‘Law & Order’ Star S. Epatha Merkerson Set a Major Record on the Original Series

by Suzanne Halliburton

American TV viewers know S. Epatha Merkerson about as well as any other actor out there. She set longevity records with Law & Order and now has settled in at Chicago Med.

Her length of time on television is amazing. She played Lieutenant Anita Van Buren on Law & Order for 17 years and 388 episodes. In fact, she appeared in more Law & Order episodes than any other actor. And when the show ended in 2010, she owned the standard for the longest-running Black character on television.

Then in 2015, Merkerson embraced a new role with Chicago Med, which was created by Dick Wolf, who also gave Law & Order its start. Merkerson now plays Sharon Goodwin, the head of patient and medical services at Gaffney Chicago Medical Center. So Merkerson literally has played a primetime TV character for more than two decades.

Ice-T, who stars as Detective Fin Fututola on Law & Order: SVU, now owns the record for portraying the longest-running Black character on TV. And Chandra Wilson may catch Merkerson’s record for longest-running Black female character. Wilson plays Dr. Miranda Bailey on Grey’s Anatomy. She’s been with the cast since 2005 and her character has appeared in 377 episodes.

But maybe Merkerson can push her own record out of reach. NBC revived Law & Order and the network OG premieres on February 24.

In an interesting twist, Merkerson already had decided to leave Law & Order before NBC canceled it. And it’s not even clear if her character still is alive.

She told Entertainment Weekly in a 2010 interview: “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.”

(Photo by Mark Mainz/Getty Images)

A year before Law & Order ended, Merkerson appeared on a Paley Center panel. She acknowledged what her character represented: “I’m Black, I’m female and I’m in my 50s. There’s no one who sits at our table who sits from my perspective.”

We can tweak that statement to the present day. Merkerson celebrated her 68th birthday this past Sunday.

Her storyline changed her final year on Law & Order. Doctors diagnosed her character with Stage II cervical cancer. In Merkerson’s final episode, her doctor told her whether the cancer had spread. However, viewers only saw the doctor telling her the news. We don’t know what that news was. But since this is TV and primetime can cure anything, Anita Van Buren could be alive and well and still affiliated with Law & Order.

The show always used an ensemble cast of six characters, split between the cops and the attorneys. Twenty-nine actors appeared in the permanent cast over the 20 seasons of Law & Order.

Stick with Outsider for more news about the show’s revival.