8.20.18 ‘Your misfortune is my good fortune’: How Ed Sherin made ‘Law & Order’ TV’s best damn show, for a time
If you loved Law & Order, you had to love Ed Sherin. Even if you didn’t know what he did on the show (directed dozens of episodes and produced over 160 episodes of both the original and SVU) you certainly saw his name up there in the opening show credits.
Directors and producers of TV show don’t generally get the glam treatment, but they’re essential to helming the ship (that’s why Variety calls them “helmers”) and sailing it safely into port on time, on budget (ish) and in shipshape fashion. Ed Sherin, who died at 87 on Thursday in Nova Scotia, Canada, was one of our best captains.
He got started in the 1970s directing for TV, but Law & Order was his sole TV producing credit, and he had many credits directing/producing for the theater). Creator Dick Wolf (who had been a writer on Hill Street Blues when Sherin directed there) brought him on board after Sherin and his wife, actress Jane Alexander, had been taken by their accountant for basically every penny they had. “Your misfortune is my good fortune,” Wolf told him at the time. He stepped aside from TV in 2007.
I only had one interview with Mr. Sherin, in 2003. We had a great phone conversation, in which he discussed how the show changed under his leadership, his one acting appearance on it, and his friendship with Michael Moriarty. I’m reproducing our chat below.
Captain Sherin, you will be missed.
How did you come to be involved with Law & Order?
I came to NY to do a movie with Chris Plummer and Jane Alexander for American Playhouse called “Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz.” And at that time, Michael Moriarty [who starred on “L&O” as Ben Stone] was starring in the show, it had just begun, and he spoke to Joe Stern, the then co-executive producer, about getting me to do a show. I had done a Broadway play with Michael several years before in which he won the Tony award and we had a very good and strong relationship. That’s it.
So you had not known Dick Wolf through Hill Street Blues?
No. I knew he was writing at the time I was doing the show, but no, I didn’t. This was 1991.
What was it like working at the show at that time?
Well, I don’t think it had been stylistically defined. They were still using cranes. There were many, many differences in the show that both added to the time of the shooting and the complexity of the shoot. And I had a very clear idea of how I thought it should be shot. I thought it should be very muscular, from the ground, and essentially it should be the detectives and the DAs moving through their world.
And the first show that I shot, Jerry Orbach was a lawyer [1991’s “The Wages of Love”; Orbach returned in 1992 to play Det. Lennie Briscoe] and Shirley Knight was the client that he was defending, and Dick liked it a lot. He thought that that was a good prototype, I guess, he certainly talked to me enthusiastically about it. And then [executive producer] Joe Stern left the show several months before my wife and I had been embezzled by our accountant [in 1993].
That’s right. In fact, that’s now legend in the business. Yeah, we were pretty well wiped out. And Dick called and said, “Your misfortune is my good fortune — would you take over the show as co-executive producer,” and in the following season I became executive producer and you probably know the rest.
I did two seasons with Joe and then that following season for seven years I was executive producer. It had not been my intention, by the way. I was very happy being a freelance director and moving between theater, which I love, and film, which I also love. So that more or less blocked any possibilities of my working in other media, which I missed. So when I got the opportunity — and when we were at least partially whole, because you make a lot of money in television, as you know, we recouped and were able to pay back our debts, I started to think about the rest of our lives, and that’s when I decided I would leave our show. I think a lot people thought I was nuts and maybe still do. Maybe they were right, but I’m having a very good time and I’m doing a lot of other things.
What made it different than working elsewhere in television?
The surprising paradox was that all my life I’d been searching for that perfect repertory company, and by dint of lack of funds was unable to do it in the theater and the two theaters that I ran in my lifetime, and there I was in commercial television in the shark infested waters of NBC and Universal Pictures and Wolf Productions somewhere in the middle scrambling to keep the show moving and doing excellent work, or what I hoped was excellent work, and there I found my repertory company. There I found an incredible group of actors, committed, dedicated to the work who were willing to really tussle with the writers to come up with the best kinds of scripts and we developed a whole plan of attack on scripts, a whole reading, careful adjudication of the material and it more or less, I guess, evolved as a style from the pre-production work, and I think it’s been one of the reasons the show has excelled.
Can you give me a sense of what that was like? How a script was vetted on the East Coast?
As EP I would get a rough draft, I would read it and send back notes to the writers, and the writers would send me what we would call a publishable draft. I would meet with the technical people, the designers, the director, the locations manager, and the [assistant directors] and we would read through the script and we would discuss the scenes and I would take notes and then call the coast and they would come up with another version and that version would be the first published version. It would go to the actors, and then I and the actors and the director and the ADs would read through the material very carefully, make notes and comments, hopefully at that moment the writers would be there so they were getting the information firsthand.
So the writers would fly out from L.A.
That’s right. I asked for that, too. It was kind of unheard of, but they did it. It was another important breakthrough, bringing the coasts closer together. Then we would get a publishable production draft that we would take on set and by and large the problems that we faced when I first came on board which was a lot of stop-down because of discussion of the scripts while we were on set didn’t occur any more. The actors signed off on it, which is a big difference, and I think appropriately, they are part of the creative process.
Is that unusual in television?
Yeah, there are people that I adore like [Oz, Homicide: Life on the Streets creator/producer] Tom Fontana who think it’s anathema.
He doesn’t get into that sort of thing?
When I worked with him, I did a lot of crossovers [Law & Order and Homicide had three crossovers]. Of course I stuck my foot everywhere, but that’s my nature. Tom didn’t really have a choice. He says he loves me, but it’s a big question. I think the shows were better, and I think he would probably admit they were. But it’s a style, and my style came out of work in theater rep. And working with a lot of writers. Frankly, I would do that with Tennessee Williams, so why wouldn’t I do it with Dick Wolf.
Were you given particular directing instructions — i.e., early on L&O was supposed to have a much more “documentary” feel than it seems to today?
No, I looked at the ones that were shot. And also, one of the things that Dick said that’s so profound and I think you need to record this for posterity, We were in a meeting with NBC and NBC said the problem with this show — I think they were probably thinking of taking it off the air in maybe the third year — is that it’s like watching an operation. And Dick said, “Yeah, but watch. I’m going to make this show so you’re watching an operation and it’s your mother on the operating table.” That’s very good. And we set about to make those marching orders, to make it more personal within the context of the concept of the show, which is about the workplace, it’s not about your underpants. Or his underpants.
How did that change in the years you were with the show?
I thought it got better, I thought the writing became more cohesive. I thought that we attacked some extraordinarily complex issues. And there are many, many shows that — I don’t think could have been touched in editorials or newspapers and certainly not in feature films. Maybe HBO, but I think that Law & Order got into issues that were of concern to the public and complex issues that didn’t necessarily have simple answers. And I think it was that that eventually corralled the larger audience. They began to see in that show a reflection of what they felt was going on in the world. Certainly in the world of criminal justice.
The other thing the show does, which is really due to Dick’s insight — Imean, Dick has enormous talent, and in some areas he’s unrivaled, and his perception that there has to be audience comfort — that the formula is the power of the show, so that when audiences sit down, they know they’re going to have a tease, they know they’re going to find a dead body, and they know that by the end of the show it’s going to be resolved. And he said that is going to sell the show. Bear with me, that will do it. Let’s not change it. Because you get bored after a while. You say you want to put the back [legal] in the front [police], the front in the back —
And there have been a few episodes that were exceptions.
There have been, and there are reasons we don’t do it. You get bored when you don’t keep your nose to the grindstone, when you don’t work for excellence within the parameters given. So you say it’s too hard, let’s try something else. Now, you don’t say that consciously, but that’s what’s going on. So If you hew to the formula within reason — we’re not sprocketed material, but within reason, then you can find excellence in every corner of the script. And when you decide that you’re not going to settle for less. Then it becomes particularly exciting while at the same time it’s abrasive, difficult or arguments or a lot of things go on, but that’s the creative process. And once you understand that the company understood that each show is part of a process, that the show is an end in itself, that we’re all striving to find a modus operandi that is really creative and suitable to our artistic instinct, if you will.
What is Dick Wolf like to work for? Did you have a lot of interaction with him, since he was on the West Coast?
He’s great. The beauty of Dick is that he knows when to enter and he knows when to leave. He’s like a great boss. He leaves you alone when the machinery is working. He doesn’t tamper with it. So he doesn’t have the kind of ego that requires him to constantly reinforce his power, which is very smart. And the other thing he does that is equally as brilliant is he hires workaholics. He can spot them a mile away.
So is he more like the absentee father and y’all ran the house at Chelsea Piers [where L&O shot and where SVU continues to shoot]?
I wouldn’t say he’s the absentee father. I would say he was the father that used a rod when necessary and put it away when it wasn’t. He’s wise for his age, he’s younger than I am, and he’s smart. He’s smart about how to get the most out of people. He’s also unsentimental about that. If someone doesn’t cut the mustard, they know it.
He doesn’t have a problem with kicking people out.
Now, was it awkward when Michael’s exit blew up? [Moriarty notoriously faxed in that he was quitting the show.]
Yeah, it was awkward and weird, it was stupid, Michael acted irrationally. Michael is a dear friend of mine. We’d been though the Broadway wars together, and we knew each other and loved each other and respected each other. But Michael acted like a jerk, and Michael lost it. Michael at moments was not rational. Part of it was the nature of his brilliance. There is no more wonderful actor, and he remains that and has gone through bloody hell in his life. But he remains a wonderful actor. But he has a temperament that sometimes gets in his way. But I have nothing but admiration for him, and in some senses a sadness.
What would you say was a high point for the show? A low point?
In my own lexicon, which would cover about 38 shows, there may have been a half dozen that I thought were extraordinary, and might be willing to brag about, maybe more. But that’s not the high point. From my point of view the high point is when it became clear to the writers that we were not trying to usurp their power or deconstruct their scripts. We were trying to make them better. And that they were the ones that were going to reap the benefits. That was a high point. And that was a turning point, at least, in my tenure. I don’t know where it is now. That’s a delicate issue. When you’re dealing with a writer you’re dealing with a newborn and you have to be very careful. And I had to teach the production unit when they were attempting to write their own scripts, which was the wrong approach, and when they were able to help clarify and bring to bear, bring to fruition the ideas of the writer.
Now you said your lexicon was only 38 shows?
What happened is I got so interested in bringing up new directors and training them, many of whom came out of the ranks of the crew — that’s where I got my joy. It didn’t really aid my bank account, but that wasn’t necessary. I was getting paid plenty of money and I don’t need a lot of money. It’s not where I’m at. That training, bringing them on, seeing who I felt were really capable directors, and there were many that turned out to be really extraordinary and are working full time now.
Did winning the Emmy change things [Sherin’s sole Emmy win was in 1997, when the show won Outstanding Drama]? For the better?
It was weird, because I was in Baltimore directing the crossover with Homicide: Life On The Streets, and I turned on the television after coming back from a baseball game — Baltimore versus the Yankees — and I turned on the television and saw Dick Wolf jumping up on the stage, and I said, “What is he doing?”
Did it change things? There was pride and recognition but it certainly didn’t change the daily chore. It doesn’t, it can’t. What the hell, you don’t remember who won the bloody Emmy five months after they were over.
My perception is that post-Emmy is when the larger audiences came along and ratings went up.
I think there were many factors. I think the quality of the shows, the consistency of the quality, the syndication was occurring and it was seen a lot of other places, I think that helped. Longevity helps in and of itself. And I think that Dick and the people he works with at NBC and Universal merchandised it well. They didn’t press it too hard, they didn’t go for every media possibility. They let it grow initially from its own power. Dick didn’t want to set up expectations too early. He wanted to build slowly, which he did. It was a very carefully thought-out strategy, and a bright one.
Shows that get all the attention in the first year are doomed, it seems.
They tend to. So he was very happy with 25, 28, 27, knocking off shows that were up against us very quietly, moving down, quietly, quietly, gaining momentum.
When did you start working on SVU? How is that different that L&O?
That was for the crossover. I did a lot of crossovers [between SVU and L&O], I did all of them. And the reason I did was it was too bloody hard to get to the writers and executive producers as a director. So I said screw it, I’ll direct it and then I can tell people what I think.
Do you miss the show?
Sometimes. The power was wonderful. I miss being able to bring new people up, but by and large, no, not at all. I’ve done two plays since, I’m doing a new version of Ghost — Ibsen that I adapted in Washington at the Shakespeare Theater with Jane, my wife; I’m working on a new play that Robert MacNeil of MacNeil-Lehrer wrote and I do one or two Law & Orders a year. I do that. It’s like a party, you go back there and see them all, it’s great fun, and they like me and I like them.
You appeared in an episode! How did that come about?
Christopher Misiano, he started out as a camera operator, and said he wanted to be an actor. And I said, “You have much more directing talent than acting talent,” and he began directing and now he’s one of the producers of West Wing. He said, “You’ve got to do it before you leave.” I said, “OK, fine.”
Was it strange being in front of the L&O camera?
I frankly enjoyed every minute that I had, including some of the sour notes in retrospect — all of the turmoil with Michael, and all of the babysitting that I had to do with some of the stars, it’s all enjoyable, it’s all part of being a leader and finding out ways to do it, when people are brought together rather than split apart, if you will. It’s a great opportunity to play guru, you don’t get a lot of opportunities. If you’re a grunt reporter, you know what I’m talking about.
Is the show as good today as it was early on?
Frankly, I don’t watch it. I don’t get the opportunity. It’s hard for me to judge because I know so much about it. I would have to turn it inside out and scrutinize it very carefully. The fact is, the proof is in the pudding. You taste it and you know whether it’s good. You can talk about it all you want, the public loves it. That’s proof. I trust the American public. They were smart enough to go for a show like this where they couldn’t go get a beer in the middle or they wouldn’t know where they were.