Why Jeffrey Donovan Abruptly Left Law & Order

Jeffrey Donovan's Frank Cosgrove looking over his shoulder in Gimme ShelterIn 2022, Jeffrey Donovan joined the revival of television’s irrepressible series, Law & Order, as the series’ new lead detective, Frank Cosgrove. However, by the premiere of Season 23, he was already gone. The Law & Order franchise is no stranger to pivoting at the last second to address a lead star’s departure, but the tricky thing in this particular situation is that many fans had already become invested in Cosgrove’s character arc.

Of course, Jeffrey Donovan himself was a big part of that fan investment. A veteran of television series like Burn Notice and a handful of big-time films, Donovan’s steely intensity always delivers when he is the star of a series. After introducing Donovan to the Law & Order franchise fanbase, the intention seemed to be clear — Frank Crosgrove was intended to serve as the central series’ new lead character. Then, in November 2023, news broke of Donovan’s imminent exit from the franchise, leaving fans with only one question: why?

Why Was Jeffrey Donovan Brought onto Law & Order?

It Was Time for a Relaunch, and Dick Wolf Thought Donovan Was the Perfect LeadDick Wolf talks television during a panel interview

Created by television legend Dick Wolf, Law & Order is the flagship series of the franchise by the same name that follows detectives and prosecutors as they pursue justice for the New York County District Attorney. The series premiered in 1990 and has become one of North American history’s longest-running scripted television shows.

After spawning a nearly endless series of spin-offs, NBC shockingly canceled Law & Order in May 2010. While various spin-off series continued, the series that launched it all wouldn’t return until 12 years later. That’s when Dick Wolf brought television industry veteran Jeffrey Donovan aboard to become the new face of the returning flagship series.

Outside his unforgettable turn as Michael Weston on the television series Burn Notice, longtime Law & Order franchise fans already had something of a history with Donovan. That’s because, before landing the role of Cosgrobe, Jeffrey Donovan had guest-starred on Law & Order — twice, in fact. After these two minor roles in the series (one as a deceased victim, another as a suspect), Donovan received an offer from Dick Wolf himself to play the series’ newest lead.

After starring in two early episodes of Law & Order more than a dozen years apart, Jeffrey Donovan found himself returning to the series yet again. This time, Donovan was cast as a tough Irish-Catholic detective from the Bronx named Frank Cosgrove and partnered with Anthony Anderson’s Detective Kevin Bernard — a holdover from the show’s prior run from 2008 to 2010.

Why Did Jeffrey Donovan Leave Law & Order?

Did NBC Throw the Book At Him?

Frank Cosgrove leaves the courtroom in Law and Order

Fans fell in love with Jeffrey Donovan’s contributions throughout all ten episodes of Season 22 of Law & Order. Frank Cosgrove’s smarminess and charisma made him an instantly intriguing presence, and although his time on the series was brief, it left an impression and earned the actor many new fans. So, what happened to make Jeffrey Donovan leave the show?

The simple truth is that Law & Order fans will likely never know the actual reasons. When NBC announced that Donovan would be moving on from the franchise, the reason its representatives provided was a simple boilerplate explanation. According to reports, Donovan left Law & Order over “creative differences.” It’s a tale as old as time, even for this franchise, that has seen former stars like Philip Winchester, Elisabeth Rohm, and Angie Harmon leave over similar situations. Even Anthony Anderson departed Law & Order after his brief return in Season 21.

The character Frank Cosgrove is presented as a strong-minded individual with contrary thoughts on issues like the politicization of social media, criticism of law enforcement, and other sociopolitical topics. As a result, Law & Order fans have theorized that Jeffrey Donovan grew apprehensive of portraying a character many in today’s society would associate with ignorance. Of course, that’s purely conjecture, and the only source that fans can trust with any form of accuracy is if Donovan himself addresses the topic.

What Has Jeffrey Donovan Said About His Departure?

Despite His Polarizing Exit, Donovan has Remained Quiet

Bernard and Cosgrove track down a lead with the help of a family picture in Law and OrderWhen Anthony Anderson left Law & Order following the conclusion of the revival season, he explained to Entertainment Tonight, “I wanted to go off and create more shows like Black-ish, create things I have ownership in, and do something a little bit different.” Comparatively, Jeffrey Donovan has been significantly less open about his departure.

In fact, Jeffrey Donovan has still yet to address his exit from Law & Order. Instead, he has remained quiet on the subject. Even more surprisingly, Donovan has no other work in film or television currently announced, and his most recently completed project was the 2023 Western, Surrounded.

How Did Season 22 of Law & Order Set up Frank Cosgrove’s Exit?

Donovan’s Final Episode Saw Frank Castle Rethink His PerspectiveFrank Cosgrove standing in his office looking smug

As surprising as Jeffrey Donovan’s exit from Law & Order was, the writers and executive producers behind the series may have seen the writing on the wall regarding the actor’s willingness to commit to the part. This is supported by the fact that Donovan’s final episode of the series, the finale of Season 22, saw Frank Cosgrove sustain a life-altering injury when a criminal suspect shot him.

Later in that episode, “Appraisal,” Cosgrove awakens in a hospital room and understandably begins questioning his career choice. His motivations are also laid out clearly during a conversation with Executive Assistant District Attorney Nolan Price (played by Hugh Dancy) when Cosgrove tells him, “I almost made my wife a widow the other day, and now you’re telling me it was for nothing.”

Considering how rattled Frank Cosgrove appeared during Jeffrey Donovan’s final episode, it’s entirely plausible that the writers of Law & Order were already laying the groundwork to pave the way for his departure. What happened in the Season 23 premiere only further justifies that interpretation of events.

How Did Season 23 of Law & Order Address Frank Cosgrove’s Exit?

Vincent Riley approaches a suspect armed and ready on a New York street with backup behind him

When Season 23 of Law & Order premiered in January 2024, the series wasted no time introducing audiences to its newest lead detective, Vincent Riley (played by Reid Scott). As Cosgrove’s replacement, Riley has naturally partnered with Cosgrove’s former associate, Detective Jalen Shaw (played by Mehcad Brooks).

During a conversation between Shaw and Riley in the episode “Freedom of Expression,” Riley asks Shaw about what happened to his former partner. In a relatively brief exchange, Shaw explains that Cosgrove was a good cop who was just too honest about his thoughts and beliefs, saying, “Great cop, just got jammed up. Being too honest about things that people aren’t too honest about these days.”

In other words, Frank Cosgrove’s exit from the force had less to do with his injuries and more to dowith his unwillingness to conform to the standards of modern-day society. Was that a subtle jab at the r umors suggesting Jeffrey Donovan wanted to extricate himself from such a contentious character? Perhaps, or perhaps it was discreet confirmation of those same rumors. Ultimately, it’s up to Law & Order fans to form their own opinions on the matter — at least until Jeffrey Donovan finally opens up about Frank Cosgrove’s reason for leaving the NYPD.

 

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