Lay­ing down the law

S Epatha Merk­er­son’s de­par­ture from ‘Law & Or­der’ is no cop-out

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“The thing is, I’ve al­ways said, ‘I’m here, use me’,” says the Detroit­born ac­tress, who can count two Tony nom­i­na­tions and a Golden Globe and an Emmy among her list of ac­co­lades. “It just oc­curred to me that this is the var­i­ous de­tec­tives at the 27th Precinct. She has had a few mo­ments ded­i­cated to her – in 1994, her char­ac­ter shot a menta l ly dis­abled young man dur­ing a rob­bery.

Bu t since then, even her B sto­ries have been dim.

“Some­times we have ove rl o o ke d her, to our

detri­ment,” ad­mits Bal­cer.

“It’s a thank­less role for ac­tors, be­ing the pivot in our first half, yet she’s been able to im­bue it with such moral author­ity you can’t help but no­tice her.”

Pro­duc­ers first no­ticed her in 1991, when she guest-starred in the se­ries’ 17th episode, Mush­rooms, as the mother of a boy who was ac­ci­den­tally shot.

She was called in af­ter one of the show’s pro­duc­ers saw her in a play. She’d never seen the show but had some­one tape it for her.

“I be­came a huge fan,” she says. “And then it was an episode where (the pros­e­cu­tor) lost a case he never should have lost, and I thought, ‘Wow, this is so close to the truth: The good guys don’t al­ways win’.”

Her au­then­tic per­for­mance in that episode im­pressed pro­duc­ers, and in 1993, Merk­er­son came back full-time. She im­me­di­ately took to the char­ac­ter. What might turn out to be the biggest sur­prise for those who haven’t worked with Merk­er­son is that she’s much looser around the of­fice than the lieu­tenant she plays.

“She’s full of low­down lan­guage and colour­ful ex­pres­sion,” says Sam Water­ston, who’s been a cast mem­ber nearly as long as she has,

Merk­er­son is off next to work on a doc­u­men­tary “about African Amer­i­can benev­o­lent so­ci­eties”.

That means they’ll never again get to hear her colour­fully blue greet­ing when she walks on the set.

“It’s a term of en­dear­ment,” she says of the lan­guage of­ten used as an in­sult.

“When I don’t cuss, that’s when you know I’m se­ri­ous.” – Los An­ge­les Times

Law & Or­der is on daily on the Uni­ver­sal chan­nel on DStv.

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