BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. -- If NBC's "Law & Order" is going to break the "Gunsmoke" 20-year record as the longest-running network TV drama series, it probably will have to be done without Buffalo native Jesse L. Martin.
Dick Wolf, the producer of the series entering its 18th season, confirmed here Tuesday that Martin, who plays Detective Ed Green, has signed to do only 13 of next season's 22 episodes.
"The discussion has been going on for a long time, because he had not thought that he wanted to come back," Wolf explained after a news conference here. "Then maybe a couple of months ago he decided, well, maybe he would be [interested], but he didn't know if he wanted to do a whole season." Wolf said there are a few options.
"Jesse could stay on for the entire season; we could cast another new detective," Wolf said . "Jesse has been doing this for awhile. The best way to put this is he's kind of conflicted in terms of 'should I be leaving in the middle of the season?' To try and say now what is going to happen in six months, I don't know."
"Law & Order," which was in danger of being canceled and landing on a cable network, doesn't arrive on NBC's schedule until January. Wolf said he is happy about that because it will enable the series to have 22 straight episodes. There will be a concerted attempt to attract younger viewers this season.
Jeremy Sisto, who last season starred in the short-lived NBC series, "Kidnapped," is coming aboard as Green's new partner. Sam Waterston, who plays executive assistant district attorney Jack McCoy, is changing roles, replacing Fred Thompson as the district attorney. Linus Roache ("Kidnapped") is taking McCoy's old job.
"[Sam's character] is not going to be the pragmatist that the elected politicians have been," Wolf said. "He's also going to be somebody who goes through changes in his own attitude because he is doing a different job. A lot of it is going to be fascinating, because we've talked very openly about what happens to men at a certain age of a certain stature when the next generation steps in. There is a lot to play here."
Breaking the "Gunsmoke" record is very important to Wolf, whether the mother ship stays on NBC or goes elsewhere. "Gunsmoke" ran from 1955 to 1975. "I just want ["Law & Order"] on the air continuously for 21 years or more, and I certainly hope it is with NBC," said Wolf.
The producer also has made some cast adjustments to his spin-off series. Alicia Witt will play Detective Mike Logan's (Chris Noth) new partner on "Law & Order: CI," which is moving to the NBC-owned USA Network. And Adam Beach, who appeared in an episode of "Law & Order: SVU" last season, is back full-time as Detective Chester Lake.
Wolf also addressed the issue of whether Thompson's quest for the presidency will force "Law & Order" to adhere to equal time provisions for candidates. Reading from prepared notes, Wolf said no repeats featuring Thompson are scheduled past Sept. 1. He said that equal time provisions do not apply to cable.
Virus and host . . . Speaking of politics, opinionated MSNBC host Keith Olbermann was named the moderator of a forum for Democratic presidential candidates Aug. 7 in Chicago. Naturally, when Olbermann is around, the subject of his rival, Fox News Channel host Bill O'Reilly, comes up. Olbermann feels he owes O'Reilly a great deal of gratitude for giving him material. Asked about his view of O'Reilly, Olbermann cracked, "It is as the virus feels about the host."
Of course, equal time provisions didn't immediately apply because O'Reilly isn't here.