Breaking Ranks

August 28, 2001

NEW YORK — A clouded morning in late May layers a haze across Manhattan's East River, with the Brooklyn and George Washington bridges flanking either side of the old New York Post building. It's the exterior backdrop for the fourth-floor precinct of the Major Case Squad: home of the elite investigative unit and the base of operation for "Law & Order: Criminal Intent."

While the stage crew is setting up for the next scene, actor Vincent D'Onofrio is taking a smoke break in a small room overlooking the Washington Bridge. Cigarette in one hand and running his fingers through his close-cropped hair with the other, D'Onofrio is showing signs of fatigue from a couple of months of 16-hour days. He's as weathered as the outdoors.

"I've never done anything like this before, so it's really strange to me," he says. Having spent much of his career on stage and film--probably best known from the movies "Full Metal Jacket," "Ed Wood," "Men in Black" and "The Cell"--he was, admittedly, less than enthusiastic about the prospect of taking on series television, of wearing the role of sagacious sleuth Robert Goren week after week. But Dick Wolf, executive producer and series creator, convinced him otherwise.

"Dick pitched me this idea of a kind of Sherlock Holmes-y character in the world of 'Law & Order,"' D'Onofrio says, noting that his wife, model Carin Van Der Donk, is a fan of the franchise. He, on the other hand, has never watched the show, instead counting "60 Minutes" and whatever's on the History Channel as his favorites. "But I like the fact that there's no soap [opera elements] in it," he added. "It's just straight-out storytelling, without over-romanticizing things with any silly kind of TV drama."

Indeed, many of the ingredients for the three "Law & Order" shows--the original and its two spinoffs--are similar in style and storytelling: There are no establishing shots, no recapping events, and audiences don't get to go home with the characters (except on rare occasions in "Special Victims Unit"). Each show, rather than an episodic thread stitched together week to week, is a complete story beginning with Steve Zirnklinton's haunting opening narrative, the familiar monotone sound of a gavel, a theme song for the opening credits and New York City as its charismatic backdrop.

What's different about "Criminal Intent" is its focus, says executive producer Rene Balcer. Likening the franchise to the interminable "Star Trek" brand, Balcer insists that "Criminal Intent" will "have very little in common with the other two," besides the "Law & Order" moniker.

Wolf puts it another way: "I'd like to think of 'Law & Order' as Coca-Cola....Depending on which way you look at it, 'Law & Order: Special Victims Unit' is Diet Coke, and this is Coke without caffeine--but it's all Coke."

With the two earlier "Law & Order" series, the drama ensues after the crime has occurred. The latest spinoff of the Emmy-winning franchise finds its stories in high-profile crimes such as bank robberies, hostages, kidnappings and serial murders as they are unfolding.

Ensemble casts have been a tradition in the worlds created by Wolf, first in "Law & Order," now entering its 12th season, and again in "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," which is getting ready to start Season 3. But in "Criminal Intent," D'Onofrio is the definitive lead character, a forensics investigator engaged in a weekly cat-and-mouse-style chase to outsmart maleficent lawbreakers at their own game.

"With Vincent we have a tremendously versatile actor who's willing to take chances and certainly has the ability to make them work," says Balcer, who was the executive producer and lead writer of the original series for 10 years, having penned more than a third of the scripts for that show.

"With 'Law & Order'--as much as I enjoyed writing it," Balcer continues, "it was always frustrating not being able to break [from the point of view of the officers and attorneys] to see the machinations, the screw-ups and the reality of the bad guys committing crimes. Then you have this very bright, eccentric detective [in D'Onofrio's character] who's really able to sense out a criminal's psychological weak spots and exploit them."

Kathryn Erbe, who plays Goren's able, quick-witted partner Alexandra Eams, especially likes the serpentine plot twists they're given to work with each week. "You may know who the bad guy is right off the bat and you may think they did it for a certain reason and find out that it's not that reason at all," she says.

In one episode, without giving too much away, actor Griffin Dunne guest-stars as a serial adulterer who goes on a killing spree, in what appear, at first, to be crimes of passion. In another, a diamond thief is poised to get away with the jewels and with murder.

Keeping the suspense taunt for viewers means keeping certain characters out of the loop too. "A lot of times the detectives can't give me much more than, 'Trust me'--and that don't help," says film veteran Courtney B. Vance, co-starring in his first series role as unflappable, no-nonsense district attorney Ron Carver. Carver has a sometimes antagonistic, often political, relationship with Goren and Eams.

"I've got to make sure I do my job and get what they need done," says Vance of his character, "but if that means going over their heads and talking to their boss, going through them, around them, under them, it's got to get done. And sometimes I have to make them look bad in order to do it."

There may be tense moments between characters filling the story lines, but it's clear by the joking among the cast on the set that there's a real camaraderie. "There's a sense that everyone here is a veteran, so there are no new kids on the block, and that's fun," says Jamey Sheridan, who plays the stoic police Capt. James Deakins.

There is a battle behind the scenes, however, between Wolf and NBC over the show's time slot. Scheduled to run Sundays at 9 p.m., Wolf has been vocal about his frustration, arguing that this is not a suitable day and time for the "Law & Order" audience.

As it stands, "Criminal Intent" will face off against Fox's aging sci-fi thriller "The X-Files," and ABC's new estrogen-led action spy series, "Alias." The new series will premiere the last week of September.

"I don't make 9 o'clock shows," Wolf says. He notes the sagging ratings for "Special Victims Unit" its first season on Mondays at 9 p.m. before its move to Fridays at 10 p.m., where it's consistently won the night. The scheduling, however, wasn't completely unexpected. Wolf, along with "ER" and "Third Watch" producer John Wells, has accused NBC of saving the prime slot for the new NBC drama "Crossing Jordan."

"There's two things at work here," explains NBC entertainment President Jeff Zucker, discussing the scheduling of "Criminal Intent." "Sunday night has been a problem for us, and we're clearly looking to this tremendous franchise to help us on that night.

"A second thing that helps is that there is no 'Law & Order' on the weekends," he says, referring to the original network as well as the weekday cable reruns on A&E. "People seem to be drawn to this [franchise] during the week; why wouldn't they be drawn to it on the weekend?"

D'Onofrio Laughs Off Collapse Story

19 May 2005

LATEST: Actor VINCENT D'ONOFRIO is laughing off reports he collapsed on the set of legal drama LAW + ORDER: CRIMINAL INTENT because he was upset about the outcome of the US presidential election.

Reports circulated late last year (04) that the fervent Democrat passed out because GEORGE W BUSH was re-elected to The White House.

But THE CELL star insists the story is ridiculous: "We all had a big laugh when that article came out.

"I ended up in the hospital because I was shooting this (Law + Order show) and I was working on a film I directed over the summer. I was exhausted."

Law & Order: Criminal Intent Loyalists Unleash Deadly Fluffalanche

OCTOBER 9, 2009 12:00 PM EST

With great sadness, Movieline reported two weeks ago that Law & Order: Criminal Intent was discharging several key characters from its force including Goren and Eames, the beloved lead detective team played by Vincent D'Onofrio and Kathryn Erbe. Instead of sitting tight while Criminal Intent writers transition Jeff Goldblum's ivory-tickling, ethnic food loving, matinee-catching detective (and whichever actor they recast as his straight partner) as the program's top bananas, Goren/Eames fans are banding together. On October 16, USA Networks will be deluged with jars of marshmallow filling, the same Fluff fans allege they will be watching if the network does not renew D'Onofrio and Erbe's contracts.

The Save Goren & Eames campaign extends beyond Fluff though. There is a petition to keep the actors onboard ("By letting them go, you are destroying the show. They are the show"), and a barrage of messages being sent via email, digital postcard, Twitter and a boycott on Criminal Intent sponsors including Applebee's, Macy's and Wendy's.

It is still unclear why the actors won't be returning, although there are rumors on Law & Order fan websites that D'Onofrio and Erbe were offered half of their current salaries to return for the ninth season, which begins in March 2010. D'Onofrio is expected to appear in the two-part season premiere to say his goodbyes.

Law & Orders franchise creator, Dick Wolf has survived a number of casting changes switch-ups before and has remarked how fans prefer the story lines to the actual actors: "I'm a firm believer that the Law & Order audience, in a sense looks forward to these casting changes." In 2007, Law & Order: Criminal Intent was moved from NBC to its sister network, USA, while repeats continued to air on the major network.