Sam Waterston on His ‘Law & Order’ Goodbye and Getting to “Kill the Bull” One Last Time

[This story contains spoilers from the Feb. 22, 2024 episode of Law & Order, “Last Dance.”]

Jack McCoy left the world of Law & Order the way he came into it — in a courtroom.

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Sam Waterston said goodbye to the long-running NBC franchise in Thursday’s episode, ending his 19-season, 405-episode run as prosecutor-turned-New York County District Attorney Jack McCoy. Waterston’s final episode saw Jack returning to the courtroom to finish trying a murder case in which the defendant is a billionaire with close ties to New York’s mayor.

The episode, titled “Last Dance” and written by showrunner Rick Eid, constructs a solid but not slam-dunk case against Scott Kelton (Rob Benedict), who’s accused of killing a former employee, Veronica Knight (Shay Guthrie), who was about to go public with an accusation that he had sexually assaulted her several years earlier. McCoy instructs prosecutor Nolan Price (Hugh Dancy) not to accept a plea deal with less than a 10-year sentence; the defendant and his lawyer (Tawny Cypress) counter with an offer for a five-year sentence on a lesser charge — which then leads to pressure from the mayor (Bruce Altman), who threatens to drop his endorsement of McCoy in the upcoming election for district attorney and then instruct the new DA to fire Price.

Jack learns of the mayor’s plan and takes Price off the case — putting himself back in the courtroom for the first time in years.

Waterston said he had shared some ideas with the Law & Order writers about how Jack should leave the series, but Eid’s script “wiped it out.”

“I had ideas, which Rick listened to and entertained, and then he delivered a much more graceful and heroic exit than anything I had ever suggested,” Waterston told The Hollywood Reporter. After getting the script for “Last Dance,” he said, “At first I thought, ‘Well, why isn’t he loving my idea?’ Then I thought, ‘Oh, thank you very much.’”

Jack sums up his long-standing ideals in his closing argument, saying, “When I was elected district attorney, I gave a pledge to the citizens of New York to act fairly and ethically, without bias or favor, to always act with integrity. During my time as district attorney, I’ve tried my best to uphold that sacred oath in the pursuit of justice. Now, members of the jury, it’s your turn to act fairly and ethically without bias or favor and find the defendant guilty of murder.”

The jury does just that — and in the next scene, Jack tells Nolan that he has resigned so that the governor can appoint a new district attorney (Tony Goldwyn will play the new DA later in the season). “It’s time. It just is,” he says. “…It’s been a hell of a ride.” The episode ends with Jack looking up at the courthouse where he tried hundreds of cases and walking off into the Manhattan night.

Waterston spoke with THR about leaving Law & Order as the longest-tenured castmember of the original series, why he returned when the show was revived in 2022 and why he’s not in a big hurry to find his next acting work.


It seems fitting that this is the way Jack McCoy’s career in the DA’s office ends, with him getting into the courtroom one last time.

It seemed completely appropriate to me. You asked me to tell you what our alternative plot was. I don’t even really remember. This wiped it out.

What was it like getting back into those trial scenes and getting to exercise those muscles again?

I think Hugh’s got the beauty part in the show. There are lots of other great parts, but only the DA gets to kill the bull. Right? It’s endless fun. And it’s like a little play within a play. So I was always very stimulated by it. That’s why I’m smiling — because Rick gave me that back.

When did you decide that this would be it for you on Law & Order?

I think I always knew there was a time stamp, a use-by date, on the return. I didn’t want to turn on the TV and not see myself on the show when it came back, but at the same time, I knew I didn’t want to be there again for the long term. It’s kind of been that way from the beginning. And then before this season, it became apparent to both Law & Order and to me that this would be a really good time to leave. Then Rick Eid wrote this really graceful exit.

Did you have any hesitation about signing on to the revival a couple of years ago?

Sure I did. It’s really good to find your groove, but you don’t want to let it turn into a rut. So that was one worry. And then there was the feeling that I had already been there, already done that. But I really think it’s a great show, and I really wanted to be part of seeing if I could give it a leg up in coming back. Because who does this? Dick Wolf never quit on the show. And it’s all down to his persistence and perseverance that this came back. [Law & Order] was a great episode in my life. I’m not sure exactly how many seasons I’ve done [Editor’s note: Waterston has been a regular since season five], but I think 400 episodes is about right. And it’s over a 30-year period. It’s a gigantic piece of your life. So I wanted to be there.

Law & Order is a show and a franchise that has been known for cast turnover. You’re the longest-serving castmember on this series and one of the top two or three in the entire Dick Wolf universe. What do you attribute that to, other than just persistence and wanting to keep doing the job?

I think there’s that. And as I said, it’s a wonderful job. One of the things that is tough about it is that it makes so many other things easier in life — paying for your children’s education, doing a play on short notice. I once did a play, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, on short notice, with my son [James] playing my son, and Elizabeth Franz and John Slattery in it. It was all put together in five minutes. The theater made a bet on keeping the season going past when their subscribers were no longer holding tickets, forgoing all their vacations, and sold out the theater for the entire run. And guess why? Because of Law & Order. It made all kinds of wonderful things possible — that’s just an example. The thing you have to guard against is it being so cushy that you never want to leave.

Law & Order is also famous for not focusing much on the characters’ lives outside of the jobs they do. Is that a help or hindrance in playing a character for as long as you have?

Well, it might have been painful had it not been for the fact that the stories themselves were so engaging, so contemporary, so hot — and like I said before, if McCoy wasn’t getting to kill the bull every time. But that was the case. To me, not having my entire emotional life drained into the show meant that there were lots of aspects of what I think I’m able to do as an actor that weren’t being used up.

And then you could apply those elsewhere.

Like in Long Day’s Journey Into Night with Elizabeth Franz, John Slattery and my son.

You did a lot of work in between the two eras of this show, notably on Grace and Frankie. Now that this has come to an end for you, do you have anything else on the horizon? Are you going to take a little time off?

This is the strangest thing. Maybe by training, but I would even say by nature, I’m a working stiff. For the last 60 years or however long it is that I’ve been doing this, I’ve always either been working or very energetically and concentratedly looking for work. Those have been the two gears that I’ve been in for my whole career.

Jerry Orbach used to say that nobody should ever leave a show that’s running. And I would add to that, unless you’re leaving it to join another show that’s running. If the show closes, then you’re looking for another show to do. But this is the first time I ever left without having some clear idea of what I was going to do next, or even what it was that I really wanted to do next. And I’ll tell you what, it’s amazing how much headspace work and looking for work take up without your even knowing it. This happened the day after I left the show. I walked out, and suddenly there was a whole lot more room in my head for all kinds of things. I think my wife would back me up on this — we talk about different things, we think about different things. I’m never going to retire. Show business will have to retire me, or health will have to intervene. But I’m not in as much of a hurry to end this little hiatus as I thought I would be.

What I want to do next is live theater, and I have an idea. It’s something that Joel Grey and I have been wanting to do for quite a while, ever since we worked on it together some years ago. That’s what would be my druthers. But if it takes a minute, that’ll be fine.

What was the last scene you shot?

It was in the courtroom, and everybody showed up, including Dick. They couldn’t have given me a nicer farewell. It was really lovely.

You and Jerry Orbach were designated as “living landmarks” in New York for your long association with Law & Order and the city. Does that give you any special privileges — better tables at restaurants or anything like that?

I don’t think so. And anyway, I’m only half a living landmark. Jerry Orbach is the other half. Mostly when they named living landmarks, they just give it to one person, but they gave it to us as a duo. I’m completely content with that. Any association with Jerry Orbach is OK with me.

Interview edited and condensed.

Law & Order airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. on NBC.

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