Exclusive: S. Epatha Merkerson exits 'Law & Order'

epatha-merkersonImage Credit: Virginia Sherwood/NBC It’s the end of an era. After 16 years on the job, Law & Order‘s S. Epatha Merkerson is turning in the badge she wore as BS-free Lt. Van Buren at the end of the season. The Emmy-winning actress just phoned to discuss her emotional decision and what it may mean for her cancer-stricken alter ego.

How did you arrive at this decision?
It’s a graceful way to go. It’s the end of my contract this year, and the storyline has been so perfect. I’ve given it my best for 16 years. It’s time to move on. I’m doing other things and this will be a great way to leave what has been an extraordinary gig.

When did you make the decision?
It was probably midseason when I realized my contract was up. And I just looked at the things that I’ve been doing, and the show takes a lot of commitment. And I just felt like I wanted to do some other things.

When did you talk to Dick Wolf?
I talked with him yesterday.

How did that go? What was his reaction?
It was great. Dick is a great guy. And one of the things that I wanted to let him know was how much this job has meant to me and how I’ve appreciated the opportunity. We have a decent relationship, so he understood.

Did he try to talk you out of it?
No, he didn’t try to talk me out of it because he knows me. [Laughs] After 16 years you get to know each other. And he knows it wasn’t something I thought of overnight. He wished me well. As I do everyone on the show. It was a dream gig.

Did the cancer storyline impact your decision at all? Did it get you thinking about maybe saying goodbye to Van Buren?
It was a combination of things. I have no idea how this is going to end; the [final] scripts are just coming out now. And now that they know that I’m leaving they might make some changes. To me it felt like good timing. It’s a great way to send off the character.

Do you have a preference as to whether she lives or dies?
Not necessarily. Van Buren is a hell of a character. How ever they decide to take her out it’ll be worthy of the character. Either way it’ll be great for me because I get to act it. [Laughs]

The show itself is in limbo. There’s no guarantee it’ll even come back.
They say that every other year and the show always comes back. It’s a great show. It’s well written. It has great integrity. It has a huge following. They don’t discuss that stuff with me personally, but I never believe it.

It’s going to go on forever, isn’t it?
Unfortunately, if we keep killing each other there are stories to write. But I think it’ll surpass Gunsmoke. It has survived many castmembers, as I’m well aware of; I’ve been around for many of them. And it’ll survive Van Buren not being there.

Favorite memory?
That’s a hard one. I loved singing three-part harmony with Jerry [Orbach] and Jesse [Martin]. Jerry and Jesse knew every song that was ever recorded from Broadway. The thing that I hold dear is that even with everyone coming and going, I still keep in touch with most everyone. They’re still very much a part of my life, and I don’t think that will change.

This must be emotional for you. Sixteen years is a long time.
It was. But I’m taking all the good with me. It was 16 years of employment — actors rarely have that experience. And so I know that I’m really, really lucky, because that’s what we look for — the next gig. And I’ve always been able to say, “I’m going back to Law & Order.” But the things that I’m doing now are interesting and challenging. I’m producing and directing a documentary about African-American benevolent societies. It’s exciting for me to be able to learn new things. I’m sure it will be emotional, but right now I’m just really happy for having had the opportunity.

Comments (216 total) Add your comment
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  • Cassie

    Please, L&O gods: Do NOT do to Lt. Van Buren what you did to Captain Ross!! :(

    • Fawn

      Thanks jackhole!!!!! spoiler Alert would have been nice. Maybe some people haven’t watched it yet, because maybe they have a life or are out of town.

      • fifty8th

        After something has aired are people supposed to wait a month to openly talk about it?

    • Andrea Cole

      I watch all of the Law & Order’s and enjoy them all, but why did you have to kill of Captain Ross the way you did? Who’s going to take over for him on C.I.? Maybe Lt.Van Buren from Law & Order? Now that she’s leaving!!

    • Ken

      @ Cassie: What happened to Captain Ross?

    • Mrs. Frisby

      I agree. I can’t believe he went out that way! Grrrrrrrrr.

      • DEAFBOY101


  • Sara Black

    Oh, it’s so sad to see her leave! She’s a great actress and her character one of my favorite!!! Good luck in the future, ms Merkerson! I’ll remember you!!!


      I for one am glad she is gone – the whole storyline of her having cancer and getting treated was awkwardly shoved into every episode and had no flow with whatever the plot of that episode was. I rolled my eyes everytime she had a lame dramatic moment – talking softly to her doctor on the phone, etc – It seemed like an obvious attempt to get an Emmy

      • renee

        fortunately most people don’t feel like you. amazing actress portraying a multi layered amazing woman. my heart sinks at knowing you’re leaving, but since i watch everything you do, glad to hear you’re not retiring from the biz. continued success epatha.

      • steve

        I feel like PAINS, renee. Maybe most don’t feel like you, which is why L&O’s ratings have plummetted and she’s getting the boot under the guise of “moving on to other projects?” Try looking past the surface for a change.

      • A J

        Cynical much?

        I, for one, do not agree.

      • mike

        @steve: she’s an amazing actress. She brought a realness to the show that no other actor could. How can you even think that they pushed her out?

      • Charles

        I don’t like the cancer story line, but not because of the reasons Growing mentioned. I am a L&O fanatic and one of the things that has always set it apart and it made it unique from all other cop shows, other than the strict 50/50 Police/DA hour structure, is that with the exception of just a handful of episodes over 20 years, like Lenny’s daughter’s death, we never see their families and know almost NOTHING about the character personal lives. Except what they mention to each to other on the job or we read between the lines. The entire focus is on what they do at work, which is a refreshing difference from the constant soap opera “who’s sleeping with who” distractions of most other cop and doctor shows. L&O has always been about the business of justice, or as Jack Webb would have put it, “Just the facts”. That said, I’ll miss deeply her character, almost as much as I miss Lenny…

      • bringbackrocky

        She’s already got an Emmy so I doubt the reason for the cancer story is as cynical as you make it out to be. Great actress who has given her all – she will be missed dearly!

      • Liz

        I always loved her character and the actress herself. I thought the cancer storyline was handled with great sensitivity. I am going to miss her. If you didn’t like the way the story line was handled, why did you continue to watch?

      • Liz

        Oh, one other comment to “Growing”: Ms. Merkerson already has n EMMY! She got it for her phenomenal work in Lakawanna Blues!

      • MouseHaven

        Oh, by the way she doesn’t write her story lines! What’s up with that comment. She’s an excellent actress, and I will miss her performances, but wish her much success in her endeavors. Viva Epatha!!!

      • david

        I agree with you, and to do so is without any disrespect to Ms. Merkerson, her character, her acting -which is fine with me- or breast cancer. You are right: its awkward disease-of-the-week cliches that have little to do with the plot or show in general; the minor storyline seems contrived and forced.

      • Im Right

        Since when did character development become a soap opera? Law and order, csi, and all their spinoffs, are the SAME without character development. CSI, CSI MIAMI, CSI NY, L&O, L%O SVU, L&O CI, NCIS, NCIS: LA, CRIMINAL MINDS and their future spin off are all he same. crime of the week, weak characters.

      • Poppy

        Having lived with someone who worked while fighting cancer, I can tell you that her portrayal has been very realistic. Cancer does interrupt one’s life and makes people uncomfortable when they must deal with the reality of a loved one or a friend going through this. L&O has always dealt realistically with the lives of the human beings who are the justice system. Think of Lenny Briscoe’s alcoholism and his drug abusing daughter, Jack McCoy’s issues with his father, Ray Curtis’s wife, Mike Logan’s childhood abuse, etc. It’s part of what makes the characters human and believable.

      • maejames

        1. L&O is not a show about clown detectives there is realism that other police shows do not have without being graphic. 2. Have you ever worked with someone with a major illness? Do you know how it effects everyone; family, church, work, etc. I hope you don’t have to find out.

      • BigBlackRod

        I WAS gonna jump down your throat about Miss Merkerson, but I see the others got you already. Nimrod. PEACE.

      • allie

        I’m confident you’re one in a million—there’s an ass for every seat. Take yours.

    • Sean

      Wow, people never cease to amaze me with their unkind words and cynical points of view. I hope they receive better from the world then they give. Personally, I wish to commend the actress on 16 years of solid work and wish her and Law & Order the best in the future.

      • Shirley

        Ms. Merkersen is a fine actress. She is not just acting a part for the show….she really does have cancer. The writers should be commended for allowing her to leave her legacy, since she has been a great contribution to the show.

    • Fran Frazee

      For all my TV watching (I’m 81 this year), I have never enjoyed an actress (character) as much as Miss Merkersen. I truly hope she finds a new spot – one I can watch. I was on the edge of my seat before I really knew that she had not (Thank God) pulled a personal cancer ailment into her L&O role. Good Luck, Babe!

  • Dee

    End of an era.

    • mishka

      End of three eras. I wish you the best, Ms Merkerson.

    • Elizabeth


  • Patrick Hall

    Umm wasn’t it just announced that L&O was renewed for a 21st season?

    • :P

      she was on the show 16 seasons. come on, try to keep up.

      • evan

        Law and Order has been on since 1990. Perhaps, you should try to keep up?

      • Gayle

        Actually she was on L&O prior to playing the character Lt Van Buren. She played a janitor on an early episode when Chris Noth was one of the detectives.

      • Carolyn

        You are so right Gayle, I remember that she let out a blood curdling scream that pierced the heart when she was told that her son had been killed in the episode. That was the first or second year of the show. Ms. Merkerson is a fantastic actress, I will miss her.

      • JMB

        I think the comment was meant for the interview question which says “The show itself is in limbo. There’s no guarantee it’ll even come back.” So the commenter was pointing out that the show was indeed renewed. Try to keep up.

    • perrey

      Before Lt. Van Buren, Dan Florek was on the show as the Captain. Then he was transferred out, before showing up in a L&O Movie on NBC that re-united him with Chris Noth. When SVU premiered, he reprised the character again. Chris Noth went on to do Sex and the City, then reprised his L&O character briefly on Criminal Intent. Whew!! So anyway, the Van Buren character wasn’t around untill the fourth season.

  • MiaS

    You will be missed!
    Thanks for an incredible 16 years.
    Boy, does time fly.
    I wish you continued success in everything you do.
    One of your fans,

  • Alia

    What a classy woman. She’ll be missed on L&O, but I’m looking forward to seeing what she’ll do next.

  • Patrick Hall

    And what has happened to Capt. Ross? I haven’t seen the last season of CI

    • sunny

      shot and killed. You missed the new season of Criminal Intent.

      No its not an April Fools joke

      • Jeff

        I never liked Bogosian, he always looked like he had a poodle stuck on his head. Glad to hear his character’s gone.

  • BlatantURLPimpingMustDie

    L&O is still on?

  • Sarah

    She is amazing ! Have ya’ll seen her in Lackawana Blues ? Stellar performance !

  • Ruby Red

    I am sooo disappointed that S. Epatha Merkerson is leaving. Anita Van Buren was, after Lenny Brisco, my favorite character on L&O. I hope they let the Lt. retire and she can marry Frank (Ernie Hudson’s character)

    • Susan

      Yes, don’t kill her off with cancer, let her leave with her love — not to be a corny romantic. Positive things happen in life, and L&O shows enough of the ugly side already.

    • bootsycolumbia

      She is married to Frank. In one of the first episodes this season, when she found out she has cancer, she said in the doctor’s office that she’d just gotten married.

      • Point

        I hope she did better with this husband as her real life husband wrecked havoc on everyone’s life. She was so smart to rid herself from that narcissist.

  • clydebarrow

    April Fools.

  • Anne

    Sad to see her go, I just hope they don’t kill her off…I wouldn’t even have thought about it except for the cancer storyline.

  • J

    She’ll always be Reba the Mail Lady to me.

  • Captain Ross

    Please Mr. Wolf, do not send Anita to cop heaven with me. The least you could do is finally promote her to captain on her way out of the 25th precinct.

    Lt. Van Buren will be missed.

    • sunny

      and keep her romance going. She deserves a happy retirement.

      • ks

        agreed, and I will miss her

    • Bill from Las Vegas

      Captain one of those bullets must have scrambled your brains, Van Buren’s precinct is the TWO-SEVEN not the two-five!!!!

  • kaydevo

    Good for her! What a great run for a great actor and a beloved character. Van Buren has such a dignity and decency about her. She’ll be missed. But I’m sure S.E.M. will go on to do good things.

    • Carolae

      I agree….”beloved character”. She put her whole self into that part. What I always admired about her was how she handled herself in every situation; her professionalism; her delivery of lines and much more. You just have to respect this woman for what she has accomplished in 16 years. She is a big asset and one that will make any show proud of having her on it.

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