The executive producer and star of this long-running series talks about the show's 19th season on the air

Dick Wolf and Sam Waterston are one season closer to making history. Law & Order, which Wolf executive produces and Waterston stars in, is going into its 19th season, which premieres on Wednesday, November 5 at 10 PM ET on NBC. We were in on a conference call with the executive producer and actor from this series, now the second longest-running drama series in TV history, and here's what Wolf and Waterston had to say.

I wanted to ask Sam when you first signed on with this show what were your expectations? How long did you think that this gig would last? Certainly, not as long as it's lasted?

Sam Waterston: I had no idea how long the show was going to last but I knew I would only be with it for a year. I actually - I think this is one of the cleverest things among many clever things that Dick has done. But they have made a long leash and allowed me to sign up year after year, after year. I never felt imprisoned here and I've always felt free to stay, free to go. And I think it's been a great thing. And it's part of the reason why I'm here so long. That's why the show is here so long is because of him.

He told a story one time about Moriarty when he was on the show about how he would get so upset when he would literally go into a major funk after he lost a case.vAnd by the end of the first season, Dick said that he had to go to - because Michael was bummed out and said, you know, look you have to lose occasionally. And he would go no, no, this was wrong. A guy was dead bang guilty. He should've - I should've won the case. And do you ever get caught up in a case even remotely close to that?

Sam Waterston: Well that's what we're paid to do. We're paid to care. That's what actors get their money for. But the main goal is not for the actors to be frustrated at the end of the show, but for the audience to be throwing their shoes at the television set. That's what we're trying for.

Dick, now are you ever at all afraid that you're just going to run out of ideas or is there like always plenty of crime going on to rip from the headlines?

Dick Wolf: It's unfortunately a constantly renewable resource that - when (Brandon Tartakoff) bought the show way back in the last century, he said what's the bible? And I said the front page of the New York Post. And it has not been a bad piece of source material because, you know, for better or worse we can't come up with stories better than a headless body found in topless bar. I - that's how for years - you know, we steal the headline but not the body copy. But what usually reminds people of a specific case is the headline but if you think of what goes on after that, it usually doesn't reflect reality. One reporter said well, you know, I'm from Connecticut but I live in New Jersey and that episode two years ago trashed - managed to trash the governors of both states. And I said yeah, but the reality is that none of them were killed. You know, there was no murder involved in either state so that's a major difference right there. You know, it would be we love the flavor of stories but not the specificity.

Sam Waterston: And I would add to that, the issues they suggest -- both in the newspaper and in the show -- they may not be the same ones even.

Dick Wolf: Absolutely. But it's a way into the moral quandary in the best episodes, certainly.

This is the original show but there's so many - there are so many different Law & Orders now. Do you - is this one kind of like your favorite? Is this like your original baby and then the other ones are just the other like - other ones - other kids that you have?

Dick Wolf: Well my other kids...

Sam Waterston: Careful how you answer this.

Dick Wolf: ...that's - don't ever ask younger siblings how they like that definition. No I - you know, you love all your children. Is there kind of special, you know, soft spot in your heart for your first? Of course. And I think that the shows, luckily, are vastly different and tread totally different territories, sort of held together with the (well gum). But if you think of it, you know, SVU is really a classic cop show geared towards sex crimes. But CI is much more Sherlock Holmes. This is, you know, a unique beast in terms of doing a crime from one of the earlier incarnations of the promos whether it's, you know, from the streets to the courts. It's the double - sort of a double-gated structure of the show is still a joy and still provides remarkable opportunities for, you know, the writers and especially for (Rene) who is - done his usual superb job of last season and this season to explore the entire gamut of human emotions, both positive and negative.

Sam, after, you know, so many seasons on the show how do you develop your character? I mean how do you change without going too far off but not changing enough? I mean how do you go about that?

Sam Waterston: Oh the writers that Dick has just been mentioning and Dick himself are careful we don't go off the reservation. We get our marching orders from the scripts. But in terms of character development, these - I would say that these are very self-contained stories and the character has been long established. And the main thing is not developing him but keeping him consistent with himself. And I'd say that's partly my job and partly the writers' job. And I think - and we both try very hard to do it.

Are you happy to be coming back next week or would you prefer to be returning early next year? And I'd also like to know just your take on the season so far - the TV season overall.

Dick Wolf I don't know. You want a one word? Disastrous.

The TV season?

Dick Wolf: And across - I mean have I missed something? Is there a new breakout hit? This is the second year in a row where sort of nothing has gotten traction and it's November. And that's not good for the business. You know, look, scheduling choices are something that I have absolutely nothing to do with or no say in. I'm glad to be back on Wednesday at 10:00 is the bottom line. You know, wishes are - when would I like to go on? You know, I - it's really immaterial. I mean we're coming off the bench. Luckily we're ready. The shows are excellent and, you know, I would - I wish that we had had some more promo time. That lead time - the episodes are just fine. I wish that more people knew we were coming because it's a daunting promotional climate now as opposed to four or five years ago where you had various big numbers scattered through the schedule, but if you got promos on them they were significant. But this is like complaining about the, you know, global warming. It's - everybody is having a lousy year. I hope that - my fondest hope is that Law & Order is, you know, going to carry the water here and help the network because for better or worse, the rising tide raises all boats.

Are you still gunning for that 20-year record?

Dick Wolf: I'm gunning for 21. Twenty just is tie - ties, 21 is the win.

{bold|Mr. Wolf, obviously there's something that audiences like a whole lot about the show. Over 19 seasons, how do you balance preserving or even determining what it is that people like that should stay the same and what you need to do to keep the show fresh for both the audiences and yourself?

Dick Wolf: Well I think what the audiences like now is what they liked 19 years ago and what they liked 19 years before that, which is great writing and great acting. It - the bottom line is that about 15 years ago I sent the heads of all the networks for Christmas, little desk cards that said it's the writing stupid. And, you know, I know Sam feels the same way; you know, that you can have magnificent actors and if the words suck the show is going to suck. And luckily we have been blessed with a writing staff over the years that I believe is second to none. That - as I had mentioned earlier, (Rene) came back last year. He had run the show in the mid-90s and actually of our 11 Emmy nominations, the one win was on his watch. I think that when you talk about reinvigorating the show, he really did reinvigorate it last year, that he is one of the best writers in, not the television business, but in Hollywood. And he is - he constantly manages to surprise even me and we've been working together basically for the last 20 years.

The other thing that I think was a major - it was a decidedly direct decision, but it's - I think it's had - it's paid real dividends, is that if you go back say three years you had a cast where Dennis Farina was in his - I think 62 or 63 at that point. Sam was in his mid-50s. Fred was in his mid-60s and we now have Sam as the DA but Linus is, I guess, 42 and Jeremy is 38, and Anthony is 38 or 37. So, you know, I added to that basically from fall two years ago. We've taken about more than 50 years out of the cast age. And, you know, they're not kids and they're adults but it is a decidedly different demographic that existed on the show not very long ago. So I think that that is a factor in keeping the next generation involved with the show.

And for both of you, does it change the overall dynamic to have Jack McCoy be the DA rather than a courtroom lawyer?

Dick Wolf: Look, I'm - I can't - Sam can speak to his personal feelings but I think it has been an enormously successful transition. I think that it has given us -- and the writers -- new opportunities to explore different areas of everybody's character. And I think that if you watch the episode that'll be on next Wednesday, you never had those kind of fireworks between the DA and the Executive Assistant DA that Sam, over the years, has disagreed with, you know, Steven and the various other people -- Fred -- who have been sitting in the chair but never to the concentrated degree that we've had disagreements over last season and will continue to this season about philosophy, legal tactics, legal strategy for the office at large. And I think it's a fascinating new color.

Sam Waterston: I - what he said plus from the point of view of the person playing the part, Dick is fond of saying that action is character and since most of the action that you see these characters doing has to do with their jobs, you could almost say that the job is the character. Well McCoy was defined as the ADA and then he moved to being District Attorney, and he brought that character with him into a different job. So the tension between the job and his nature is - I think it's interesting for the show and it's certainly a lot of fun to play.

When Fred was leaving, was it a matter of if Sam is going to continue we want to kick him up to District Attorney or - I mean, after all he's had District Attorneys change what, two or three times underneath him already. Who's - was that (Rene)'s decision, your decision, his decision? How did that come about?

Dick Wolf: No, it was - I think for better or worse I can say that it was my desire but it - you know, I would never - to put it bluntly, I never would've done it if Sam had not been willing to do it because it wouldn't have worked. And I think that - I'm not putting words in his mouth. But I think that I did, at least, offer the change as sort of an intriguing opportunity to explore things that we hadn't explored before. And, you know, the - there was a - one of the scenes last year that still sticks in my mind is that there was a confrontation with Linus outside and Alana, who came up to Sam, who was sitting on a park bench in his overcoat with a muffler on. And it was almost too good to be true because I had said to him when I initially approached him about making this kind of shift, I said I think it's a real opportunity for you to play the lion and winner which is going to be kind of fascinating. And literally, there it was right in front of my eyes. It was winter and he was not in the courtroom, but he was, you know, engaged and kind of irritated. And as I said, it's going from, you know, the 64 color box of Crayola to - Crayola Crayons to the, you know, the big - the great big one that had every color in the rainbow in it. And that's interesting to me and I - all I can ever do is try to keep the show doing things that are interesting to me and hopefully the audience will also find them interesting. And knock wood, they seem to have really lapped it up. I mean, the show was up significantly last year back on Wednesday from the previous year. So you know, the - unfortunately, the numbers never lie.

Sam, if I may ask then, how - when Dick approached you about it, were - did you have reservations at first? And then as time went on, how did you go with it?

Sam Waterston: I think before they began talking to me about it, really the truth is that my mind was made up that I had the best job in television and that was it. I would do it as long as they wanted me to. And then I wouldn't do it anymore. But what Dick has just said to you is exactly what he said to me. And I think timing is everything. And it fell on fertile ground. And it seemed really appealing whereas I had never given it a second thought before, except to think no that's not what I would want to do. And I had said it to practically everybody here. So it was kind of embarrassing to have my mind changed so easily. But I'm glad. I'm having a good time. I like being associated with the show. You know, to say it in a negative way, it keeps you out of trouble because this is a very classy show and the work that we do on it, we take it very seriously. Everybody pays a lot of attention. There's a high level of professionalism and dedication right across the board. And it's just a nice place to go to work.

We've occasionally seen the Paul Robinette character return. We saw Carey Lowell return a few times. Anyone on the horizon for bopping their heads back in this year?

Dick Wolf: You know, it's right - in the episodes that have been written, no. But I - there is no reason not to think that many of them may not be back over the course of hopefully the coming seasons. I mean I think the episodes that Paul has done have been very, very interesting. I mean to see him come back in a very expensive suit and obviously a mature defense attorney is really interesting. You know, I can easily see, you know, Fred coming back for something that is - whether it's, you know, a scene or an episode, you know, virtually everybody who has been on the show is welcome back in terms of if we have the right thing, I'd have no hesitancy in approaching any of the ones who didn't die. And even then it might've just been a dream or, you know...

Any recent new stories that have come up that we can maybe expect to see popping up in upcoming episodes?

Dick Wolf: Well it's - again, I think that you will be reminded of - even in the episode, it's amazingly time appropriate, if not directly linked to anything that's going on. But if you've seen the promo with Anthony saying gee a stockbroker beaten to death in the middle of the bay in this economy, could be...could start a trend. You know, that's - and when I saw that, coincidentally it was when we were not going to go on until January and I went nuts, I wish we were running that now. And low and behold, that's - you know, it may be kismet.

You know, there's been such a cavalcade of great guest stars and you always use them so well. Dick, has there been anybody that you just haven't been able to get that you really wanted to?

Dick Wolf: Well...

Sam Waterston: He hasn't given up yet.

Dick Wolf: Yeah, you never give up. But there is, you know, you don't ask - you know, I don't think - let's be flip and say gee, I don't think George Clooney or Brad Pitt are going to be on the show. I think that it is - we have been enormously blessed on all the shows of getting remarkable, especially character actors to appear. And I think that - and it's, you know, it's a credit again to the writers that I think there is almost a path for doing the Law & Orders. It's not like oh my god, he's doing episodic television now? But when people show up, they know that it's not going to damage their ability to still be on the big screen for roles or is going to preclude or pigeonhole them into a category that they had not been in before. And that is very advantageous.

Sam Waterston: I'd just like to add that if you think of it in terms of the theater, this is a place where a pattern was established that other people have tried to copy. But Law & Order really set it up, which is that - people from the New York theater at all levels of the business, including the very highest levels, have felt just that kind of confidence that Dick was talking about - about appearing on this show, that it wouldn't harm them in any way. And it's become like that café in Paris where if you sit there long enough the whole world passes by. This show has seen many, many, many, many people from the theater world. And I think that they ought to give Dick an Emmy for it. I do. I'm saying that to everybody.

Dick Wolf: I agree.

Now for the upcoming Lost Boys episode, how do you approach something like polygamy since the law doesn't seem to be so clearly defined?

Dick Wolf: Well what is pretty clearly defined in every state in the union? You can't do it. You know, the Mormons don't - they admit to it, but Mormon church is always upset about the fact that these are splinter offshoot groups and it's against the laws of Utah and it's also against the laws of the state, and certainly against the laws of Texas. So it's not a question of New York State trying to impose their values on anybody else. This was just a situation that excited. Again, it's factually correct. But it's kind of like lions. You know, the young males are driven out of these communities.

Sam, I just wanted to ask you from the material, how have you noticed the crimes and the courts have changed in the past 20 years?

Sam Waterston: Listen I - the way I experience it is it's just kind of one case at a time. And I haven't pattern sought and I haven't pattern felt. I don't know. I think it's a little bit like being President of the United States. You have a plan and then all kinds of stuff happens. And you deal with what's happening. And whatever the patterns are in the law, it's the same. It's what the general society puts in front of the courts to decide that determines what they decide, not any plan on the part of the law.

I wanted to ask a little bit about class and how it's represented in the show. You guys seem to have been sticking it to rich defendants for a long, long time now. Is there - is that just a more satisfying story to have the, you know, the put-upon prosecutors beat those odds or is there something else that figures in?

Dick Wolf: Oh we're...

Sam Waterston: Aren't we equal opportunity prosecutors? Correct me if I'm wrong, Dick but it seems to me we go after quite a lot of people all across the social spectrum.

Dick Wolf: Everybody. I mean the - we're equal opportunity offenders. That's virtually every pressure group from, you know, Romanian war widows to I'm sure the Mormon church now will be after us. You know, it goes with the territory. I said probably 15 years ago we do a lot of, you know, upper middle class white perpetrators because they're about the only group that doesn't have a pressure group.

Dick, you've been through so many (cast teasers) over these 19 years and it's usually been very successful. What are the challenges or the key to getting viewers to accept them?

Dick Wolf: I guess the flip answer would be don't screw it up. No, I think that I - dare I say it? I think that it's part of what the audience actually looks forward to. You know, the - I joked and this is again, a long time ago, that I noticed the every time we made a cast change I would get a (letter) and high (dudgeon) saying you got rid of my favorite character. I'm never watching the show again ever underlined three times. And then I realized that it was always the same handwriting. So, you know, I think that at any given cast change somebody is going to be more upset than the person next to him if it's their favorite character. But it's our responsibility to make sure that the changes are hopefully seamless in terms of well that's not the old character but this one is interesting in a different way because the show is unabashedly a workplace show. And it's why we don't go home with the characters. We don't deal with their personal lives because most people, if, you know, if you work in a corporation or a company and you look around there aren't that many people whose apartments you've spent time in or houses you've gone to. It's a work environment that goes from, you know, nine to five and then you see those people the next day. So the main job has been finding people who were credible in the roles that they were being cast for. And we have been extraordinarily lucky. If you go - I mean, in Sam's case it's only two but if you go from Michael Moriarty to Sam Waterston, I think you would be hard pressed to find people who'd say I would never watch that again. You know, the - if you look at the senior detectives who go from George Duds to Paul Sorvino, to Jerry Orbach to Dennis Farina, to now Jeremy, you know, this is hardly a hardship. These are all really, really good actors. And it's incumbent upon me, basically, to make sure that, you know -- and this is nothing against Wally Cox -- but I don't make the new cop Wally Cox. You know, I don't know how else to put it. It's - casting is - look, generally any time - you know, a television show is like a soufflé. If you change one of the ingredients you sure as hell hope it's going to rise. Sometimes it doesn't. But we have been enormously fortunate, I think, that I - you know, Anthony is I think the 26th actor in a fixed person ensemble.

Sam if you could or you would tell us who was your favorite to work with?

Sam Waterston: Oh sure. Oh sure, of course I do - I've been waiting, waiting for somebody to ask me that question because I want to create 150 different enemies as fast as I can.

I thought it was worth a try.

Sam Waterston: Yeah. No, well first of all, I'll tell you what is true, that working on a show like this has been a very beneficial education to me just as a person because you're thrown together with people about which - you don't have any choice about that. And you work together over the long term. And some of the people, the day you meet them you think we're going to be fast friends forever. And other people you think I don't know. And - but universally with these people -- and I put that down to the careful picking that Dick was talking about and the good luck -- these people - I've been sad to see every single one of them go. And I think that's partly a little mini broadening of the mind on my part. But I also think that it is just an education in how snap judgments aren't always good judgments.

Dick, we said the cliché about a show like Law & Order is that it's difficult to have character development. And yet when everybody says Jack McCoy, everybody knows what that means. They know the type of lawyer that is. They know the type of character that is. And notwithstanding what you said before about it's the writing stupid and everybody knows the show is well written, how much of that would you attribute to Sam's particular skill as being able to breathe life into that character?

Sam Waterston: Oh I'd like to answer that question. No, go ahead Dick. Sorry.

Dick Wolf: Thank you for asking that question because in all honesty - and every writer who has ever worked on the show knows that one of my mantras is that we do give character information but we dole it out with demitasse spoons not soup ladles; that if you are a regular watcher of the show and that - you know an enormous amount about these characters. And certainly in Sam's case there - you'd be surprised if you took the back of an envelope and you consider yourself a regular watcher how much you do know about him from the fact that he's had a daughter the he was semi estranged from to the problems that he's had with the Ethics Committee. And, you know, it - there is a great deal of information but it is given very sparingly because as I said, most people - if you're in a work environment nobody comes in the first day and says and then I went to high school where I had a series of bad relationships and I was married at 19 and got divorced, and then I went to college and I did really well, and I finally ended up at law school. You know, it's - there are many stages in everybody's life but they're not really necessary to know - to see how they perform in a work situation. But I - again, I would say that the regular viewers know a surprising - maybe more than they think they know when they really reflect on it.

And how much of that is Sam though, do you think, to be able to play that character for a long time?

Dick Wolf: Well I think that, you know, it goes without saying that there are very few actors working in America who can do what Sam does. And I think that the fact that he has managed to keep himself interested is to my benefit. But the fact that he has managed to keep the audience interested in this - for this long is basically the greatest compliment they can pay him as an actor because he makes the role and the words unendingly interesting. That takes a level of skill and humanism that not many people possess.

Mr. Wolf, Law & Order being such a successful show, how do you consider yourself? More of a Hollywood tycoon or more of a Maverick?

Dick Wolf: Could I honestly say neither? I consider myself one of the luckiest people in the history of show business. I think that the odds of this have happening to anybody are literally slim to none. And I am the beneficiary of the hard work and dedication of literally hundreds of people but certainly the actors in all the shows. And again, the writers and producers because somebody asked me what is it - what do you think you do best as a producer and I said unhesitatingly that I hire obsessive people, that if the public knew that most of the people on these shows are literally working, you know, 60-hour work weeks for 40 weeks in a row, they wouldn't believe me anyway. But that's what it takes to get these shows out. And I am an enormous benefit from others' obsessive compulsive disorder.

Dick, I wanted to ask you very quickly about guest stars this season, names that stand out to you that you're very proud to have? And what about New York theater actors - anyone that you'd like to point out that's going to be on the show?

Dick Wolf: Well gee, I, you know, I don't - this is a sign of probably insipient aging but I - you know, the - between the three shows that - I am literally drawing a blank. I'm trying to think of who is in which show. I can get you - or certainly (Pam) can get you a list of the upcoming ones. I just don't want to misspeak and put somebody in the wrong show, and then people on SVU will be pissed off. And, you know, it's - there are a lot of them.

Mr. Wolf. Do you ever have cases that are interesting but like the Darwin Awards are so - the people involved are such idiots that you're afraid it's going to be too funny for your show?

Sam Waterston: That's a hard one.

Dick Wolf: Yeah, I don't - what is a Darwin Award?

Oh, there are people who get themselves killed doing things that are incredibly stupid.

Dick Wolf: I don't know. We might do an episode about that.

But I mean, do you ever have crimes that are interesting but the people - the crimes themselves and the people are so stupid that you're afraid there is no way of not making it funny?

Dick Wolf: You know, I can honestly say that it's never come up that way. I can't think of any crimes that we would do that are inherently that humorous. It's - you know, we deal with murder for better or worse. There have been - I don't know, what are we up to - 425 or 430 now and every one of them has been a murder. And there is gallous humor but by its nature it's not really a comedic...

Sam Waterston: I think the Darwin Award implies a certain amount of distance and I think the Law & Order tries to bring people close to the circumstances of the crime. So it gets less funny the more real it gets.

Dick Wolf: Yeah, it's one of these things that we used to - there was a show that I did for CBS many years ago called Feds which was the US Attorneys Office and the Monday meeting which was always - the (teaser) would start with a tape which we actually got of stupid criminals, that they would have a thing say do you see this one. And they were truly hysterical. I mean there was one of a guy standing in a bank line and as he got through the bank line he pulled out a - as he got to the head of the line he pulled out a brown paper bag, pulled out a gun, put the brown paper bag on his head and put the eye holes on backwards so that he (was out of it) and was waiving the gun around, and got tackled. Then there was a guy who did a smash and grab on a jewelry store which was on a surveillance camera and he picked up a garbage can and threw it through the window of a jewelry store, scooped everything up and took two steps backwards into an open manhole, and disappeared. So yes, there are phenomenally stupid criminals. But, you know, it doesn't seem to lend itself to what we're trying to do every week.

Sam Waterston: That's funny that you should say that stuff, Dick because when I was doing research for this I spent part of a day in the DA's office and I met a guy. And he showed me a tape of a person denying a crime and the DA talking to him. This was a videotaped interrogation. So it - yeah, but you were there. And the guy said well okay maybe I was there but I didn't do anything. So I'm just trying to get this straight for the facts because - so you saw - your friend did all the beating on the old man? Yeah it was him. It wasn't me. And you just stood there and watched? You didn't do anything? That's right, I didn't do anything. Well so now he's guilty as sin. So I said geez, how did you do this? And he said, you know, the thing is criminals are not that smart.

Dick Wolf: That's right. A homicide detective told me that about 30 years ago that, you know, that it - you have to be pretty dumb to see murder as a solution to your problem.

You can catch Law & Order's 19th season when it premieres on Wednesday, November 5 at 10 PM ET on NBC.