Dick Wolf’s Journey from Toothpaste to Police Procedurals

The clypd holiday party a few weeks ago featured an 11-question TV trivia quiz, befitting of a company rooted in the TV business. One of the questions: name five detectives from any season of the Law & Order franchise. Participants had more than 30 names to choose from, an indication of the longevity of the franchise.

As I Googled the series the next day to get reacquainted with more actors’ names, I learned more about its creator, Dick Wolf. Coincidentally, it’s also Wolf’s birthday today- he was born on December 20, 1947.

Dick Wolf’s parents met while working at NBC, and his father later went in to advertising, as a producer. Dick took the opposite route, starting out in advertising as a copywriter at agency Benton & Bowles and later switching to TV.

While at Benton & Bowles, Wolf created the Crest “You Can’t Beat Crest for Fighting Cavities” toothpaste campaign. He explained that at the time, there was original Crest, followed by new flavors such as mint, and gel. With Crest offering multiple varieties, he used the umbrella sales pitch to encourage customers to embrace the different consistencies and flavors, and pick the one they liked most, since all were leaders in cavity fighting.

During his successful years at Benton & Bowles, Wolf also wrote screenplays in an effort to launch a film career. As he told The Hollywood Reporter, “I left New York five days after my 30th birthday because I didn’t want to sell toothpaste anymore.”

In 1985, he became a staff writer on hit “Hill Street Blues.” After earning an Emmy nomination for his work, Wolf parlayed his experience to a writing and co-producing role on yet another power hit of the era, “Miami Vice.” After work on a few movies and short-lived series, Wolf’s career took off in 1990 as creator of “Law & Order,” but not without a few hiccups.

Coming out of the 1987 writers strike, Wolf recognized a need network executives had for new shows. Fox was pushing for new types of programs, so Wolf pitched his police drama to then-network head Barry Diller. Diller bought 13 episodes on the spot, but called the next day with cold feet. After Fox reneged, Wolf sold the pilot episode to CBS. The network did not contract for more episodes.

The following year, Wolf pitched then-NBC head Brandon Tartikoff, who doubted the formula would have enough staying power due to what he expected to be too few future plot lines. As Wolf envisioned the series, he was using plots taken from real life crime headlines, so there would never be a shortage of ideas. This timeliness also proved challenging, as when one of the early episodes dealt with the bombing of an abortion clinic, and NBC saw $900,000 in advertiser cancellations. Tartikoff, however, stayed with the show.

IMDB lists 456 episodes of the original “Law & Order” between 1990 and 2010. “Law & Order” is tied with Gunsmoke for longest-running drama in TV history. It has been nominated for the most consecutive Emmys (20) of any primetime drama series.  “Law & Order” has spun off multiple times, including “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” and “Law & Order: Criminal Intent.”

Still, Wolf wasn’t done with NYC police dramas. In 2012, he developed “Chicago Fire,” about a group working at the Chicago Fire Department. By October of that year, it was NBC’s number two drama, based on Nielsen ratings. In 2013, NBC announced the spin-off “Chicago P.D.” and in 2014, “Chicago Med.” “Chicago Justice,” a rare flop, aired for just a few episodes in 2017. Wolf’s Chicago series serve as an entire night of programming on NBC, on Wednesdays.

Wolf’s five dramas are among the 21 highest-rated shows on network television. “FBI” is the sixth most watched drama of the season. “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” also on NBC, continues to deliver strong ratings. If ABC moves ahead with “New York Undercover,” Wolf could have an impressive seven shows on three broadcast networks in the 2019-20 season. Additionally, NBC is adding a new Law & Order spinoff, “Hate Crimes,” next season. The police procedurals that Wolf pioneered appear to not be slowing down at all, but seemingly picking up speed – not bad for a former ad guy who used to sell toothpaste.

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