Thursday, April 8, 2010

An Equally Important Performer: S Epatha Merkerson Departs Law & Order

She has outlasted four district attorneys, six prosecutors and eight pairs of detectives, but Lieutenant Anita Van Buren will soon follow in their footsteps when she departs from her Manhattan NYPD job. What’s not known is if that exit might come in the form of a resignation or death, since the longtime Law & Order character has been battling cancer in the most poignant subplot of this NBC show’s twentieth season.

Feel free to insert that familiar scene-separating electronic interlude here: Cha-chung!

Actress S. Epatha Merkerson, 57, who has portrayed Van Buren since 1993, recently announced her decision to quit the series after 16 years. But she actually goes further back than that with the program, having appeared as the mother of a very young victim in “Mushrooms,” about a cruel mistake that leads to a child’s murder. Written by Robert Palm, this stunning first-season episode reveals illiteracy as a culprit in the case of an adolescent who shoots an infant; unable to read, the boy went to the wrong place when a drug lord hired him to assassinate someone at another address written on a scrap of paper.

Law & Order creator and producer Dick Wolf tapped Merkerson to return two years later as commander of the 27th precinct. He was under the gun, because the network had been insisting that the all-male cast make room for a gal or two. Consequently, it was goodbye Dann Florek (Van Buren’s predecessor, Captain Dan Cragen) and Richard Brooks (one of the afore-mentioned prosecutors, replaced by Jill Hennessy’s Claire Kincaid). With the late Jerry Orbach and Jesse L. Martin, among the many actors who passed through the detective squad, Merkerson would belt out show tunes on the set. Moreover, she’s a notorious cut-up, though her comedic instincts are not often apparent on camera.

From the beginning, Van Buren has been a no-nonsense but compassionate boss. There were no other female cops in the vicinity until 2006, when Milena Govich had a short stint as Detective Nina Cassady. Despite her lone-gender status, Merkerson was not given much to do over the years apart from cautioning the boys when they cross the line while gathering evidence or interrogating perps. In a 1997 interview for Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion, which I coauthored with my Critics-at-Large colleague Kevin Courrier, Merkerson took aim at the limitations imposed on Van Buren: “Why am I in a position of authority yet you rarely see me on the screen?...It’s all relative. I can hear Ben (Bratt) or Jerry (Orbach) saying, ‘Geez, we’re not even in the script this time.’ And I think, ‘Huh? Huh?’ In an episode, they might get, like, twenty scenes and I’ve got only four.”

The producers and writers arguably continued ignoring Merkerson’s frustrations until the arrival of Jeremy Sisto and Anthony Anderson (detectives Cyrus Lupo and Kevin Bernard, respectively) in 2008. Suddenly, Van Buren seemed to become far more proactive with her team. That dynamic -- plus the welcome addition of Linus Roache as the latest lead prosecutor, Michael Cutter -- has provided the show with its best ensemble cast in at least a decade. The acting’s magnificent; the scripts are sharper; Sam Waterston gets to explore the inner tyrant of his Jack McCoy, now an elected district attorney.

So is Merkerson’s decision to leave at the end of the current season counterintuitive? Maybe, except that the Michigan native has many other irons, ranging from theatrical to cinematic, in the entertainment-business fire. With a host of nominations already on her resume, she won Emmy, Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild awards for starring in the 2006 HBO drama Lackwanna Blues. The Harlem resident reportedly is now directing and producing a documentary about African-American benevolent societies. Merkerson also periodically lends her talent to several commercials and has been an advocate for anti-smoking campaigns. A 23-year cigarette habit was conquered after she experienced breathing problems in the early 1990s.

Her 1986 television debut was as Reba the Mail Lady on the CBS children’s program Pee-wee’s Playhouse. This recurring role may have been, ahem, a wee bit ironic. Merkerson’s mother was once the only woman in the vehicle operations unit of the Detroit Post Office. As of 2010, her daughter has been on TV for the better part of a quarter-century. Since Law & Order is never shy about helping its thespians find the proverbial revolving door, Merkerson’s farewell would not be likely to decimate the series. Then again, nobody yet knows if NBC-Universal will grant Dick Wolf his wish for a 21st season to surpass the 20-year tenure of Gunsmoke. Meanwhile, in the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups -- not to mention important performers, such as Merkerson.

In the name game, by the way, S. stands for Sharon and Epatha is pronounced E-pay-tha. Cha-chung!

-- Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author, with Randee Dawn, of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

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