–by Jane Rubinsky
Reprinted from “The Juilliard Journal”
In the high-tech world of forensic science, just one clue can point investigators in the right direction. True-crime buffs can find out how experts put all the pieces together in the dramatic show Forensic Files, which airs six nights a week on tru TV and is watched in 142 countries. The creator and executive producer of Forensic Files is Juilliard alumnus Paul Dowling (B.M. ’75, M.M. ’76, percussion), who followed a number of clues himself on the path to creating and refining this popular phenomenon.
As part of the first generation of youngsters growing up in front of the television, Dowling was intrigued by the medium—an enthusiasm shared by his parents, but not understood by his high-school guidance counselor in Philadelphia. So he was steered toward his other area of interest, music. “I enjoyed every second I was at Juilliard,” he says. As a percussionist in search of practice space, Dowling often found himself a spot in the third-floor hallway, midway between the dancers and the actors, many of whom he got to know “rather well.” (Both José Limón and John Houseman would stop and chat on a daily basis.) Dowling’s eclectic interests made him “just as likely to go to a Juilliard dance performance or play as to a concert. I loved it and learned a lot from it, and I think it contributed to a wider view I took of what you could get out of Juilliard and what there was out there.”
But while onstage in Alice Tully Hall one night during a Tchaikovsky symphony, Dowling realized he didn’t have the temperament for a lifetime of orchestral repertoire. And a recording engineer’s enthusiasm for the nascent Synclavier, glimpsed while Dowling was recording in the old RCA studios, convinced him that opportunities for live musicians to do commercial work would be narrowing. “I saw all that coming in the ’70s,” he says. “I told people at Juilliard that this was going to take people’s jobs away, and they thought I was crazy!”
One of his first jobs was as a production assistant for a friend who was composing soundtracks; from there, it was a short hop to becoming a producer at a small TV station outside Philadelphia. By the age of 27, Dowling had formed his own company, Medstar Television, to do medical and science programming on a larger scale.
The O.J. Simpson trial in 1995 highlighted the increasing importance of scientific evidence in murder cases—and made Dowling realize that most of the jury “either slept through high school science class or never had it. And I decided, why don’t I do a show about real murder cases and how science solved them?”
Dowling’s earlier show Medical Detectives, which aired on TLC and showed how outbreaks of mysterious illnesses were tracked, evolved into Forensic Files and moved to tru TV in 2000. The pioneering series put a new spin on the “whodunit” genre, with true-to-life re-enactments of intriguing crimes and step-by-step portrayals of how coroners, medical examiners, law enforcement personnel, and other experts in a variety of fields solved these baffling cases through forensic science.
What’s the enormous appeal? “There’s something reassuring to people that science is going to get the bad guy,” says Dowling. He adds, “I also think that forensic science is to students today what the space program was to my generation. If you pay attention in science class, you could be the next guy who contributes to these unbelievable advances.” No doubt there is a certain voyeuristic element as well. “People are fascinated by true crime. In many countries, cases aren’t covered in the press the way they are here,” he says. “You can’t live in New York City and read the New York Post without having some interest in it. The stakes are high, and it changes people’s lives forever, no matter what—and not always for the better. At least there’s the hope that there’s justice.”
Everywhere he goes, Dowling says, the name Juilliard opens doors. “It signifies excellence, and tells people I’m a hard worker.” And the connections resonate constantly; a former drama faculty member, B.H. Barry, even choreographs all the fight scenes for Forensic Files. Just because he isn’t onstage with a symphony orchestra doesn’t mean Dowling isn’t using his Juilliard education every day. “When you get out into the entertainment business,” he says, “you realize that the world behind the stage, the screen, and the TV is far bigger than the world that’s on them.”