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Law & Order originally lasted for twenty years before being taken off the air, only to return to TV a few years later. But the franchise might’ve faced cancellation a lot sooner if it wasn’t for these two actors coming on board.

How ‘Law & Order’ saved itself from cancellation at the last minute

Epatha Merkerson posing as Lieutenant Anita Van Buren in an episode of 'Law & Order'.
Epatha Merkerson | Will Hart / Getty images

Law & Order might’ve seen its plug pulled early if the show didn’t make some last-minute changes. The original series had a cast that included the likes of Chris Noth and Dan Florek, who’d later appear in its spin-off SVU. And although the franchise is known for having both quality male and female characters, this originally wasn’t the case.

One of Law & Order’s first notable female stars was Sharon Epatha Merkerson, who played Lieutenant Anita Van Buren in the series. She was hired on the show fairly quickly, which she shared was an attempt to make up for the show’s lack of women.

“You know, the interesting thing is I knew nothing and it happened quickly. I mean, literally, I got the job on a Friday and I started working on a Monday. Because that whole thing about NBC asking Dick to bring women on happened, I believe, at the last minute,” Merkerson once said on NPR.

Merkerson later elaborated that Law & Order might’ve been on its death bed before she and Jill Hennessey’s Claire Kincaid became regulars.

“Well, they were going to cancel Law and Order and I think in its third season because NBC wanted women on the show. So Dick let two of the guys go and he brought on two women. That’s how Jill Hennessey and I ended up on the show, because NBC was going to cancel it if he didn’t bring skirts in,” she said.

The strategy worked, as the series began to draw in a new audience with the change, expanding its fanbase.

“They didn’t believe that the show could last without women on it. I don’t think it was any, you know, really heavy thought other than the skirt. But what happened was when the show went to syndication that’s when our demographic changed, because there are a lot of women who are at home. And then we started getting more women viewers,” she said.

How ‘Law & Order’ creator Dick Wolf casts his shows

Wolf had very specific ideas when it came to casting his show and its various spin-offs. He wasn’t just looking for good performances, he wanted to make sure the actors connected with their characters. But those were only a few of the variables that went into hiring actors for Law & Order.

“I try to keep an open mind when casting, and there are many factors in the decision,” Wolf once told Backstage. “Sometimes it’s physical appearance—do you believe that this person could be the character. Sometimes we will look at people more than once, or we feel the actor might have been nervous or not 100 percent, and we give them another shot. So the short answer, is we are as open as possible. Sometimes the person you least expect [to] is the one that nails the audition.”

Why Dick Wolf felt ‘Law and Order’ was on air for so long


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Being on air for over two decades and counting was a feat not many shows were able to pull off. Still, Wolf asserted there was a simple reason behind the show’s longevity.

“Well, it’s the writing,” Wolf once said according to Cinemablend. “It’s always the writing. Whoever has the most good showrunners wins. It’s a very special group of skill sets. It’s not, ‘Oh, they just write really well.’ Showrunners are the head writers, the head shrinks; they have to deal [with everything]. Look, I’ve always been a writer, basically, and the only group of people who are more hard-working than actors are the writers. They spend all their time in rooms, alone.”