Dylan McDermott reinvents modern gangster on 'Law & Order'

TV-Dylan McDermott (2022 NBCUniversal Media, LLC)
TV-Dylan McDermott (2022 NBCUniversal Media, LLC)

The DNA for Dylan McDermott to reinvent the modern-day gangster began at childhood and carried through to his struggling young actor days, when the “Law and Order: Organized Crime” star says he was “surrounded by the ilk” of unsavory types.

McDermott, who grew up in New York, waited tables and tended bar, often serving local mobsters, where he observed their capricious behavior, he says. And when he was younger, he had an even closer relationship.

“My mother’s boyfriend was a bank robber when I was growing up,” McDermott told The Associated Press.

“They all end up either dead or in prison. So, there’s no good stories there. He got his end, and it was not — not good.”

(His parents split when the actor was a child, and his mother, Diane McDermott, died in what was ruled an accidental shooting in 1967. In 2012, a reopened Waterbury, Connecticut, police investigation concluded that she was killed by her now-dead gangster boyfriend.)

This convergence of real-life experiences helped Dylan McDermott bring Richard Wheatley to life, with a multi-episode arc on “Law & Order: Organized Crime” that wrapped recently.

“I was privy to a world that probably most actors would not be. And I always absorbed that, and I always took it in. And I hope one day to be able to use that, all that information in my own life and put it into a character. And then Richard Wheatley presented himself," McDermott said.

Deadly, smart, and “woke,” the Wheatley character defied the uncouth, knuckle-dragging demeanor so often seen in this type of role. Wheatley, the CEO of an online pharmaceutical company, the son of a New York mobster, and a father with close ties to his children, had more of the depth of a Bond villain than a New York gangster.

With danger and modernity, Wheatley adds another dimension that breaks away from the stereotype, potentially redefining the "bad guy'' character in the future.

That's not lost on Nick Creegan, who plays the character's son, Richard Wheatley Jr. The young actor says he was constantly surprised by the actions of his on-screen dad, adding, “it was pretty much as twisted as you would think it would be.”

“The fact that you just didn’t know what he was thinking kept you on your toes,” Creegan said.

The format of the NBC show also played a big part. Many storylines from the “Law & Order” franchise are one and done. Some villains may have a multiple-episode arc, but McDermott was blessed with eight episodes to tell his story. And that quickly turned to 16 after executive producer Dick Wolf found it necessary to continue the Wheatley storyline.

His nemesis on the series, police detective Elliot Stabler, who was last seen on “Law & Order: SVU” is played by Christopher Meloni, a franchise fan favorite.

Meloni applauded the choices made by his scene partner. At a recent event celebrating the upcoming return of the original “Law & Order,” Meloni agreed that McDermott has re-invented the modern-day gangster by “avoiding a minefield of cliché.”

“He didn’t fall into the traps an actor could have tripped on. He is the villain for the 21st century,” Meloni said.

Even McDermott admits being surprised by some of the stuff he was allowed to get away with on the show.

“I did things that I thought would rub against the network,” he said. His smoking, rarely seen on network television, for example, was not met with resistance.

“That was also something that I wanted to do for the character because a lot of these guys smoke, frankly, and I know there was some concern, but then they let me do it. Ultimately, maybe because I was the bad guy ... they let me smoke cigarettes, cigars and just sort of let me, let me go.”

As an actor, McDermott initially found success in the 1990s legal drama “The Practice,” before going on to a successful movie career, including a role in the recent Oscar-nominated “King Richard.” Up next, McDermott is starring in the new season of “FBI: Most Wanted.”

So, why the trek back to network television? When he started acting, playing in back-to-back television series was not always thought to be the best move for a film career, but the landscape has changed.

“My theory in my career has always been to run into the burning building, whatever that is. Back then, in the '90s, if you went on a television show, it was a tip that your film career was in trouble,” McDermott said.

Instead, his Richard Wheatley — what he calls a convergence of “fiction and nonfiction” — might someday be mentioned alongside the likes of iconic bad guys Tony Soprano ("The Sopranos"), Avon Barksdale ("The Wire") or Marsellus Wallace ("Pulp Fiction").