Tonight, Law & Order comes to a close after 20 seasons on the air. For much of that journey, S. Epatha Merkerson has kept an ever-changing pair of detectives in line as Lieutenant Anita Van Buren. In fact, Merkerson has the distinction of appearing in 391 episodes of the series, more than any other Law & Order actor. The character of Van Buren is frequently described as tough but fair, and while Merkerson is warmer than her counterpart, she’s just as no-nonsense when it comes to spoilers. Here’s what she had to say about her time on Law & Order.
TV.com: You’ve been doing this show for so long, are there any episodes that stick out in your mind as favorites, either recent or way back when?
Yes. You know, the truth is, my favorite episode of all-time is an episode called “Mushrooms,” and I wasn’t Lieutenant Van Buren. It was in the very first season of Law & Order, and I played a mother whose child had been murdered by a young boy who did not know how to read. And to this day, if I had a list, that would be the number one episode. “Mushrooms.”
Few people remember that you didn’t start the show as Van Buren. What was it like being called back for an entirely different role?
Oh, it was cool. It was really cool. In between that, I was on a show with Dick [Wolf] called Mann & Machine out in California, and when they decided to bring women into the show, he called me into his office. He has an explanation and I have an explanation. His was that his kids were real fierce Pee-Wee Herman fans and they loved my character on [Pee-Wee’s] Playhouse. That’s why he hired me. But I say it was because of my hair. So we always have a big joke about that. But it was great to come on to the show. I was a huge fan.
In the last episode, you had a tense moment on the stand and then outside the courthouse with A.D.A. Cutter. Now that we’re so close to the end, will Van Buren have time to forgive him?
You’ll have to see that [tonight]. You’ll have the answer to that.
The moment was part of this great ongoing cancer storyline you’ve had all season. What kind of research and preparation went into that?
There was lots of information from doctors I spoke to and women who had cervical cancer. And then it was all there in the script for me to follow.
Is there a chance we’ll see you as a guest star on any of the other Law & Order series?
[Tonight] you’ll have an answer to that. And that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
So can you tell us anything we should expect from the series finale?
No. [laughs] I can’t.
Well, you can’t fault me for trying. What about all the great guest stars you’ve worked with over the years. Do you have any particular favorites?
Oh my God, there were so many, it’s kind of hard to say. Gloria Foster, Theodore Bikel, James Earl Jones. I mean, it’s just fabulous. And this year, I sort of missed Debra Winger. We ran into each other in the hallway and the green room. But there are all of these fabled, amazing actors here in the city that I’ve had the opportunity to work with, actors that I’ve watched on stage.
This has been one of those golden opportunities that on the list from one to ten if you think of your life experiences, I would have to say that Law & Order would be in the top five. It’s been the most incredible journey and I’ve met some wonderful people. I have some great friends from this show. And I think when you take that away with you, it’s been a hell of an experience.