I honestly feel like crying. Lt. Van Buren is leaving Law & Order! SOB. I know I sound like such a geek, but I don’t give a sh-t anymore. My name is Kaiser (not really) and I love cop shows (for real). I love Law & Order, and SVU and Criminal Intent, and whatever else they’re going to throw at me. But the original Law & Order series was my first love, and although I haven’t the most loyal of viewers all the time, I can always catch up on older episodes in reruns, and I keep up with all of the story lines.
These are characters I really care about! I love Lt. Van Buren, I love Det. Lupo, and I’ve grown to care about Det. Bernard, although I suspect his loyalties are still with Internal Affairs. I cried when Det. Ed Green left the show, I cried when ADA Claire Kincaid was killed by a drunk driver, I loved when they cleverly wrote Det. Logan off the first series by having him go down in an anti-bigotry blaze of glory by punching out a homophobic politician, letting Mike Logan to live to fight another day on L&O: CI. I wept when ADA McCoy got drunk and told a stranger at a bar that he had an abusive father. I could totally go on.
Merkerson’s Lt. Van Buren has been the lieutenant of this New York precinct for sixteen years. Merkerson confirmed that this is her last season in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, saying that it basically amounted to her contract being up, and her decision that she didn’t want to renew it. God, I just love her:
It’s the end of an era. After 16 years on the job, Law & Order’s S. Epatha Merkerson is turning in the badge she wore as BS-free Lt. Van Buren at the end of the season. The Emmy-winning actress just phoned to discuss her emotional decision and what it may mean for her cancer-stricken alter ego.
How did you arrive at this decision?
S. EPATHA MERKERSON: It’s a graceful way to go. It’s the end of my contract this year, and the storyline has been so perfect. I’ve given it my best for 16 years. It’s time to move on. I’m doing other things and this will be a great way to leave what has been an extraordinary gig.
When did you make the decision?
MERKERSON: It was probably midseason when I realized my contract was up. And I just looked at the things that I’ve been doing, and the show takes a lot of commitment. And I just felt like I wanted to do some other things.
When did you talk to Dick Wolf?
MERKERSON: I talked with him yesterday.
How did that go? What was his reaction?
MERKERSON: It was great. Dick is a great guy. And one of the things that I wanted to let him know was how much this job has meant to me and how I’ve appreciated the opportunity. We have a decent relationship, so he understood.
Did he try to talk you out of it?
MERKERSON: No, he didn’t try to talk me out of it because he knows me. [Laughs] After 16 years you get to know each other. And he knows it wasn’t something I thought of overnight. He wished me well. As I do everyone on the show. It was a dream gig.
Did the cancer storyline impact your decision at all? Did it get you thinking about maybe saying goodbye to Van Buren?
MERKERSON: It was a combination of things. I have no idea how this is going to end; the [final] scripts are just coming out now. And now that they know that I’m leaving they might make some changes. To me it felt like good timing. It’s a great way to send off the character.
Do you have a preference as to whether she lives or dies?
MERKERSON: Not necessarily. Van Buren is a hell of a character. How ever they decide to take her out it’ll be worthy of the character. Either way it’ll be great for me because I get to act it. [Laughs]
The show itself is in limbo. There’s no guarantee it’ll even come back.
MERKERSON: They say that every other year and the show always comes back. It’s a great show. It’s well written. It has great integrity. It has a huge following. They don’t discuss that stuff with me personally, but I never believe it.
It’s going to go on forever, isn’t it?
MERKERSON: Unfortunately, if we keep killing each other there are stories to write. But I think it’ll surpass Gunsmoke. It has survived many castmembers, as I’m well aware of; I’ve been around for many of them. And it’ll survive Van Buren not being there.
MERKERSON: That’s a hard one. I loved singing three-part harmony with Jerry [Orbach] and Jesse [Martin]. Jerry and Jesse knew every song that was ever recorded from Broadway. The thing that I hold dear is that even with everyone coming and going, I still keep in touch with most everyone. They’re still very much a part of my life, and I don’t think that will change.
This must be emotional for you. Sixteen years is a long time.
MERKERSON: It was. But I’m taking all the good with me. It was 16 years of employment — actors rarely have that experience. And so I know that I’m really, really lucky, because that’s what we look for — the next gig. And I’ve always been able to say, “I’m going back to Law & Order.” But the things that I’m doing now are interesting and challenging. I’m producing and directing a documentary about African-American benevolent societies. It’s exciting for me to be able to learn new things. I’m sure it will be emotional, but right now I’m just really happy for having had the opportunity.
[From Entertainment Weekly]
I do hope they do something really interesting for Lt. Van Buren’s departure. I almost want them to kill her off in a really spectacular way (SPOILER – like they just did on Criminal Intent with Eric Bogosian’s Captain Ross). This season they gave Van Buren cancer, and it’s been really interesting having that very personal story interspersed with the crime stories. They also gave her a boyfriend – played really beautifully in what amounts to an extended cameo appearance by Ernie Hudson. My fear is that the writers will just make Lt. Van Buren really sick, rather than having her end it all in some kind of epic shoot-out or something.
Sidenote: My favorite moment this season was seeing Van Buren lose her appetite because of the chemo, and having her son hand her some joints and telling her she should get high and eat. She did it too! And then a senior NYPD officer, a real tough, hardcore-looking dude came into her office and told her that there were some reports that she smelled like marijuana. So what did he do? He gave her the number of his pot dealer, and laid down the ground rules for how and when she could get high, telling her something like “I had ball cancer two years ago, and it was the only way to get through it.” Sigh… those are the moments I love.
S. Epatha Merkerson on March 5, 2010 & October 29, 2009. Credit: WENN.