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Sam Waterston joined "Law & Order" in Season Five and is the show's longest-tenured cast member.Will Hart / NBC

Jack McCoy had one 'hell of a ride' on ‘Law & Order.’ Sam Waterston tells us why it was a ‘wonderful’ one for him

"Law & Order" legend Sam Waterston reflects on his time as Jack McCoy in an interview with TODAY.com as his time comes to an end on the historic NBC drama.

/ Source: TODAY

It’s only right after more than 400 episodes that Jack McCoy’s time on “Law & Order” ends where it began: in the courtroom.

Sam Waterston has portrayed the no-nonsense EADA-turned-DA for 19 seasons, beginning in 1994 during the show’s fifth season until Season 20 in 2010, when the show went off the air. He reprised his role as the district attorney when news broke that Dick Wolf, creator and executive producer of the “L&O” franchise, revived “Law & Order” in 2021.

Waterston reflected on his time as McCoy and the “parade of good fortune” he has experienced over the course of his career in a recent interview with TODAY.com.

“We don’t get to decide how we’ll be remembered or even if we’ll be remembered,” he says about McCoy’s legacy. “I’ve done a lot of stuff in my life. It won’t be a bad thing at all if people think, ‘Oh, that’s the guy who played Jack McCoy.’ That’ll be fine with me.”

Sam Waterston on Law and Order
Sam Waterston as Executive ADA in Season 12 (left) and as the district attorney in Season 23 (right).NBC

Amid the news of “Law & Order’s” revival in 2021, Wolf described Waterston’s portrayal of McCoy as the “perfect pitch” for “a character who both reflects and expands our ability to understand the law.” He even described McCoy as “the ultimate conscience of the show” and compared McCoy’s career to that of New York District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, who held the position until he was 90 (Waterston is currently 83 years old). Morgenthau was involved in some of New York’s most high-profile cases, including the murder of John Lennon, beginning in the 1970s until his retirement in 2009.

“Anybody who’s got anything to do with the DA’s office in Manhattan could not (not) have Morganthau on their mind because his stamp is all over the office,” Waterston says.

“I think the whole point and purpose of the DA’s office on the show, and probably in real life too, is to get it right, and the ADA is sort of the standard-bearer along with the DA,” he continues. “But I always thought when McCoy got to work, every morning, that was what he had in mind and to get the bad guys.”

Since the return of “Law & Order” to NBC in 2022 for Season 21, McCoy’s subordinates, EADA Nolan Price (Hugh Dancy) and ADA Samantha Maroun (Odelya Halevi), have been front and center as the prosecutors in the courtroom, consulting McCoy about cases in between visits to court.

But during the show’s original run, McCoy dominated in the courtroom with impassioned pleas and tactics that sometimes went so far that they resulted in a judge ruling him in contempt of court. His sarcastic one-liners weren’t always for the faint of heart, but he always had the best interests of the victims at his core — even if that sometimes conflicted with the rules of the law.

One of the best examples of McCoy embodying these traits is appropriately from the last episode in the show’s original run, “Rubber Room,” when he confronts the lawyer for a teacher, who is key in offering information that could help diffuse an online threat to blow up a school. The lawyer tells his client she doesn’t have to talk without a subpoena, and McCoy stops the teacher and her lawyer on their way out.

McCoy emphasizes his need for the teacher to talk to them. The teacher’s lawyer intervenes, again referencing the subpoena.

“Just how far up your ass is your head?” McCoy says to him. “A member of your union is threatening to shoot up a school!”

“If your obstruction allows a massacre to happen, I will crucify you,” McCoy tells him, adding he’ll also charge him with negligent homicide, resign from his job as DA after convicting him and represent the victims’ families in a wrongful death suit.

“By the time I’m done, you’ll be finished,” McCoy says. “So my advice to you is, get out of my way!”

And he does, in fact, get out of McCoy’s way and allows the teacher to give the team the information they need, which eventually leads them to the appropriate school to apprehend the armed suspect.

Waterston credits “Law & Order” powerhouse director and executive producer Ed Sherin, who passed away in 2017, for how his enthusiasm came through during some of his most impassioned zingers.

“Ed Sherin, who was the magnificent artistic leader, showrunner when I was there — 90% of the time that I was there — was a master at getting people’s heart in the work. He used to accuse me of taking it all too seriously, but it’s his own fault.”

Sherin wasn’t the only one who thought Waterston took his role too seriously. The actor says his wife, former model Lynn Louisa Woodruff, had similar thoughts of her own.

“My wife used to say in the heart of the season I was a different person than I was on hiatus,” he explains. “These are a lot of grim stories, and they get under your skin.”

What happened during Sam Waterston's last 'Law & Order' episode?

Viewers get a taste of that McCoy again in his final “Law & Order” episode, “Last Dance,” which aired Feb. 22 on NBC.

After Detectives Jalen Shaw (Mehcad Brooks) and Vincent Riley (Reid Scott) investigate the murder of a woman in Central Park, they work with their lieutenant, Kate Dixon (Camryn Manheim), to zero in on a tech billionaire named Scott Kelton as their main suspect.

After Shaw and Riley arrest Kelton, McCoy gives a press conference about the tech mogul’s arrest and subsequent charge in connection with the murder.

The mayor speaks next, and a reporter points out Kelton donated a lot of money to his campaign and that the two have had a long relationship.

“Does that create any sort of conflict for you?” the reporter asks.

“I have tremendous confidence in the district attorney,” the mayor answers, before handing the talking back over to McCoy.

Law & Order - Season 23
Camryn Manheim as Lt. Kate Dixon, Sam Waterston as DA Jack McCoy and Bruce Altman as Mayor Payne at a press conference during "Last Dance."NBC

Another reporter notes McCoy is up for reelection this year as the DA and asks what he has to say to the accusation he charged Kelton with murder because he’s the No. 1 supporter of his opponent.

“I say that’s preposterous,” McCoy responds. “Politics play absolutely no role in this office.”

He adds the suspect is innocent until proven guilty and the case will be tried in a courtroom — not at a press conference.

Law & Order - Season 23
The mayor put McCoy in an uncomfortable position in "Last Dance" — but that didn't deter the DA from staying true to who he is.NBC

Afterward, the mayor pulls McCoy aside.

“I hope you know what the hell you’re doing,” the mayor says to McCoy, adding “the man is a New York icon” who has donated a lot to charity.

“He also killed a defenseless young woman,” McCoy responds.

(Longtime fans will know this isn’t the first time politics has played a part in McCoy’s reelection or decision-making. See Season 19’s finale, “The Drowned and the Saved.”)

I would just like to say thank you, and not just for the fans of ‘Law & Order,’ but for this, really, parade of good fortune that my career has become.

Later, Price convinces McCoy they should consider a plea deal. McCoy tells Price to offer manslaughter in the first degree with “10 years — nothing less.”

Price and Maroun meet with Kelton and his lawyer. Kelton confesses to killing the woman in the park and details their personal history in which he says they had consensual sex years ago. He confirms that the woman accused him of rape on the day of her murder, and he denied it while “she kept demanding an apology.”

“I wasn’t going to apologize for something I didn’t do,” he says, before adding the woman was planning to go public with it. He then says he “lost it,” and “everything just happened fast.” He confesses to pushing the woman and eventually choking her.

Price offers man one and 15 years, but Kelton’s attorney disagrees, saying man two, five years. The two sides do not reach a deal.

Price and Maroun need to find another way to try to convince the jury of Kelton’s guilt, and they land on connecting with a man named Jordan Payne who was on the same retreat where the billionaire and woman spent a night together.

The two visit Payne, who points out his father is good friends with their boss, McCoy.

“We’re aware that your father is the mayor,” Price responds.

It’s clear the personal politics here will make it hard to actually get Payne to the witness stand, as Price and Maroun tell him they also know he’s reluctant to talk because he was on the trip with another woman who was not his wife.

The mayor later invites Price for a private meeting, where he threatens Price by saying his son is off-limits and that if he subpoenas his son, he will “bury” him.

“I will pull my support for McCoy and use my immense power to make sure his opponent is elected,” the mayor explains. “And the very first official act of this new district attorney will be to fire you — in a very public and demeaning manner.”

During a later conversation between McCoy and Price, McCoy says they “can’t let the mayor’s office dictate” how they proceed and that the mayor called him after meeting with Price.

“I told him to go to hell,” McCoy continues, adding that they “intend to do everything” in their power to convict Kelton.

He then takes Price off the case, and Price asks who will then finish the trial.

Viewers then see McCoy in the courtroom — for one last dance.

“I thought they did a beautiful job,” Waterston tells TODAY.com of McCoy’s last episode. “The last things that we shot were in the courtroom, and they gave McCoy another tour around the courtroom, which was a wonderful thing which was done because that’s huge fun.”

Once in the courtroom, McCoy presses Payne on the stand, using his hard-hitting tactics to get Payne to reveal the information his team needs to convince the jury of Kelton’s guilt. All the while, McCoy understands that by stepping in to prosecute Payne himself, he’s putting his job on the line in order for justice to prevail.

McCoy gives a speech directly to the jury, during which he says, “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, and now, members of the jury, it’s your turn to act fairly and ethically without bias or favor.”

Law & Order - Season 23
McCoy during his final run in the courtroom.NBC

The jury ends up finding Kelton guilty of murder in the second degree. McCoy turns back to stare down the mayor after the news. He walks out and shares a smile with Price on his way out of the courtroom one last time.

Waterston says shooting in the courtroom is “like a play within a play.”

“It’s just the business of being in the midst of a trial. … I just think it’s so enormously satisfying, especially for stage actors because it’s got a lot of theater in it. It’s that — being in the courtroom: the thrill of being in the courtroom.”

He adds “there was an enormous celebration on the courtroom stage” after shooting those last scenes.

“Dick Wolf showed up, speeches were made and the whole thing was fabulous. It couldn’t have been a better exit,” he says.

After the conviction, McCoy pours drinks in his office for himself and Price, who congratulates him, saying he hasn’t “lost a step.”

“I’m not so sure about that, but I suppose it doesn’t matter,” McCoy responds, adding he submitted his resignation 20 minutes earlier.

Price tells him he can still win the election after his conviction.

“I’ve been thinking about this for a while. It's time — it just is,” McCoy says, explaining the mayor would’ve done everything in his power to prevent him from winning again. And, by stepping aside now, McCoy points out the governor can appoint “someone with integrity,” which would also spare Price from the mayor’s wrath of appointing someone who would clean house.

“It’s been a hell of a ride,” McCoy says with a smile, as he and Price clink their glasses together and drink.

While reflecting on his scenes with Dancy, Waterston says, “He’s such a good man and such a wonderful actor. Nobody can act worth two cents unless their partner is better than they are. That was sweet.”

After dark, McCoy, wearing his signature long coat and fedora hat, pauses in front of the Manhattan courthouse and stares up at it one last time before moving on.

“I was astounded the day that I wrapped on this show, I stepped off the set and a whole space that has been occupied, by ‘Law & Order’ and McCoy, in my mind opened up just stepping out the door,” Waterston explains. “It’s the most amazing thing.”

His gratitude extends far and beyond just his time with the show.

“I would just like to say thank you, and not just for the fans of ‘Law & Order,’ but for this, really, parade of good fortune that my career has become,” he says. “I didn’t know it. You always think you’re hanging by a thread, but you look back, and it’s just been a wonderful ride.”

On the 3rd hour of TODAY Feb. 21, Waterston said he knew he was going to leave “Law & Order” when he returned to the show in 2022 — “it was just a matter of when.”

Tony Goldwyn will be joining the show as the new DA, and Waterston says he plans to watch and that Goldwyn will be “great.”

As for if his “Law & Order” exit also signals his retirement from acting as a whole, Waterston made it clear he has not yet begun his last dance in that aspect of his career.

“Not on your nelly — not a chance. No, no, no!”