Thursday, August 25, 2016

A tribute to Law & Order's Adam Schiff, Steven Hill

Longtime readers of this blog know of my deep affection for LAW & ORDER. It was one of three shows (the other two being ER and HOMICIDE) that acted as my gateway drugs into modern television drama in the mid-90s. For my money there has never been a better procedural drama than the original L&O. The caliber of writing was not just the best of its era, but it stands above many shows even in this later period of "peak TV." 26 years after its debut, the writing of the early seasons still holds up, save for a few instances where everyone has rather quaint views about the internet and cell phones. I'm trying to imagine TV drama from the 1970s holding up as well during the time frame when I discovered L&O.

I came into L&O casually in the fifth season and then fell hard for the show in season six after it did a then-unusual crossover with HOMICIDE. Pretty much concurrent with this, I was channel-surfing and stumbled upon L&O reruns on A&E. Except... there was something weird. There was no Jerry Orbach, no Sam Waterston. They were replaced by Michael Moriarty (whom I vaguely recalled having seen stories about a couple years earlier, when he quit the show after attacking the Attorney General in the press) and Paul Sorvino. So how did I know that this was Law & Order?

Because Adam Schiff was there.

Even with so much around him that was different, Steven Hill still held court with the same wry wisdom and "Make a deal" drive I was so familiar with from his scenes overseeing Sam Waterston. He was a comfortable presence, a constant amid the regularly changing casts. For a long time he was an answer to the trivia question, "Who was the longest-serving cast member of Law & Order?" Sometimes it was inaccurately claimed he was the only one left from the very beginning, though actually joined in the first episode after the original pilot. Still, he outlasted everyone else from the first season by the time he departed the show after season 10.

Steven Hill died this week at the age of 94. Just looking at that number makes me feel like we should be celebrating his longevity rather than dwelling on mourning his loss. It's never quite that easy, though, is it? The man's resume is quite remarkable. It makes it all the more ironic that to the best of my memory, the only project I saw him in outside L&O was The Firm. This is not a career-encompassing obituary. For that, I'll direct you to Variety's excellent memorial.

In the Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion written by Kevin Courrier & Susan Greer, Hill's co-star Jill Hennessy recalls an exchange with Robert Duvall. "On the set of The Paper, Robert Duvall said to me, 'So I hear you work with Steven Hill on that Law & Order. He's the best working actor today, bar none.'" In another anecdote, showrunner Rene Balcer fondly stated, "I love writing for Steven Hill more than anyone else. He's one of the few actors who will call and tell the writers to give him fewer lines. And then when you give him the lines, he'll say give him fewer words. Then you give him the words and he'll say 'Give me fewer syllables.'" He didn't need long speeches to make an impact.

Hill never thought the show would be a huge hit. "I felt, especially in the beginning, the format was so predictable," the Companion quotes him as saying. "I wondered how long people were going to be able to take this. I was never a detective story buff; I could really care less. I didn't have the patience for the whodunit puzzle but the audience never tires of it."

Schiff would usually pop up for three or four scenes in most episodes, often to get cranky about the state of the case on McCoy or Stone's desk and to advise them to "make a deal!" A lesser actor might have played Schiff like the demanding boss from hell. Instead, Hill was a presence that was at once fatherly, Yoda-like and disciplinarian.

Though he had been on the show for four years before Waterston arrived, the two actors quickly fell into a dynamic reminiscent of a father and son. With Jack's complicated history with his father, it was easy to see how he'd look up to Schiff, even while his rebellous nature often put him at odds with that same affection he sought. Jack McCoy needed Adam Schiff. The younger man's righteous crusades were as noble as often as they needed to be reigned in. In Schiff existed the one person who could yank McCoy's leash when needed and still have his back.

Law & Order always worked best when Jack was the crusader for justice who wielded the law like a sword in pursuit of what was right. But a character like that can only exist so long as he has someone above him bound by the rules of the real world, someone who can throw cold water on Jack's windmill tilting. Neither Dianne Wiest nor Fred Thompson's characters were up to that task after Hill left. Wiest was a wishy-washy presence at best. Thompson's character's more conservative nature led to some interesting clashes with Jack, but you never felt like McCoy respected him in the same way he did Schiff. If Jack pulled an end run that Schiff disapproved of, even if he got away with it in the courtroom, you knew there'd be consequences for the two men's friendship. Thompson's Arthur Branch felt like the sort of arrogant boss one would enjoy disobeying.

(This is also why I feel like Abbie Carmichael was a lesser assistant for Jack. On paper it seems interesting to give him a partner who's even more of a loose cannon than he is. The problem is that it weakens Jack to not be cowboy in the room, and it forces him to play Schiff's role, thereby rendering much of the Schiff/McCoy dynamic moot. It worked better when years later, karma got its revenge on McCoy by putting him in Schiff's office where he didn't have the luxury of bending the rules so far. And naturally, he was given an Executive Assistant DA who bent the rules even more aggressively than Jack himself did.)

People who accuse Law & Order of being nothing more than a plot-driven procedural have overlooked how much the character relationships are woven into the fabric of the cases. It's also escaped them just how important the actors and their characters are to the stories. Steven Hill was irreplaceable as Schiff. His dry comments often either helped cut to the core of a point for the audience, while bringing a bit of humor to the moment. I recall one moment when Claire Kincaid expressed frustration with a miscarriage of justice, only to be reminded by Schiff, "We don't make the system, we just try to survive in it." Hill gave those words the weight of a lifetime of experience. You could easily understand that he meant "we can argue about how the world SHOULD be for hours, but at the end of it, we'll still be back here with the same problem. Find a solution that works."

In another episode, former ADA Jamie Ross returned as a defense attorney and twice out-maneuvered her former bosses. Upon hearing that Ross's strategy had caught even McCoy with his pants down, Schiff remarked, "I knew there was a reason I hired that young lady." He even has the opportunity to rub it in later when another of Jack's strategies blows up in his face.

Steven Hill always played Schiff like he was the smartest guy in the room even as he was resigned to the reality he'd be ignored until proven right. And maybe three or four times a year, the writers would give Hill a story where Schiff had even more to work with. The seventh season finale "Terminal" involves a case where the governor wants the DA to seek the death penalty, but Schiff feels it's not warranted. Concurrent with this, Schiff's wife has suffered a stroke and is hospitalized on a ventilator. The governor removes Schiff under the pretense that the family crisis has impaired the DA's judgement. McCoy follows Schiff out the door and the two of them take the governor to court. There's a nice moment where the courtroom histrionics of McCoy and his adversary are trumped when the soft-spoken Schiff stands up and sums it up in a brief speech that ends, "The governor thinks he's above the law. He's not." Few actors have the presence that could make such a simple statement carry real import.

And then there's the moment at the end of that episode. After signing the DNR for his wife, Schiff stands by his wife's bedside as her ventilator is turned off. The entire action of the scene is played on his face. We hear the machines, the breathing and the heart monitor. We hear the ventilator deactivated, the heartbeat briefly continuing... and then clear beeps of distress preceding a flatline. Hill lets out a whimper - not an agonized cry but a brief whimper that one might mistake for "No..."

Even typing this now, I can hear that moan in my head and it's agonizing. His wife dies right before his eyes, and rather than going for overwrought tears, Hill chooses to play Schiff's pain in a more subtle way. It's all in his eyes and he looks so... lost. It's one of the most affecting depictions of death I can recall seeing on TV, and it's all evoked with such minimalist directing and acting. Hill made you feel Schiff's loss by allowing the audience to project their emotions onto him.

I could quote Schiff all day. My favorite Schiff one-liner might be from "Double Down," where he notes a defendant "confessed to a murder to avoid being prosecuted for a murder. I'm putting this one in my memoirs."

Someone pointed me to a collection of his best one-liners, and I'd like to end this on my favorite McCoy/Schiff exchange from "Showtime."

Schiff: "Started with a murder, ends with an execution. You got what you wanted. Take the rest of the week off."
McCoy: "It's Friday, Adam."
Schiff: "So it is. See you on Monday."

Farewell, Steven Hill.

1 comment:

  1. Hill only has a small role in it, but you should definitely check out Running on Empty. Sydney Lumet directs Judd Hirsch, Christine Lahti, and River Phoenix. Strong performances all around.