All of the “Law & Order” franchise have featured plots and storylines that were — as executive producer Dick Wolf describes it — ripped from the headlines. The stories have been fiction but they were inspired by true events. In the case of his latest NBC series, “Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders,” the storyline comes from the years of headlines surrounding the arrest of Lyle and Erik Menendez in 1989 for the shotgun murder of their parents through their sentencing in 1996.
The eight-episode offering — scheduled to start Tuesday — takes a dramatized look at the notorious murder where the brothers were tried on national TV for brutally killing their parents in Beverly Hills. The arrest and trial became a national sensation and a media circus because it had all the elements of money, power, abuse and two good looking young men charged with the crime.
The task of playing the brothers fell to a couple of relatively unknown actors: Fresno State University graduate Miles Gaston Villanueva portrays older brother Lyle while New York native Gus Halper takes on the role of Erik. Neither actor was old enough to remember the Menendez case when it was originally making all those headlines. Halper said he knew nothing about the case until his audition.
“I actually feel like that was a benefit (in) approaching the character because we didn’t have to break through all these preconceptions of them I think a lot of people had because of the media frenzy about the case,” Halper says. “So that was actually kind of nice. I’m grateful that I didn’t know anything about it. I had to approach it with a fresh set of eyes.”
One of the elements Halper focused on in playing Erik was how devastating it would be to be emotionally, physically and psychologically abused by their parents their entire lives. The biggest key to finding the character was that the brothers also said that if the abuse were ever made public, their parents would kill them.
Halper can’t think of anything more traumatic than what happened in the Menendez household all those years.
Villanueva knew a little about the case but he discovered with the first script that there’s a lot of the story that was never told despite the massive amount of attention the story got from the media. The research that executive producer-writer Rene Balcer had done revealed private moments that came through with a lot of emotional power.
Neither Halper nor Villanueva had the opportunity to talk with the Menendez brothers before, during or after the filming. If he had the chance, Halper would have asked Erik: “If you were free, and able, what would he most want to do to help victims of sexual abuse? I would like hear the answer because it would be very revealing about his own experience.”
As with every part of his “Law & Order” kingdom, Wolf is the executive producer, but the series has been written by Balcer and directed by another executive producer, Lesli Linka Glatter. Even Wolf wasn’t certain there was enough in the Menendez story to fill an eight-episode series.
He was assured by Balcer and Glatter that would not be a problem.
“The research revealed things that none of us knew, and that’s one of the things that I think is most impactful about the eight hours. I don’t care what attitude you go in. Your mind is going to receive information that I think will change a lot of people’s attitudes,” Wolf says. “This is unique for me after 27 years of ‘Law & Order.’
“We’ve made some great shows from the headlines. This is on a different level. It’s also the only time that we’ve had sort of a collective agenda, which is this is one of the crimes of the century. It’s absolutely horrible, but when you see the information, I think people are going to realize, well, yeah, they did it, but it wasn’t first degree murder, with no possibility of parole. They probably should have been out eight or 10 years ago, because they should have been convicted of first degree manslaughter, which is a different punishment than first degree murder.”
The script focuses on the testimony of the brothers: that they had been molested by their father and mother, an accusation corroborated by testimony from relatives and some photographs that were found.
All the research showed the writer and director that this was a very dysfunctional family. It also showed that there was a large degree of implicit political collusion between the judge and the district attorney’s office in the second trial to assure a conviction, a factor the series highlights.
At the heart of that examination will be four-time Emmy Award winner Edie Falco who plays defense attorney Leslie Abramson. The defense she presented at trial was that the murders were the result of years of parental abuse.
“She was really about doing a good job, getting the best defense for her clients. I’m always interested by that. Her job came first; that justice was really what this was about for her. I’m always moved by that and compelled by it,” Falco says.