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How Law & Order Changed Sam Waterston's Career (And Life) After 16 Seasons

Sam Waterston is an actor whose profile and reputation revolve around the world of "Law & Order." This isn't to say that his career stops and starts with playing District Attorney Jack McCoy though. Waterston had a resume in film, television, and stage, stretching back almost 30 years well before series creator Dick Wolf offered him the role. Waterston's situation isn't particularly unique either. Plenty of actors manage to have an entire career before being offered the role that defines them in the public eye. Patrick Stewart spent 20 years playing everyone from Hamlet's father to Vladimir Lenin before he was cast as Jean-Luc Picard in "Star Trek: The Next Generation." Waterston has stuck with Jack McCoy for quite some time, though, playing him for 16 years, from 1994 until the series wrapped in 2010. That was also before he returned for the reboot in 2022. 

There are plenty of actors who stick with regular roles, and "Law & Order" seems to have had its share. S. Epatha Merkerson played Lieutenant Anita Van Buren for 17 seasons. Jerry Orbach was Detective Lennie Briscoe for 12. And Mariska Hargitay has been playing Captain Olivia Benson on "Law & Order: SVU" for 24 years and counting. All have had their reasons, of course, and it's difficult for any actor to argue with a regular paycheck. However, in Waterston's case, the paycheck isn't the only reason he has stuck with the franchise for so long.

Waterston could take the roles he wanted to take thanks to Law & Order

Speaking with NPR in 2022, Sam Waterston said, "I think 'Law & Order' is a show to be proud of being in." But it also sounds like playing Jack McCoy for so long has allowed him a measure of artistic freedom outside of the show that he might not have otherwise had, especially in the theater. He brought up his roles in Shakespeare plays, as well as his run performing in Eugene O'Neill's "A Long Day's Journey into Night" alongside his son James in 2000. 

"These things were made possible by...the celebrity that came with doing 'Law & Order,'" said Waterston. "It made it possible on short notice to fill up a theater." But this works in the other direction too. We're all familiar with actors who took roles — including some truly wretched ones – and admitted they did it for the money. Thanks to "Law & Order," Waterston didn't have to. If not for the show, he said, "I might have wound up doing other things that I wasn't as glad to be in — dumb roles or dumb projects." 

In other words, it isn't just the paycheck itself that makes a regular TV acting gig worth it. That said, the paycheck itself is pretty nice. "And let's not leave out the fact that [my wife] Lynn and I had four kids who needed to go to school and go to college," added Waterston, "And 'Law & Order' paid for it."