Sam Waterston Is Still the Face of ‘Law & Order’

Within a decade, it had birthed a litter of spinoffs, including one show, “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” that went on to displace “Gunsmoke” as the longest running television drama ever. (If there’s one thing America loves more than crime, it seems, it’s sex crime.) It helped to reestablish New York City as a viable hub for scripted series, drawing on its deep bench of theater actors. Everyone who’s anyone can list at least one “Law & Order” credit in a Playbill bio.

The two-part format of “Law & Order,” which Wolf has described as a murder mystery followed by a moral mystery, proved indestructible. Every member of the original cast departed and still “Law & Order” kept going. (Even after cancellation, the original never really left. Syndicated episodes ran for years on TNT and later seasons can now be streamed on Peacock.) Still, certain characters — Waterston’s McCoy, Jerry Orbach’s Lennie Briscoe (12 seasons), S. Epatha Merkerson’s Anita Van Buren (17 seasons) — became metonyms for the show itself: hardworking, upstanding, bent on justice.

The format depends on fixed structures and rhythms. In the early seasons, McCoy had similar scenes in nearly every episode: cross-examinations, in-chambers meeting, closing arguments. That could have made for repetitiveness, but in Waterston’s hands, the formula rarely felt formulaic.

“He makes the role and the words unendingly interesting,” Wolf told me in an email. “That takes a level of skill and humanism that not many people possess.”

After 12 seasons, the pace had worn him down, and he was happy enough, in 2007, to move into the less demanding role of district attorney, leaving the trial scenes to younger actors. Sometimes, during those late seasons, Waterston regretted not leaving altogether. “I wondered if I had stayed too long at the fair,” he said. Then the show did the leaving for him.

Yet, when “Law & Order” came back, so did Waterston — partly as a courtesy to Wolf, partly as a kind of victory lap. “It’s nice to come back and just witness the thing we made,” Waterston said. Walking through the rebuilt sets, now housed in Long Island City, felt like a waking dream, he said. (Still, as in the ’90s, he has signed only a one-year contract.)

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