An Exhausting Season For an Implacable TV Cop

Published: December 25, 2004


''Quiet, please.'' It's a common enough request on the set of a television show. Usually, however, it booms out from a disembodied offcamera voice, not the star.

But Vincent D'Onofrio, 45, who plays Robert Goren, the implacable know-it-all detective on NBC's Sunday-night series ''Law & Order: Criminal Intent,'' is not inhibited by television production etiquette. Ready to rehearse a scene being shot in a kitchen of the Waldorf-Astoria hotel this week, Mr. D'Onofrio, a Brooklyn native, quieted the crew with the gently intimidating authority one might expect of a former nightclub bouncer.

He was similarly assertive as the production continued: Working opposite Chris Penn, a guest star who was playing a celebrity chef, Mr. D'Onofrio overrode the production team's kibitzing on how Mr. Penn should handle a knife (''Let Chris do what he wants to do''), called for rethinking a bit of business with a plate (''It would be nice for him actually to have something to do. Let's figure it out.''), and announced when the scene had been sufficiently rehearsed (''All right. Let's shoot.'').

''I like to stick my nose in everybody's business,'' Mr D'Onofrio said during a break in a Waldorf reception room, explaining both his own boundary-blurring approach to filming and his affinity for Orson Welles, who also was hardly a production wallflower.

Mr. D'Onofrio portrayed Welles in the movie ''Ed Wood'' in 1994, and last summer began working on a short film about Welles, which will feature the actor as co-producer (with his business partner, Ken Christmas), director and star.

The film, based on an event taken from Welles's life, is the sort of demonstration tape that Hollywood often requires of actors aspiring to direct feature films. It is also the sort of demanding project that can dismay their bosses -- particularly when the moonlighting contributes to the performer's being hospitalized with exhaustion, as Mr. D'Onofrio was, twice, last month. Dick Wolf, the creator of the ''Law & Order'' franchise, said he was ''not thrilled'' to learn earlier this year that the linchpin of ''Criminal Intent'' was spending the hiatus after the show's third season working on the Welles film. ''You really need all of the strength you can get in the down time,'' Mr. Wolf said.

Two other factors made Mr. D'Onofrio a candidate for fainting episodes that landed him in the hospital. One is the workload he carries. Hourlong television drama series are so notorious for their 14-hour days that lead actors sometimes have contracts stipulating that they will appear in a maximum of about 14 scenes per episode; Mr. D'Onofrio, a movie character actor with little television experience before signing up for ''Criminal Intent,'' does not have that contract provision. While ''Law & Order'' and ''Law & Order: Special Victims Unit'' spread the work among an ensemble of actors, ''Criminal Intent'' leans more toward the traditional single-protagonist formula. Mr. D'Onofrio and his co-star, Kathryn Erbe, who plays his partner, Detective Alexandra Eames, appear in about 28 to 30 scenes per episode, the show's executive producer, Rene Balcer, said, adding that ''Vincent has a huge number of lines.''

The other factor was a simple matter of personality. ''To say that Vincent is hands-on would be an understatement,'' Mr. Wolf said. The producer could imagine the amount of work that Mr. D'Onofrio was putting into editing and finishing the Welles project at night after long days filming this fall, he said, but ''I didn't want to know.''

When Mr. D'Onofrio was hospitalized and his health status unclear while tests were being run, Mr. Wolf confronted the possibility of having to change lead actors at a time when the show was being sold into syndication to the Bravo and USA cable channels for a record $1.92 million an episode. (Both cable channels are owned by NBC Universal Inc.) Replacing Mr. D'Onofrio was ''a frightening prospect,'' Mr. Wolf said, because it would have meant tampering with the mysterious chemistry that bonds a show with a large audience. Nonetheless, he made a list of candidates, ''as anybody in their right mind would have.'' One of the possibilities included actor Chris Noth, who was a ''Law & Order'' regular in the early 1990's and was scheduled to be a ''Criminal Intent'' guest star in January.

Despite the anxiety about Mr. D'Onofrios health, a certain element of comedy was injected into the situation by a gossip report tying his collapse to his emotional devastation over the outcome of the presidential election. Mr. D'Onofrio laughed about the report, accepting it as a sign of the show's prominence. (This week he was chuckling over the January issue of Mad magazine, which features a parody called ''Lewd & Disorder: Criminal Malcontent.'') When he fainted a second time, a running joke on the set chalked it up to Condoleezza Rice's nomination as secretary of state.

When Mr. D'Onofrio was given a clean bill of health, albeit with a medical scolding, the crisis about finding a replacement for him passed. He was sheepish when discussing the experience. ''I work a lot of hours and I get paid well for it,'' he said. ''I wouldn't dare put myself in the martyr position. I think my body just said: 'Too bad. We're going to rest for awhile.'''

As he spoke, Mr. D'Onofrio occasionally took a drag on a Camel Light cigarette, undeterred by New York's strict antismoking laws. ''That's the one thing about being successful.'' he said. ''They let you smoke anywhere you want. Which is not good for your health.''

As a television star, he may be free to smoke but he is not so free to move around his hometown without being stopped by ''Law & Order'' fans. Mr. D'Onofrio was less likely to be waylaid for autographs during his nearly two decades as a movie character actor, not least because it was often hard to recognize him from role to role. His resume includes playing the hapless Army recruit who goes into a murderous rage in Stanley Kubrick's ''Full Metal Jacket'' in 1987, an insectoid creature in ''Men in Black'' in 1997, Abbie Hoffman in ''Steal This Movie'' and a serial killer in the science-fiction thriller ''The Cell,'' both in 2000.

He had already been acting for several years, Mr. D'Onofrio said, before he realized why he seemed to have a knack for slipping easily into characters. His parents divorced when he was young, and he divided much of his time between living with his mother in Florida and his grandfather in New York. ''When youre a child, you're able to assimilate so easily into any situation,'' Mr. D'Onofrio said. ''You even start talking like the people you're around. I wasn't conscious that I was so good at that until I started to truly feel like an actor.''

His newest role is as the television star who avoids overextending himself. That may prove a challenge. With ''Criminal Intent'' shutting down for a holiday break, Mr. D'Onofrio dutifully planned a vacation in Australia. But he vowed that, once the airplane trip halfway around the world was out of the way, he was just going to lie on a beach.

Going, going GOREN

From: Herald Sun
February 28, 2007 12:00AM

A MERCURIAL TV detective is hanging up his badge for new challenges as a director, writes Darren Devlyn

Vincent D'Onofrio ranks as one of the most intuitive actors of his generation.

His skill has never been on greater display than in Law & Order: Criminal Intent, in which he plays the mercurial Det Bobby Goren.

The actor, who has appeared in a string of movies including The Player, Full Metal Jacket and Men in Black, is renowned for using his intense gaze, body language and timbre of his voice to bring texture to his work.

It could be argued his performance as Goren is his role with the greatest veracity.

In an interview from the set of the Channel 10 drama, D'Onofrio tells how he's relentless in his pursuit of a fully-rounded, multi-dimensional performance.

He also reveals he has big ambitions to work as a director and to find feature film roles that fulfil his deepest artistic yearnings.

These are the reasons, he says in shock news, that he's walking away from Criminal Intent.

"I'm at the age where I'm having a pretty good time in life and I want to do some directing now, stay away from acting just a little while," D'Onofrio explains.

"I haven't sorted the actual departure date out yet, but I won't be there (Criminal Intent) much longer.

"You see, I've never seen myself as a leading man. I want to be a character actor. I don't care if a script is for a five-minute role or a major role, I want to approach things simply. If I like the role, I'll play it.

"So I'm not leaving the show because I have some idea that I want to be a star."

The Criminal Intent team, including creator Dick Wolf and leading lady Kathryn Erbe, has been told of D'Onofrio's plans.

D'Onofrio hoses down suggestions that castmates should be worried about their immediate employment prospects.

He is hopeful the show will "go on forever" without him.

"There might be some who find it hard to imagine the show without me, but it should continue because of the level of talent there," D'Onofrio says.

"And what can I say about Kate (Erbe)? We have grown together in this show. TV is unlike any other medium and it can be tough going.

"It's been four years of working constantly. It's like being on a train that never stops. Both of us have been through the ringer with our personal lives and she has become like my sister.

"It feels like we've been through this small, personal war together. She is just the greatest gal and she's a single mum with two kids. I just don't know how she does it all."

D'Onofrio is proof of the dangers of over-exertion.

Two years ago, he was combining movie commitments with Criminal Intent shooting and twice collapsed on the set of the crime drama.

He was rushed to hospital for a battery of medical tests, which showed D'Onofrio was suffering exhaustion.

In an effort to lighten the load on D'Onofrio, Chris Noth was hired to star in alternate episodes of Criminal Intent.

D'Onofrio, 45, says the change in Criminal Intent structure was a blessing, despite the hefty pay cut.

"I just couldn't do it any more and keep the integrity of the show up," D'Onofrio says.

He would have left the show if Wolf had not come up with the novel plan to split the starring role.

When he finishes on Criminal Intent, there's every chance D'Onofrio will take an extended break in Australia.

For four years in the late 1980s and early '90s, he lived in Sydney's Coogee with his then partner, actor Greta Scacchi, and their daughter Layla, 13.

D'Onofrio also has a son Elias, 5, the product of his now-dissolved marriage to Carin van der Donk.

"I'm friends with the mums and I love my kids -- they spend a lot of time with me," he says.

"That has been one of the great things about me reducing my workload on Criminal Intent. I've been able to spend so much more time with my kids."