Within a decade, the series spawned a series of spin-offs, including one show, “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” which went on to replace “Gunsmoke” as the TV series. longest ever. (There seems to be one thing America loves more than crime, and that’s sex crime.) Anyone who is anyone can list at least one “Law and Order” credit in a Playbill bio.
The two-part format of “Law & Order,” which Wolf described as a murder mystery, followed by a moral mystery, proved indestructible. Every member of the original cast has left and “Law & Order” continues. (Even after the cancellation, the original never really left. On TNT, it ran and ran in syndication.) Certain characters, however – Waterston’s McCoy, Jerry’s Lennie Briscoe Orbach (12 seasons), Anita Van Buren by S. Epatha Merkerson (17 seasons) – became a metonymy for that very thing: hard work, overcoming, bowing to justice.
Format depends on structure and fixed rhythm. In the early seasons, McCoy had similar scenes in most episodes: cross-examination, meeting in the room, concluding arguments. That can create repetition, but in Waterston’s hands, the formula is rarely formulaic.
“He makes the role and the words incredibly enjoyable,” Wolf told me in a capitalized email. “That requires a level of skill and humanism that not many people have.”
After 12 seasons, the pace took him down, and he was happy enough that, in 2007, moved into the less demanding role of the district attorney, leaving test scenes for younger actors. Sometimes, during those late seasons, Waterston regretted not leaving altogether. “I wondered if I was staying at the fair for too long,” he said. Then the show left him.
However, when “Law & Order” returns, so does Waterston – partly as a courtesy to Wolf, partly as a kind of victory. “It’s been a pleasure to be back and see what we’ve done,” Waterston said. It feels like a waking dream, he said, walking through the rebuilt buildings, now located in Long Island City. (As in the 90s, though, he only signed a one-year contract.)
https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/17/arts/television/sam-waterston-law-and-order.html Sam Waterston Still the Face of ‘Law & Order’