A prolific writer and producer who created one of the most successful TV franchises in history, Dick Wolf entered the history books when his creation "Law & Order" (NBC, 1990-2010) tied perennial Western "Gunsmoke" (CBS, 1955-1975) as the longest-running shows on television. After starting his career writing forgettable movies in the late 1970s, Wolf joined the writing staff of "Hill Street Blues" (NBC, 1981-87) before moving on to form his own production company and embark on his signature "Law & Order" franchise, which was unique in breaking up the hour into two halves; the first dedicated to the police investigation of a crime and the second focusing on the courtroom prosecution. Because of the show's ratings success, Wolf had free reign to develop any show he pleased. That resulted in a string of interesting, but ultimately short-lived series failing to last more than a season. He decided instead to expand the "Law & Order" universe into two highly successful shows, "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" (NBC, 1999- ) and "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" (NBC, 2001-2011), both of which utilized the original's winning formula. With several characters making crossover appearances, Wolf was able to boost another show's appeal by adding an audience favorite to the cast for an episode, an arc or a season. Though he flopped with "Law & Order: Trial by Jury" (NBC/Court TV, 2005-06) and "Law & Order: Los Angeles" (NBC, 2010-11), Wolf's franchise flourished and underscored the producer's TV dominance for over three decades.
Born on Dec. 20, 1946 in New York City, Wolf was raised by his father, George, an advertising executive, and his mother, Marie, a homemaker. After attending Saint David's School in New York City, he went to private school at the Philips Academy in Andover, MA, where he was classmates with future president George W. Bush, and eventually graduated from The Gunnery in Litchfield Hills, CT. Wolf went on to earn his bachelor's degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1969, where he was a member of the prestigious Zeta Psi fraternity. Following in his father's footsteps, Wolf began an advertising career as a copywriter for Benton & Bowles, where he created over 100 commercials in the early 1970s and launched into the nation's collective memory such catchphrases as "You can't beat Crest for fighting cavities" and the less than subtle "I'm Cheryl, fly me" for National Airlines. By the end of the decade, however, Wolf turned his attention to screenwriting, and while several of his scripts were bought by major studios, only a few saw the light of day as finished films.
Experienced at producing television ads, Wolf doubled in a similar capacity by producing a feature film, "Skateboard" (1978), a minor but amiable teen-oriented flick that starred famed Z-Boy skateboarder Tony Alva. He fared far less well with the spoof "Gas" (1981), which starred an aged Sterling Hayden as an oil tycoon who orchestrates a phony shortage in order to reap profits, but only manages to cause hysteria in a small town. Perhaps realizing movies were not his calling, Wolf segued to television where he began making an impact on the small screen when he joined "Hill Street Blues" (NBC, 1981-87) in 1985 and earned an Emmy Award nomination for his episode "What Are Friends For?" Wolf's return to feature films first saw another promising script idea go bust with "No Man's Land" (1987), but Wolf enjoyed considerably more success with "Masquerade" (1988), a stylishly executed suspense thriller in the vein of Hitchcock that starred Rob Lowe and Meg Tilly. From there, he formed his own production company, Wolf Films, marking his start in TV production.
Wolf's biggest success of this period was a genuine phenomenon, "Law & Order" (NBC, 1990-2010), a police procedural and legal drama that focused on two halves of a crime: the first half centered on the investigation by NYPD detectives, while the second half followed the prosecution headed by Manhattan's District Attorney's Office. Featuring solid acting and mature writing, the series racked up an impressive list of award nominations and wins for both its regular cast and guest actors. The series was a surprise winner of the 1997 Best Drama Series Emmy even while managing to overcome the departures of its original cast members, including Michael Moriarity, Chris Noth and George Dzunda, as well as the ill-fitting and short-lived addition of major name stars such as Paul Sorvino and Dianne Weist. Perhaps the show's continued critical acclaim and consistent ratings had something to do with the presence of Sam Waterston as Executive Assistant District Attorney Jack McCoy and Jerry Orbach as Det. Lennie Briscoe, both of whom were the heart and soul of the long-running series.
The success of "Law & Order" and Wolf's dependable track record enabled him to launch a seemingly endless progression of new series, though most were unable to survive their inaugural season. His résumé included the sci-fi cop drama "Mann & Machine" (NBC, 1992), the medical drama "The Human Factor" (CBS, 1992), another crime drama "Crime & Punishment" (NBC, 1993) and the spy series "South Beach" (NBC, 1993). He continued churning out short-lived series like the courtroom drama "The Wright Verdicts" (CBS, 1995), "Swift Justice" (UPN, 1996), the gangster series "Feds" (CBS, 1997) and the ensemble urban crime adventure "Players" (NBC, 1997). Though his investigative journalism drama "Deadline" (NBC, 2000) was well-regarded, it too failed to last beyond one season. From there, he made the youthful political potboiler "D.C." (The WB, 2000), the syndicated reality series documenting real-life court room dramas "Arrest & Trial" (2000), another reality series that recycled the title "Crime & Punishment" (NBC. 2002-04) and a remake of the classic cop series "L.A. Dragnet" (ABC/USA Network, 2002-04). The only series to catch on was "New York Undercover" (Fox, 1994-98), a crime drama about a squad of young police detectives from a Harlem precinct assigned to an elite undercover unit in downtown Manhattan where standard police procedures do not apply.
Despite a long string of failures, Wolf was incredibly successful in turning "Law & Order" into a full-fledged franchise complete with TV movies and spin-offs. The first inklings of the broader possibilities came with the highly-rated TV movie "Law & Order: Exiled" (NBC, 1998) in which Chris Noth reprised his role as Det. Mike Logan. From there, the network tapped Wolf to create the spin-off series "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" (1999- ), which followed the tried-and-true formula established on the original series, but focusing on sex crimes. The show was a big hit with viewers and made stars out of leads Mariska Hargitay as Det. Olivia Benson, who was nominated for numerous Emmy Awards and won in 2006, and Christopher Meloni as Det. Elliot Stabler. Next was the equally well-rated "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" (NBC, 2001-2011), viewing the justice system from the criminal's point of view, starring Vincent D'Onofrio, Kathryn Erbe, Jamey Sheridan and Courtney B. Vance. The first spin-off effort to flop was "Law & Order: Trial by Jury" (NBC/Court TV, 2005-06), which focused on the jury system, and starred Bebe Neuwirth and reprising Fred Thompson reprising his role. Orbach was originally supposed to reprise his Briscoe character on the new series, but production was forced to deal with the actor's unexpected death in 2004.
Proving that nothing was infallible, Wolf saw another "Law & Order" spin-off fail to catch on with "Conviction" (NBC, 2006), a mid-season replacement that saw Stephanie March reprise her "SUV" character Alexandra Cabot, who returns to New York City to become a Bureau Chief ADA. After producing the TV movie "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" (HBO, 2007), which won several Emmys including Outstanding Made for Television Movie, Wolf brought his juggernaut franchise across the pond with "Law & Order: UK" (ITV/STV/UTV, 2009-14), where it proved a success. He tried to bring the show out west with "Law & Order: Los Angeles" (NBC, 2010-11) starring Terrence Howard and Alfred Molina, but the series suffered a ratings decline following a revamp before season two. In 2010, after tying "Gunsmoke" (CBS, 1955-1975) as the longest-running series in television history, "Law & Order" was canceled by NBC, much to Wolf's chagrin. He attempted to find a new network for the series, but found no takers. After contemplating a two-hour movie to wrap things up properly, he finally parted ways with his franchise show. Branching out beyond "Law & Order" for the first time in quite a while, Wolf produced "Chicago Fire" (NBC, 2012- ), a drama that followed the trials and tribulations of a team of firefighters and paramedics in Chicago. The show was well-received by critics, but struggled in the ratings. Meanwhile, in 2013, Wolf was inducted into The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences' Hall of Fame.
By Shawn Dwyer
Director (Feature Film)
Cast (Feature Film)
Writer (Feature Film)
Producer (Feature Film)
Began career in advertising business; worked as copywriter and producer for over a dozen nationwide campaigns; helped create such slogans as "You Can't Beat Crest for Fighting Cavities"
Produced and wrote screenplay "Skateboard," based on his own original story (credited as Richard A. Wolf)
Joined writing team of police drama "Hill Street Blues" (NBC) as an executive script consultant for its last few seasons; earned Emmy and Writer's Guild nominations for the episode "What Are Friends For"
Returned to feature films after six years to write and produce "No Man's Land"
Made feature acting debut with minor role in "Masquerade"; also wrote and executive produced
Formed TV production company Wolf Films
Created and executive produced installments of "Christine Cromwell," a recurring series of TV movies within "ABC Saturday Movie" format; also wrote premiere TV movie installment
Executive produced four installments (and wrote the first installment) of "Gideon Oliver," a recurring series within "ABC Mystery Movie" time slot
Created, executive produced, and wrote premiere episode of short-lived NBC adventure series "Nasty Boys"
Created, executive produced, and wrote police and courtroom drama series "Law & Order" (NBC), success of show has led to creation of additional shows under "Law & Order" franchise; cancelled after 20 years, narrowly missing out on being crowned longest-running TV drama in history
Executive produced short-lived sci-fi detective series "Mann & Machine" (NBC), also wrote first episode
Created (also executive produced and wrote the first episode) short-lived NBC detective drama "Crime and Punishment"
Appeared on NBC news magazine special "Today at Night"
Created and executive produced Fox police drama "New York Undercover"
Wrote (also created and executive produced) UPN series "Swift Justice"
Created and executive produced CBS drama series "Feds"
Executive produced and created NBC drama "Players"
Executive produced highly rated spin-off series "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" (NBC)
Created and executive produced syndicated "Arrest & Trial"
Executive produced second spin-off "Law & Order: Criminal Intent"; moved from NBC to USA Network 2007
Produced "Law & Order: Crime & Punishment" (NBC), a reality television spin-off of the Law & Order franchise
Produced "Twin Towers," the Academy Award-winning Short Documentary about two brothers, one a policeman and the other a fireman, who lost their lives in the line of duty during 9/11
Produced short-lived spin-off "Law & Order: Trial by Jury" (NBC), cancelled after first season
Produced award-winning HBO film "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee," adapted from Dee Brown's book of the same name
Created and produced short-lived spin-off "Law & Order: Los Angeles" (NBC)
Produced NBC drama "Chicago Fire"
Inducted into The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences' Hall of Fame