Sam Waterston Is Ready for ‘Law & Order’ to ‘Contribute to the Conversation’ Again: ‘We’re All Mad as Hell’

When longtime “Law & Order” fans discuss the show coming back for a historic 21st season, it’s impossible not to hear the anticipation in their voices. The same goes for star Sam Waterston, who will be back on the NBC procedural when the series returns Feb. 24 after more than a decade off the air. In fact, the man behind District Attorney Jack McCoy couldn’t help raising his voice in excitement when asked about setting foot on the famous set again.

“It was totally surreal. Unbelievable,” says Waterston, who appeared on nearly 400 episodes of the mothership series, from seasons 5 to 20. “It’s a step back in time. They built the 42 sets in every detail down to the books on the shelves to the linoleum on the floor. You know perfectly well that it wasn’t all being done for you, but you can’t escape the feeling that you’re being given this opportunity to step back in time in your own life.” Waterston, like the rest of the cast and crew, was shocked when Season 20 came to an abrupt end in 2010. It was the cancellation heard round the world, as most industry insiders expected the drama to break the record then held by “Gunsmoke.” At the time, the Western reigned as the longest-running primetime dramatic series, with 21 seasons airing on CBS from 1955 to 1975.

As it turns out, a “Law & Order” show was destined to break the “Gunsmoke” mark: “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” did it in 2019. “Law & Order” got the ax in 2010 in part because the series had become expensive after being on the air for so long. At that time, NBCUniversal was also in the midst of changing ownership from General Electric to Comcast. Despite that, the decision has come to be seen as very shortsighted given the importance of the “Law & Order” universe to NBC.

“I’ve been thinking about ‘Law & Order’ coming back since the day it was canceled. There’s no better time than now to bring the show back,” Dick Wolf tells Variety of the 2022 renewal. “There are very few things in life that are literally dreams come true. ‘Law & Order’ returning is mine.”

Waterston recalls, “Dick, from the day that they suspended the show — I guess it’s fair to say a suspension because it’s coming back — he’s been saying that that was a terrible mistake, and they should bring it back. And every time I’ve seen him, he’s said that. Five years ago, he almost did it. He really is perseverance personified because he never gave this up. Having people like that involved in your career, I don’t know how you have a career without them.”

Longtime Wolf collaborator Rick Eid, who was an executive producer on the original show, is serving as showrunner. “It feels great to be back. It was really an amazing feeling to be on set,” the writer says. “It was also amazing to see how emotional Dick was. This show is incredibly important to him.”

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Waterston appeared on seasons 5 to 20 of the original series. Image courtesy of Virginia Sherwood/NBC

This season, there will be some new and returning faces filling the courtroom. Hugh Dancy joins as senior ADA Nathan Price, Jeffrey Donovan plays senior detective Frank Cosgrove, Camryn Manheim takes on Lt. Kate Dixon and Odelya Halevi portrays junior ADA Samantha Maroun. The additions have “distinct perspectives and opinions, which will hopefully create compelling drama and informative cultural conversations,” says Eid.

“It’s a great time for the original ‘Law & Order’ to be on the air. It’s a show about crime, but it’s really a show about society. The murder plot is a way into examining various political, social and economic issues from several different perspectives,” the producer continues. “We haven’t made any intentional tonal changes, per se, but the world has definitely changed significantly since 2010, so the tone will probably feel different simply because the world is different.”

The series will continue its classic format, following three police officers investigating a crime and three DAs prosecuting offenders. “There’s nothing to fix; we just want to continue telling great stories,” Wolf says. The same goes for the show’s take on the cultural landscape and the nation’s many divisive issues.

“We’re not shying away from any of those [timely] conflicts. In fact, it’s always been the goal of the show to get people throwing their shoes at the television, and certainly there are issues that are going to infuriate people and frustrate people about how they turned out,” Waterston says. “That’s the pleasure of watching ‘Law & Order’; there is a resolution but there’s a lot of dissatisfaction with the way it goes. It feels, to me, like ‘Law & Order’ might have something to contribute to the general conversation because we’re all mad about something. We’re all mad as hell about something right now and mad at each other. For us to get these big issues aired, and to have not a conclusion but a resolution of some kind that you can chew on, might be a useful service.”

But Waterston admits he had a moment of hesitation when the notion of returning to “Law & Order” became a reality.

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Waterston, Linus Roache and Alana De La Garza appear on a Season 19 episode. Nicole Rivelli/NBCU Photo Bank

“I thought at first, ‘Haven’t I done this already?’” the actor recalls, but ultimately he feels that if he didn’t return, he’d regret it. “I’m so glad I didn’t miss this chance, because you’re racing through your life and you’re in a big hurry all the time. You don’t really get much opportunity to ever look at it or look back at it or look down at it at the height of it. You know, a life is a big deal.”

It’s been a decade since the world has had an insight into McCoy’s life. It’s only natural that things have changed — “Every cell in your body” does, Waterston says.

“It does feel familiar, but we are completely different people. The structure of the show, the names of the characters, they’re there from the past. But I feel like I have to find a new way to live in the show,” he says. “I think that’s what will make it interesting. We’re going to do that together. It’s the same show but it’s a new day. The new people who Jack will be working with most of the time are going to change McCoy, and the relationships will be different. It’s really the most extraordinary thing, the overlays of past and present.”

“I don’t think he’s gotten weary. In his heyday, he was a happy warrior, and I think he still is. I don’t know how much he’s changed. Ask me in six or seven episodes.”

For many, including Wolf, Waterston’s rock-ribbed prosecutor is the moral center of a series that tackles a moral mystery every week. “He is the ultimate conscience of the show, and I look forward to him emulating the career of New York District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, who served until he was 90,” the big boss says.

When Waterston hears that, he can’t help being impressed. “I don’t know how long I’ll be on ‘Law & Order,’” he laughs. “But if my career lasts as long as Robert Morgenthau’s, I will have nothing to complain about at all.”