My Favorite Scene: Past and Current Producers Look Back on 'Law & Order: SVU'
By Stacy Lambe
No one loves a great scene more than the person who first
dreamed it up -- the writer. We're asking iconic shows' creators and writers to
tell ET all about getting to see their most cherished moment
on their series make it from script to screen.
On Wednesday, Feb. 8, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit will reach a major TV
milestone when it airs its 400th episode, a feat only previously achieved by
eight scripted series over the past four decades. While a lot of credit for the
show’s success and stamina is given to the cast led by Mariska Hargitay, who
has won an Emmy for playing Det. Olivia Benson, it’s hard to ignore the writing,
which has earned several Edgar Allen Poe Award nominations over the course of
At its core, creator Dick Wolf tells ET the show has
always been about writing. “This has never changed,” he says, adding that if it
“stays good,” SVU has the
ability to beat Law & Order and Gunsmoke’s record of 20
seasons, the most for a live-action prime-time scripted series.
With that in mind, former showrunner Neal Baer, who led
the series from season two through season 12 and served as executive producer
for ER and Under the Dome,
and current executive producers Julie Martin and Jonathan Starch opened up to
ET about their favorite moments from the past 400 episodes.
These are their stories…
Julie Martin, Executive Producer
“Heartfelt Passages,” Episode 22, Season 17
Well, this is
really like being asked who is your favorite child! All the episodes I’ve
worked on over the past five seasons have their own individual personalities,
quirks, emotions and problems and are all lovable in their own way. But if
I had to pick one, I’d choose the season 17 finale “Heartfelt Passages.” I
co-wrote this episode with [seasons 13-17 showrunner] Warren Leight. We
were faced with a double challenge: how to end the season (Leight’s last) on a
dramatic, powerful note, and also how to give a hero’s farewell to Det. Mike
Dodds, as actor Andy Karl was leaving the show to do a musical in London. We
wanted the episode to be wrenching emotionally and also have some closure and
uplift. We decided early on that we would have Dodds get killed on his
last day on the job. That was a real departure for Law & Order: SVU,
which, up until then, had never killed off a regular character.
We had been doing a
storyline about an abusive prison guard, played brilliantly by Brad Garrett. These
types of perpetrators are often abusive to their own families. A domestic
violence situation can be one of the most deadly for police officers. The
two story lines came together, and we wrote the first two acts of the episode,
basically a domestic violence stand-off that ended with Andy Karl’s character
getting shot. We then (somewhat shamelessly) milked the emotion for
another two acts, keeping Mike Dodds alive and possibly recovering, only to
have him die due to complications from the shooting. Benson, wracked with guilt
and grief, tries to find some closure at the end of the episode, in her
shrink’s office, then with Tucker and her son, Noah. The final image is
perfect, the three of them against the New York skyline, looking out to…the
future? That image summed up the episode -- beauty, sadness and ultimately
hope. The uncertainty and fragility of life and how we all struggle in our
own ways to make sense of loss and change.
The episode was
directed by one of our most talented directors, Alex Chapple. We tried to
schedule the filming sequentially so it played out in real time. The
actors were all so emotional about Andy leaving the show and the changes we
would go through in the next season that reality and TV seemed to blur. I
remember one scene in particular that had almost no dialog, just Benson walking
down an empty corridor to tell her detectives that Mike had died. But
she’d never say it, they would just read it on her face. As a writer, your
natural instinct is to have people speak. But Mariska Hargitay was so
incredible, and so movingly told the story with just her expression. I couldn’t
believe I ever doubted that would work! By the end of the shoot, we were all
pretty worn out. There was a lot of crying, on-screen and off. But that’s a
successful episode for us. Four acts and a cry.
The best kind of
“ripped from the headlines” episodes in the history of Law & Order
draw not just on one sensational story but on deeper patterns in our culture
through the lens of the procedural TV show mold Dick Wolf has kept relevant for
In the fall of
2015, the stories of innocent people dying in the hands of the police became
overwhelming, capped off by the names from that summer alone: Walter Scott, Freddie
Gray and Sandra Bland. The SVU writers went to work and created an
episode, ironically (or not) titled “Community Policing,” that channeled much
of the contradictory feelings we all had at that moment, expressing the fear of
making mistakes “on the job” and the challenge of drawing the line between
profiling and common-sense policing.
In the opening
sequence of the episode the SVU team is activated in pursuit of a push-in
“pattern" rapist who attacked a child and is described as a black
man. Series regulars Mariska Hargitay, Ice-T, Kelli Giddish, Raúl Esparza
and Peter Scanavino are joined in the episode by a host of guest stars
reprising their roles as cops from earlier episodes of SVU -- Isiah
Whitlock, Robert John Burke, Donal Logue and Michael Potts are just a few --
allowing the episode to feel like it was years in the planning, and putting the
viewer fully in the shoes of our family of cops setting out to do their jobs
right. The production team had to bend over backward to work around the
complicated schedules of the huge guest cast, including two leads in the
white-hot hit of the Broadway season: Daveed Diggs and Leslie Odom Jr. of Hamilton.
After a coincidental
cross-racial ID in the case, an innocent black man is pursued into a housing
project at night and (in the key scene of the episode) is shot. Director
Jean De Segonzac’s background in documentaries came in handy as we planned the
scene to feel spontaneous and dangerous, without a clear idea of what was going
on at first. Filming a scene like this in an actual New York City housing
project was a challenge, but our locations department immediately went to work
with the residents and the real NYPD and mayor’s office to make sure the
filming was safe: The gunfire happened off-screen (sounds added later) and we
hired a seasoned stunt player to play the part of the young man killed by
mistake (he was able to vault over fences as the police were in pursuit).
The ultimate power
of the episode comes like a punch to the stomach in the final scenes: After the
mistaken shooting of the young black man explodes our cops’ world and the lives
of his parents and community, the unrelated shooting of a white police officer
after a traffic stop shows that no one today is more than a heartbeat away from
I chose episode “911,” where Olivia Benson is going on a
date but stops because a little girl calls for help but she's locked in a room
and she doesn't know where she is. Then Olivia, for three acts, literally stays
on the phone with this girl, keeping her talking as the phone is losing its
charge. Ultimately, it does lose its charge.
My favorite scene is Olivia racing against the clock to find
where this girl is before the phone loses its power. And the phone goes out
before she has located the exact place. The distress and despair on Benson's
face is just profound.
Ted Kotcheff directed it and he’s a renowned feature film
director, so he did things that scared Mariska. I remember because Mariska
called me to the set and we talked because Ted was doing close-ups of her lips,
talking on the phone, close-ups of her eyes and close-ups in ways that we don't
often see on television. I said to Ted, “Go for it.” We looked at the Alfred
Hitchcock film Marnie, where there
are close-ups of Tippi Hedren and Sean Connery's mouths in a scene and jump
cuts. I said, “Always steal from the best.” So we did these jump cuts of Mariska's
mouth and eyes and we get some real tension. We knew we had the ability to do a
very special episode with Mariska and it paid off.
It's my favorite episode of Mariska's because it shows all
the sides of Benson's character: the warmth, the empathy, the anger and the
despair that can come from working these kinds of cases and the determination
not to give up. She does find the little girl in the end. She's actually been
buried and she has one line in the show and she says, 'Olivia.' And your heart
breaks and you're so relieved. It was such a wonderful journey for Mariska.
The one little sidebar that I think is kind of fun is the
way I figured out how to do it. It’s something that I had done with Dr. Doug
Ross [George Clooney], where he saves a kid on ER and I put him in a tuxedo. We got a lot of attention because the
juxtaposition of being in a tuxedo and saving a kid in a tunnel was really
interesting and fun. So I used that idea for Mariska and put her in the black
cocktail dress -- which she got to pick out -- because she was going on a
really important date. She never makes it to the date but she looks beautiful
in this cocktail dress. So you're looking at her in a very different way, from
the way she was physically dressed on the show. I just loved doing that as a
way to highlight her femininity but also her charging toughness. So, that was a
really fun episode for me to do. And that scene in particular, where she throws
the phone in despair when the little girl is disconnected from her, for me has
always been memorable.
That's the episode that won Mariska the Emmy and Golden
Globe -- so well deserved.
My favorite scene with Christopher Meloni is with Ellen
Burstyn on the beach where -- it's interesting because these moments are
obviously personal moments -- Stabler [Meloni] is talking to his mother, who is
in a manic phase with her bipolar disorder. He had gone to see his mother
because his daughter's in trouble and he doesn't know where to turn. His
daughter has had some of the same psychiatric issues. So he goes to his mother,
who is having a manic episode and is building sandcastles on the beach.
It's a really moving scene that really gets into Stabler's
fears about who he is, who his parents [are], where he's from, how he's tried
to overcome and maybe ignore or be in denial about his roots. We see a side of
him that he's tried to keep repressed, which I love. The combination of the two
of them is really moving and gives us a real humane side of Stabler, you know,
apart from the angry detective that will stop at nothing to bring in the perp.
This is a man who has his own wounds and they've been opened up for us to see
when we brought in his mother.
Ellen Burstyn won an Emmy for that episode as well. Of course,
we were so delighted and fortunate to have one of those world-class actors to
play his mother. I was like, “Wow. OK, this will be good.” The two of them
together is really painful, just like family life at times.
I write about this a lot because I think about it in my own
life. I think we write about what interests us, and I am interested in
parent-child relationship struggles all these years later with my own. So I
find ways to write about it through these stories. And they resonate. Everyone
still has parent-child relationships they're still trying to resolve. Then,
when you're able to get someone like Sally Field for ER or Ellen Burstyn, you're really able to go deep. You can really
get at the core of human behavior.
The third scene would be Leslie Caron as Lorraine Delmas on
the stand, when she remembers what happened to her when she was sexually
assaulted years before and has to confront this younger man whom she has
befriended. It's so compelling and sad, but it's also Lorraine’s first step
into freedom, you know, to rid herself of the demons she's held inside her.
By doing it, she recalls that she saved the clothes [from
the assault] and that's what convicts this guy.
Her raw pain, that's just so palpable. She was also heroic.
I loved seeing Leslie, who's such a brilliant actor, be able to access both the
raw feelings and the heroism that it took to confront this guy years later.
Leslie was a huge get for us. I was determined to have
Leslie on the show and that was a wonderful opportunity, but it took a lot of
work. She was in Sardinia and she had no visa, so we had to go literally to
Teddy Kennedy's office to expedite the visa to bring Leslie from Europe. When
she won the Emmy, she did this gracious acceptance speech where she recalled being nominated for a most promising newcomer award in the '50s, and then
she paused and said, “I think I finally fulfilled my potential.” She was
nominated for two Oscars and never won, so it was really lovely for her to win