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Sam Waterston talks about his final 'Law & Order' episode and Jack McCoy's 'beautiful exit'

Meredith Blake, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

NEW YORK — "It's been a hell of a ride."

With those parting words, Jack McCoy stepped down from his job as Manhattan district attorney after decades of public service — and Sam Waterston bid farewell to his signature role on "Law & Order" after 19 seasons and 405 episodes spread over 30 years.

To put this run into perspective, Waterston made his debut appearance as McCoy in September 1994 in the Season 5 premiere of "Law & Order" — the same week that "ER" and "Friends" premiered on NBC. The Dick Wolf procedural — which famously told stories about "the police who investigate crime and the district attorneys who prosecute the offenders" was already a well-established hit, but it had yet to become a ubiquitous, seemingly indestructible pop culture franchise.

Waterston, who joined the series after the contentious departure of actor Michael Moriarty, helped prove that the format was durable enough to withstand major cast shakeups. Yet he also became the closest thing "Law & Order" had to a central protagonist — the "ultimate conscience of the show," as Wolf has put it.

Well before male antiheroes took over TV, Waterston played McCoy as a no-nonsense attorney who was passionate about justice but also willing to bend the rules in order to obtain a conviction — a prickly character whose sharp edges were somehow softened by Waterston's soothing voice and avuncular demeanor. And though McCoy's personal life was hinted at only fleetingly throughout the series, the character clearly wrestled with private demons (including a proclivity for affairs with his glamorous assistant district attorneys).

A Yale-educated actor who has played Hamlet on Broadway, Waterston admits there was a time he looked down on TV. Initially, he only planned to do a single season of "Law & Order." But Waterston remained on the series until it was canceled in 2010. He is the rare actor to star in a long-running TV series who managed not to be pigeonholed by the part that made him famous, working continually in the dozen years "Law & Order" was off the air in shows including "Grace and Frankie." He agreed to reprise his role when NBC revived the series in 2022, anchoring a new cast that included Hugh Dancy as assistant district attorney Nolan Price. But earlier this month, NBC announced that Waterston would be leaving the series, with Tony Goldwyn set to star as the incoming D.A.

 

Waterston's farewell episode — written by Rick Eid and Pamela Wechsler and fittingly titled "Last Dance" — follows the case of Scott Kelton (Rob Benedict), a billionaire tech mogul who is accused of murdering a young woman in Central Park. Mayor Robert Payne (Bruce Altman), whose son is implicated in the case, pushes the D.A.'s office to cut a deal with Kelton — or else he'll support McCoy's opponent in the coming election. McCoy resists the pressure and decides to try the case himself, urging the jury to rule fairly and without prejudice despite the high-profile defendant. It works: Kelton is convicted. Over a celebratory drink with Price, he announces he's going to retire so that the governor can appoint "someone with integrity" to the job. In the closing shot of the episode, McCoy stands alone at night outside the Supreme Court building in Lower Manhattan — then walks off into the darkness.

The Times recently spoke via Zoom with Waterston, who will play Franklin Roosevelt in Tyler Perry's upcoming World War II drama "Six Triple Eight." At 83, he is eager to tread the boards once again — and to continue working as steadily as he has for the last six decades.

"Actors don't really get to tell the future," he said. "But I'm open for business. If anybody's reading this and thinking, 'Oh, too bad. He retired.' I haven't retired."

Q: Let's start with the obvious: Why did you decide to leave now?

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