“Law & Order” makes a heralded return to NBC Thursday (8 EST/PST), 12 years after the beloved police procedural that spawned a cadre of spin-offs was unceremoniously canceled in 2010 after 20 seasons.
However, it’s the return of Sam Waterston, the noble face of “Law & Order,” that makes this homecoming complete. Stepping right back in as District Attorney Jack McCoy, it seems like the veteran Waterston, 81, never left the building. Would creator and producer Dick Wolf have even considered a “Law & Order” return without Waterston, who brought his indelible character to the show in 1994’s Season 5?
“Fortunately we never had to face that question,” Wolf says, over email. “It was always my attempt to have Sam return. I’m glad he said yes.”
Waterston joins returning cast members Anthony Anderson (as Det. Kevin Bernard) and a cast of newcomers including Camryn Manheim, Jeffrey Donovan and Hugh Dancy. He spoke to USA TODAY about what to expect in the revival.
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Question: Dick Wolf has been obsessed with rectifying this cancellation “mistake.” Did you ever get fatigued discussing a return over the 12-year absence?
Sam Waterstone: I really did think that it was a dream and that he was not going to have the outcome he sought. But perseverance furthers, and has ever been persistent. It’s wonderful to be part of helping him realize what really has been a decade-long dream.
Q: “Law & Order: SVU” eventually broke the 20-season TV drama record set by “Gunsmoke.” But if not for the cancellation, that would have been “Law & Order.” Were you bummed to be record-blocked?
Waterstone: Definitely. That was seriously disappointing. And then it’s very rude that “SVU” has gotten ahead of us. We’ll never catch up now. They’ll go on forever, and we’ll be behind them panting for breath
Q: How strong was your “yes” when the “it’s on” call finally came?
Waterstone: I was really very much of two minds about whether to do it or not. I asked myself, “Hadn’t I already done this? And really did I need to be doing it again?” But I came around to the idea that it was at least worth a try. And when I stepped on the set, it was new, but it was the exact same set we had been working on 12 years ago. it made the hairs on my arm stand up.
Q: Was there one thing different in your office?
Waterstone: What really hit me was the rank of law books on the shelves behind my desk. Even the linoleum on the floor. Exactly the same. I’m told they had to shrink the set because of the new studio we’re in. But boy, since I heard that, I’ve been looking hard. I can’t see any difference.
Q: There’s an OG stapler on your desk, but zero electronics to show it’s 2022. Why?
Waterstone: That’s very much in the intention of the producers to have this feel like a continuation. And that’s what we call this, then after a long hiatus.
Q: I have a bet with a friend that Jack McCoy still rocks a flip phone in 2022. Did I win?
Waterstone: I have no idea. The props department will decide. Some friends of my friends still use flip phones. He might be one of those guys.
Q: At one point in the season premiere, McCoy says, “Like it or not, the big bad police department is our partner.” Other points in the episode reflect shifting perspectives about police in the wake of a national conversation. Will this continue?
Waterstone: It’s an enormous opportunity for the writers with the way things are in the country today. There’s a lot of attention and contention around issues having to do with law enforcement, the application of the law, what’s fair and what’s right. But “Law & Order” could have been thought up for today. And so far they don’t seem to be shying away from any of the big questions.
My hope is that people will go back to merrily throwing their shoes at the television set out of frustration with one person’s opinion or another, instead of what we’re doing now, just shouting at each other and throwing shoes at each other.
Q: The great thing about coming back is you can plan Jack McCoy’s eventual exit. How do you want him to go?
Waterstone: Just please, not in a car trunk.
Q: Of course, the famed “dum, dum” sound is back. Are people going to start saying that to you like I just did?
They never stopped. A major reason why we’re back is because, even after we stopped making them, people went right on watching the shows. I took a car today to do a TV interview, and the driver was beside himself in excitement. He and his wife just finished a season, and they just go back to watching it again.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism