Chris Noth, left, George Dzundza, Michael Moriarty and Richard Brooks were the main cast members of the first (1990-91) season of 'Law & Order.'

For, Friday, April 10, 2020

EDITOR’S NOTE: If you’re looking for something to watch on television during our shut-in period due to the pandemic, you could do worse than the stalwart police procedurals/courtroom dramas of the ‘Law & Order’ franchise. Ten years ago the original ‘Law & Order’ TV series left the CBS schedule after 20 years on the air, prompting this treatise on the program’s demise and the ubiquitous reruns of the various ‘L&O’ shows that would continue to fill cable channels — and in 2020 they still do. This column was published on May 28, 2010, and it should be noted that ‘Law & Order: Los Angeles’ was canceled in 2011 after a single season, ‘Law & Order: Criminal Intent’ also ended in 2011 after 10 seasons, and ‘Law & Order: SVU’ remains a Thursday night staple and has just been renewed for the 2020-21 season, which will be the show’s 22nd year, with 476 episodes having been aired as of this date, now the new record-holder for longest-running TV drama!

“Law & Order” is dead — long live “Law & Order.”

Literally, since the reruns are bound to continue forever on various cable channels. And maybe even NBC, if the network’s new fall shows fail.

I once joked that I expected to see a “Law & Order” cable channel pop up one day — and by golly it’s here. Going under the name TNT. At least it feels that way when the original “L&O” series and “SVU” reruns are shown all day and into the night.

Anyway, as “L&O” franchise fans know, “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” received a healthy renewal on NBC and “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” continues on USA (albeit with an all-new cast) and that upstart newcomer “Law & Order: Los Angeles” is scheduled for NBC in the fall.

So it was a bit of a surprise to see the old-timer, “Law & Order: No Subtitle,” bite the dust after 20 years.

Oh I know, the ratings had drastically dipped in the beloved youth-market demographic. Only old fuddy-duddies like me seemed to be watching it these days.

And since everyone knows that over-50s never buy cars or toothpaste or cold remedies, NBC’s losses in ad revenue prompted the network to call it a day.

Too bad. “Law & Order” in any form just won’t be the same without Sam Waterston lurking around.

Or S. Epatha Merkerson, who holds the record as the longest running continuous “L&O” character, Lt. Anita Van Buren.


Linus Roache, left, Alan de la Garza and Sam Waterston starred in the final season of 'Law & Order' (2009-2010).

And despite what other critics may say, I thought “L&O” had earned a new lease on life with the current cast. I’ve especially enjoyed the one-upmanship between district attorney Jack McCoy (Waterston) and his top dog Michael Cutter ().

Their verbal sparring was the treat of the past two seasons, as McCoy saw a little too much of his impetuous younger self in Cutter. I’m sorry to see that go away.

Not that I’ve seen all the “L&O” episodes … but then, who has? After all, over 20 years the program has churned out 456 shows.

Producer Dick Wolf had hoped to win the crown for longest-running prime-time drama, which has been held forever by “Gunsmoke’s” two decades(1955-75). But, alas, it is now a tie. Although, with 635 episodes under its gunbelt, “Gunsmoke” ekes out the lead on a technicality.

One thing about “L&O” that I’ve found interesting over the years is how many of the rotating regular cast members actually made early appearances on “Law & Order” as other characters.

The show has had many well-known guest stars, of course, but it may hold some kind of record for actors who did one-shot episodes, then went on to earn series-regular status.

In the annals of television history, there are two such examples that have gained some kind of geek notoriety.

One was when Harry Morgan played a crazy general in the first episode of Season 3 on “M*A*S*H” and then became Col. Potter from Season 4 through end of the 11-year series.


S. Epatha Merkerson, left, Chris Noth, Sam Waterston, Jerry Orbach and Jill Hennessy were 'Law & Order's' lead players for the fourth, fifth and sixth seasons (1993-96).

The other is when Jerry Orbach played an attorney during “Law & Order’s” second season, then landed the iconic role of Det. Lennie Briscoe in the third season and remained with the show for 12 years!

But Orbach wasn’t the only one who had a “Law & Order” role before becoming a regular cast member.

Jeremy Sisto, who has been Det. Cyrus Lupo for the past three seasons, played a different character in a Season 17 episode.

Melina Govich was in a 16th season episode before becoming Det. Nina Cassidy for the 17th season.

Michael Imperioli, who had a five-episode run as Det. Nick Falco in Season 15, played a different role in a Season 6 episode.

Annie Parisse was in a Season 12 episode before becoming assistant D.A. Alexandra Borgia in Season 15.

And before J.K. Simmons became recurring character Dr. Emil Skoda, he appeared in a Season 4 episode as someone else.

Then there’s Anthony Anderson, who has played Det. Kevin Bernard for the past two seasons. He had a role as a different detective in the seventh season of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.”

Even Lt. Van Buren herself … er, S. Epatha Merkerson … played a different character in a Season 1 episode of “Law & Order” before landing the long-running Van Buren role in Season 4.

For me, the original is “Law & Order Classic.”

Cherry, Vanilla and Diet are all pretty good — but only one is the Real Thing.