Monday, May 17, 2010

The End of Yet Another Era

A television entry that was peculiarly New York in tone, almost like the old live black and white dramas of my teenage years, will be relocated to Los Angeles and lose its mojo as well as most of its audience. Tonight will be the finale, populated by a whole universe of actors that look to me like newcomers.

Like most Americans, I have devoted quite a bit of time to watching the "original" Law and Order over the past 15 years or so. It captures the city in a unique way, its actors becoming as familiar as the cop on the beat. I watched the stage actress S. Epatha Merkeson play a police supervisor all this time; I watched when Michael Moriarty had the Sam Waterston role; when Jerry Ohrbach so convincingly played the troubled recovering alcoholic police detective Lenny Briscoe that he was often stopped on the street by guys calling him Lenny; when a trail of beauties from Angie Harmon to Carey Lowell worked in the D.A.'s office.

I still lament the exit of the best District Attorney New York ever had, the complex yet avuncular Steven Hill. Hill was one of those solid New York actors seldom seen on the screen, a founder of the Actors' Studio and an early proponent of Method Acting. His own personality melted into the characters he played, and his mental acuity and intensity permeated his every performance. In Law and Order, the character he played was based on real life New York District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, whom he is said to have captured perfectly in his nuanced and elegant style. His Adam Schiff was a man you respected without question, a man of integrity and wisdom, and, although a bit jaded by his job, a man with a big heart. He was detached without being bloodless.

The actor was one of the most interesting men ever to work in television. Born Solomon Krakovski, he was appearing as Sigmund Freud in A Far Country on Broadway when he confronted his own heritage. A character screamed the line "You are a Jew!" to him in the play and the experience sent him right back to his roots. Hill realized the impact of his Jewishness and embraced it by becoming strict Orthodox -- he began observing a kosher diet, wearing specially lined clothing,and strictly observing the Sabbath. This made Hill unavailable for Friday night or Saturday matinee performances and effectively ended his stage career and closed many roles to him in the movies most notably The Sand Pebbles.

Nevertheless, Steven Hill has had a good career without ever becoming a household word. He felt that artists needed to take breaks from their work for years at a time to refresh and he practiced what he preached.

He had undergone one of those long breaks before taking on the role in Law and Order, and it served him well. His work on that show was a seamless as a bolt of fine fabric. He was as real as an actor can be. If you missed the show under his reign, try to find a re-run that old. He was just wonderful.

Law and Order replaced him with Dianne Weist, an excellent actress who never seemed at home in the role. It was a rare misstep for both the show and Weist, who just didn't have much gravitas and was somehow unconvincing as the boss of the heavy, knowledgeable Jack McCoy as played by Waterston. Of course, her biggest problem was that she was being set up as a replacement for a man who had owned the show for some ten years.

In comes stolid Fred Thompson to replace Weist. Here is an actor with so little range, so little charisma, so little energy that he seems to have gotten the role just based on the fact that he looks likes everybody else. That is, there is nothing about him that looks actorish (like, say, Ronald Reagan), or nothing about him that seems wise (like Steven Hill) or even anything that looks complicated, like Dianne Weist.

He later went back into politics and announced, with consummate poor timing, a run for the presidency that went nowhere. Even his credentials as an actor came into question. The charm that usually goes with that territory is decidedly missing.

Eventually Waterston took on the role, but the new cast, though competent, just didn't seem to fit the roles we had come to think of as friends. The show has run its course, even though its spinoff will probably continue until television itself is just a memory. I hope they'll reach all the way back into the files and show the early shows with the original cast. I'm sure I'm not the only one who'll derive comfort from the persona of Steven Hill back in my living room.


Steve said...

I didn’t watch the show last night, but I did record it and will definitely watch it at some point this week.

I’m sorry to see the Law and Order series come to an end even though I had quit watching it on a regular basis. After Jerry Orbach left, the show lost some of its appeal for me and then when the time slot moved from Wednesday at 10:00 I just never adapted. I suppose I’m just a creature of narrow habit.

ML, missing from your bevy of beauties list was Jill Hennessey. Her season finale was indeed a poignant and memorable one.

I seem to remember Angie Harmon’s character had a little bit of a mean streak.

I kind of like Alana deGarza’s character. Mostly her looks. That Miss Rubirosa is quite pleasing to the eye.

One aspect of the script that I always wanted to nit-pick about were the scenes in which the detectives were interviewing folks who had some minor connection to a crime or crime victim. In these scenes, the two detectives would be at some place of business (say a restaurant) asking questions and the interviewee would be going about their business even as they were being interviewed by homicide detectives. (Q. “Did the victim have any beefs with anyone here?” A.”No, he got along with everyone….Hey Susie, how often do I got to tell you..Don’t change the table cloth if it’s still clean!!” I mean seriously, most folks being interviewed by police are going to give their full attention.

Mary Lois said...

I watched it avidly in its early days but must confess I began to lose interest (and had trouble finding it among the spinoffs with the same name. Can't abide Law and Order: Special Victims Unit and kept thinking I was going to see L & O when I tuned in.) recently. Linus Roache may be an excellent actor for all I know, but this series just didn't work for him in my mind. I too loved Orbach as the cop and haven't so happy with his descendants. Did like Benjamin Bratt, however; and Jill Hennessy was much better in this one than in her own series.

Somewhere along the line it was suggested that Jack was sleeping with the beauties, or had an affair with at least one of them (I think Cary) but they didn't make enough of that for it to work for me. Either make him a hound or a lovesick Romeo, but don't just mention that it happened a time or two in the past. The show could have used a little sexual tension. Oh, well, it's too late now.

In California I'm pretty sure there
will be some hanky-panky.

George Farr said...

Like all of the CSI series now, Law and Order soon wore a blister on my enjoyment. I am not one to get into personals of the actors. They will never have an effect on my life other than possible entertainment. Well, there was President Ronnie. The scene segway 'hammer-clank' noise always reminded me of the old "Dragnet"from the 50s. I did not enjoy that noise constantly through each episode either. Like
most series of that ilk, the scripts are semi-static and the outcomes are very predictable, even boring as formula type scripts. Another facet of the show that I do not care for is the 'understated', 'consternation close-up' office talk between the investigators, often in darkly lit scenes.
However, these comments made, I'd watch it everytime if the choice is a so called reality show.
I take nothing from the lauded series. It just failed to continue to entertain me.

littlebug-peg said...

Mary Lois,

Love your comments on L&O. I've been a fan for years and can relate to your dedication and criticism. Like many things for a boomer like me, "they just don't make 'em like they used to".


Mary Lois said...

I too noted elements of a Dragnet ripoff, George, and wondered it was never mentioned. Maybe viewers and critics are too young to know about Dragnet? Nah, can't be that. I agree that the excellence of the show is overstated these days, I guess just because at least the acting and production values are good. It's entertaining an pretty well done, but really has spiraled down in its ability to hold an audience's interest. (Me and thee at any rate.)

I do think its departure marks the end of an era in television even though it certainly had run out of originality. And I shudder to think of what the next era will bring.

George Farr said...

Geeeez, pray to not be more of the so called teen-aimed reality shows to replace L&O. Vote me off the island.
(And you can by dialing 1-800-crap). I'd rather not be one of the petty relationship gang. But, or just offer me a case of money or toss a million bucks my way anytime.

Steve said...

Interesting article in today's WSJ addresses Land and Order from the aspect of working actors.

Regarding my previous post, 'Mr. Berner, the executive producer, says he cut down on the practice of suspects and witnesses flipping a pizza or loading a truck as detectives interrogate them: "My experience is that if you get stopped by an officer, your heart beats fast and you stand still." '

Mary Lois said...

And the NY Times says the show that has taken up the slack for New York actors is The Good Wife on Monday nights. Still, it isn't the same.