Walking a few blocks from her publicist's office to a pub, S. Epatha Merkerson is stopped four times in midtown Manhattan. An actor gushes over her in an elevator. A woman asks to have her photo taken with her -- in the middle of traffic. Another points in her face and says, "I know you." And a man leaning against a building says, "I'm so sorry to see you go. The show won't be the same."
The show is "Law & Order," the original of Dick Wolf's procedural cop and court dramas, which NBC abruptly canceled when it finished its 20th season, tying a record with "Gunsmoke." For most of those years, Merkerson played Lt. Anita Van Buren. On Monday, May 24, she exits, on her terms.
"It was just time," Merkerson says.
Though her character and the actress both approach life with a steely honesty, Van Buren, who wears a wig of processed hair, conservative clothes and plain accessories, is prim. Merkerson's hair is natural, in short twists; she wears large hoop earrings, a couple of charm bracelets, silver rings, an anklet, a scarf, and a black skirt and blouse. Like the New Yorker she has become after 30 years in the city, she drops the F-bomb with aplomb. She laughs often and easily, throwing back her head and just enjoying life.
Like others who became regulars on "Law & Order," Merkerson began as a guest star. That episode, "Mushrooms," in which she played the mother of a slain child, remains her favorite.It was 1991, and Merkerson, as usual, was in a play. She mentioned the audition to a friend, who gave her a video of the program. "When I heard that bo-boom, I thought, 'Damn, even the music is cool!' " she says. "Ben Stone (the former assistant district attorney played by Michael Moriarty) lost a case he had no business losing. They actually had the hero lose. Then I got this gig. It covered so much in 47 minutes.
"I became a fan of the show," she continues. "For a little while, I wouldn't read the second half of the scripts."
It's a couple of days after the set shuttered for the season, or so Merkerson and the rest of the world thought. No one knew it was the end of an era. Since then, the blogosphere had its turn with the demise of the show, and New York media have weighed in on how canceling it wrecks the livelihoods of scores of people from caterers to drivers.
The enormity of Merkerson's decision to leave, when she was certain the show was returning, hadn't hit yet. Just as she's had during other breaks, she has a project. She's working on a documentary about benevolent societies in the South. Former slaves created them to take care of their own; some societies became insurance companies.