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?
S. EPATHA MERKERSON: 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?
MERKERSON: 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?
MERKERSON: I talked with him yesterday.
How did that go? What was his reaction?
MERKERSON: 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?
MERKERSON: 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?
MERKERSON: 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?
MERKERSON: 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.
MERKERSON: 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?
MERKERSON: 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.
MERKERSON: 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.
MERKERSON: 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.