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Real life overwhelms fiction for 'SVU' producer

Neal Baer
Neal Baer is executive producer of NBC's "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit."  

By Todd Leopold

(CNN) -- On the morning of September 11, Neal Baer was doing some pre-production planning for a five-hour miniseries about bioterrorism in New York.

The idea was a pet project for Baer, the executive producer of "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit." A trained pediatrician, he'd spent seven years as an adviser to "ER," but the project was too big for that show.

"We had scenes where people are lined up for blocks and blocks," Baer said in a phone interview.

But as a miniseries, with the resources of "Law & Order" creator Dick Wolf behind it, it could work.

The project was going well; just that morning, the front page of trade paper Daily Variety had trumpeted the program, noting it would be the most expensive such project NBC had ever done. (The headline: "Terror Strikes Wolf Camp.") Baer and a group of writers were gathered at the Chelsea Piers facility on Manhattan's West Side, ironing out details with filming scheduled to start in a week.

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And then the planes hit the World Trade Center.

Baer, shocked, watched people running up the West Side Highway -- first panicky groups fleeing the initial hit, then ash-covered survivors of the towers' collapse. "It was surreal," he recalled. "I was like a [disconnected] observer."

'SVU' staffers helped out where they could

In the days and weeks following the attacks, people from the "SVU" team based in New York -- as well as staffers from other New York-based shows -- helped out however they could.

"SVU" star Mariska Hargitay got down to Ground Zero and called uptown for pairs of boots, hundreds of hamburger patties -- whatever the rescue crews needed. Wolf, who lost a close friend in the attacks, arranged to get food and material. Baer -- who's usually based in Los Angeles -- his wife, and some writers packed cabs to get it downtown.

"SVU" and the other New York shows -- "Law & Order," "Law & Order: Criminal Intent," and "Third Watch" -- have dealt with the attacks as realistically as possible, said Baer.

"When it's reasonable to bring it up, we bring it up," he said. For example, "SVU's" John Munch -- Richard Belzer's conspiracy-obsessed character -- has said he thinks he has anthrax. "Third Watch," which is about emergency workers, devoted a special show to the attacks, intercutting cast members with real people.

"I think the New York shows have handled [September 11] really well," said Baer. "As long as it's honest, I don't see a problem. And we have to be honest so we can have a cultural debate across the country about what to do."

One of the points of the bioterrorism miniseries, he added, "was to sound a wakeup call." The miniseries was well-researched, to the point that much of what was explored in it has come to pass. The program even included an anthrax scare.

But after the events of September 11, nobody had the heart to continue with the series. The plug was pulled.

"It was a really phenomenal series," Baer said. "But we couldn't put it on after [September 11]. It was too creepy."




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