You’ve seen him on ‘Law & Order’ for 18 seasons and now he’s quitting the show

Sam Waterston has said a bittersweet farewell to Law & Order. The veteran actor portrayed scrappy District Attorney Jack McCoy from 1994 until the show went off the air in 2010, and when it came back in 2022, so did Waterston. But now, he’s moved on.

In a letter addressed to fans on February 2, 2024, the actor revealed that Season 23 will be his last, with him appearing as McCoy for the final time in the fifth episode of the season, which aired February 22.

Why Sam Waterston left Law & Order

“Greetings, you wonderful people,” Waterston wrote. “It’s a pleasure to talk directly like this to the backbone of Law & Order’s absolutely amazing audience. The time has come for me to move on and take Jack McCoy with me. There’s sadness in leaving, but I’m just too curious about what’s next. An actor doesn’t want to let himself get too comfortable. I’m more grateful to you than I can say. L&O’s continuing and amazing long run, along with its astounding comeback, is all thanks to you and to Dick Wolf, but for whose vision, patience, perseverance, and unique combination of creative and business talents, none of this would have happened. I feel very blessed. I hope to see you all on the flip side.”

DA Jack McCoy sits at a desk in court on Law and Order Episode 2305

DA Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston) on Law & Order Season 23, Episode 5 “Last Dance.” Photo: Virginia Sherwood/NBC
Why did Jack McCoy leave Law & Order?
When the body of a dating app founder was found in Central Park in Season 23, Episode 5, detectives identified “tech titan” Scott Kelton as the prime suspect. After McCoy announced the charges against him, New York City’s mayor, whom Kelton was an important donor to, had harsh words for the DA. “I hope you know what the hell you’re doing,” the mayor told McCoy. “The man is a New York icon, second only to the Statue of Liberty, for God’s sake.”

Prosecutors then learned that the mayor’s son Jordan was on the business trip to St. Barts where Kelton allegedly raped the murder victim years earlier. Jordan did not want to testify though, since he was on the trip with a woman who wasn’t his wife.

The mayor later called Executive Assistant District Attorney Nolan Price into a meeting, telling him his “son is off limits” and insisting that Price cut a plea deal with Kelton. The mayor added, “if you subpoena my son, I will bury you. I will pull my support for McCoy and use my immense power to make sure his opponent is elected. And the very first official act of this new district attorney will be to fire you in a very public and demeaning manner.”

McCoy told Nolan that the DA’s office “can’t let the mayor’s office dictate how we proceed.” He then took Nolan off the case and argued the case himself in court. Despite McCoy getting a guilty verdict on second-degree murder for Kelton, he later dropped a bombshell on Nolan while celebrating the win. McCoy said he put in his resignation, saying “It’s time” and referring to the mayor as “vindictive.”

“He’s gonna call in every chit he has to make sure my opponent wins the election, and he’ll succeed. Then, he’s going to bury everyone who wronged him, including you,” McCoy told Price. Stepping aside now would help ensure that the governor could appoint “someone with integrity.”

18 years of Jack McCoy
Waterston played McCoy in more than 400 episodes of Law & Order. Hard-working with a temper he endeavors to keep under control, McCoy is twice-divorced, with a somewhat estranged daughter. By the end of the 22nd season, they were close enough that McCoy knew about his first grandchild.

D.A. Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston) in a scene from Law & Order.D.A. Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston) appears in a scene from Law & Order, Season 22 Episode 21. Photo: Peter Kramer/NBC
McCoy was willing to bend and even break the rules to put the bad guys behind bars, and doesn’t suffer fools. Though not entirely without mercy, McCoy supports the death penalty. He also had affairs with a number of female colleagues over the years.

“Obviously I haven’t really been trying hard to escape [Jack McCoy]. Because here I am after a 10, 12-year break, right back where I was before,” Waterston told NBC Chicago in April 2023. “I consider myself extraordinarily lucky to have such a long run doing something of real quality that really talks to this country in plain language about what’s going on right now today. It’s just been a wonderful blessing.”

With nearly a hundred credits to his name, Sam Waterston is one of the more recognizable actors of the 20th and 21st centuries. Even if you’ve somehow never watched an episode of Law & Order, you might have seen Waterston on programs like The Newsroom, The Dropout or Grace & Frankie.

Law And Order Jack Mccoy

Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston) on Law & Order. Photo: NBCU Photo Bank; Will Hart/NBC
In film, Waterston appeared in classics like Serial Mom, Hannah and Her Sisters, The Killing Fields and The Great Gatsby (1974). And every year, schoolchildren across the country listen to him provide the voice of Abraham Lincoln in Ken Burns’ seminal documentary series, The Civil War.

Throughout his career, he has been nominated for Tonys, Emmys, Golden Globes, and Academy Awards.

Sam Waterston off-screen
Waterston has four children, including daughter Katherine Waterston, who is also an actor and guest starred in Law & Order’s Season 22 finale. You may have seen her in the Fantastic Beasts film series.

Sam Waterston and Elisabeth Waterston together.

Sam Waterston and Elisabeth Waterston during New York Times Book Series Reading Excerpts from F.Scott Fitzgeralds’s The Great Gatsby at Border Books in New York City, New York, United States. Photo: Jim Spellman/WireImage
“That topped everything,” he told TV Insider about her role. “She’s a beautiful actress, quick to react, full of intelligence and ready emotion. I have three actor children, and there isn’t anything more fun than acting with them.”

Watch Law & Order on Peacock and on NBC.

Originally published Feb 2, 2024.

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