episode of "Law & Order," which was on Day 2 of an eight-day shooting schedule.

Wolf was ricocheting through the day like a ball in a pinball machine when the player is on a winning streak. He had arrived just hours earlier from Toronto, where he had been shooting the pilot for "D.C.," a highly anticipated series about people in their early 20s taking on their first real jobs in Washington (any connection with a certain former White House intern is entirely coincidental). Wolf is hoping the series will land on the WB's fall schedule.

As he walks around the "Law & Order" headquarters at Chelsea Piers near Manhattan, the cell phone won't stop ringing. He has people to speak with on the set, has to prepare for the evening's festivities, fly back to Toronto in two days and, later in the week, to Washington for the new project.

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