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Dick Wolf, NBC longtimer, is firing on new cylinders

The powerhouse behind 'Law & Order' shifts departments to lead another ensemble drama, 'Chicago Fire.'

September 08, 2012|By Greg Braxton, Los Angeles Times
  • Executive Producer Dick Wolf of "'Chicago Fire."
Executive Producer Dick Wolf of "'Chicago Fire." (Frederick M. Brown, Getty…)

Dick Wolf, the veteran powerhouse producer behind NBC's new "Chicago Fire," at first glance seems an unlikely match for a fast-moving, large-ensemble drama filled with calamity, danger and big action sequences.

Wolf, 65, is best known as the creator of NBC's "Law & Order" franchise, which started in 1990 with NBC's "Law & Order," one of the longest-running shows in television history, and spawned such spinoffs as "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" and "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," the last now entering its 14th season.

Except for brief explosions of violence, the "Law & Order" brand has mostly sidestepped action sequences in favor of intricate plots and sophisticated dialogue.

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Despite the differences in tone and scope, Wolf maintained that the new firefighting drama is not a drastic departure from his usual fare. He said the shows share a common bond: quality writing.

"It is always about the writing," Wolf said in a phone interview. "But like 'Law & Order,' this is not a procedural. It's a character drama with action."

Created by Derek Haas and Michael Brandt, "Chicago Fire" revolves around the truck and rescue squad of the fictional Firehouse 51, whose members often clash as they deal with the stress and pressure that comes from life-threatening situations. The cast includes Jesse Spencer ("House"), Taylor Kinney ("The Vampire Diaries"), Monica Raymund ("The Good Wife"), Eamonn Walker ("Oz") and Lauren German ("Hostel 2").

Personality conflict is at the core of the series, said Wolf: "There is a clash of wills that is completely forgotten and thrown away when the shooting starts. When they're fighting fires, these folks have each other's back. Their conflicts don't exist when they're fighting a common enemy. This show speaks to a continuing interest of mine and goes a long way in my goal to showcase stories that illustrate what people will do for other people. It's about people who spend their lives doing jobs you can't pay people to do."

More important, Wolf says, the show fills a vacuum in the current landscape of dramatic series populated with antiheroes and raw language: a return to old-fashioned "retro TV."

"Nobody knows what's going to work in television anymore, but this is classic NBC drama — a large ensemble in a major drama in the tradition of 'ER' or 'LA Law,'" he said. "The game plan is getting the most people into the tent."

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And while "Chicago Fire" might be compared to "Rescue Me," "Emergency" and "Third Watch," all of which revolved around firefighters or other emergency workers, Wolf maintained that the series would be more grounded by the smaller moments. "We're not doing the fire of the week. Those shows all look alike. The non-fire sequences will have the same adrenaline as the fire scenes."

"Chicago Fire" is one of NBC's big hopes for the fall season, said President of Entertainment Jennifer Salke.

"We are true fans of what Dick has done in the procedural realm, and it was really exciting to embrace this character-driven procedural," she said. "It's an original setting for this kind of show that can really showcase this character development."

The series also marks as a milestone for NBC and Wolf, who started working as a staff writer on "Hill Street Blues" in 1983 and went on to become a writer and show runner for other series including "Miami Vice" before developing "Law & Order." Since its 1990 premiere, Wolf has had at least one series on NBC for the last 22 years.

"I've always said I consider myself one of the luckiest guy in the Western Hemisphere," he said. "I've been exceptionally lucky."

But the partnership is more practical than that, Wolf noted.

"I've survived six owners and 10 administrations," he said. "At some point, it's a bit of the devil you know. I'm not really a high risk. I've never missed an air date or gone over budget. It's a business relationship and that's why I've survived. We all have the same aim."

He added, "But the real secret to my success is that I hire obsessive people. For the senior producers, a 60-hour week is the norm. You can't put out a quality product on half days. I have people who are firing on all cylinders."

There have been some misfires. Wolf has had little TV success outside the "Law & Order" franchise. And he's still stung over the cancellation last season of "Law & Order: Los Angeles."

But "Chicago Hope" has re-charged his battery. He's also developing other projects for NBC.

Said Wolf: "I just want to be able to stay at the table and make good stuff."

greg.braxton@latimes.com

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