There was one major Law & Order character who helped get the show off the ground, while giving it its heft and credibility.
But the actor who portrayed the character left the show in a swirl of controversy, sending his series resignation via fax. After all, this was 1994 and the fax machine was very high tech.
So, Law & Order fans, do you remember Ben Stone and Michael Moriarty, the actor who portrayed him? Stone was the executive assistant district attorney in NYC. So all the prosecutions ran through his office. Moriarty was in 88 episodes. Then, he abruptly quit the show.
Law & Order Creator Said Moriarty Talked About Nazis in Resignation Fax
Dick Wolf, who created Law & Order, recalled some of the details of Moriarty’s departure in a 2015 interview with The Hollywood Reporter.
“The fax came in the middle of the night to California, which means that he had been up all night [in New York],” Wolf said. “It was like, ‘I can’t continue.’ It was things like the ‘Nazification of television’ and everything else with Janet Reno.”
Janet Reno was the U.S. Attorney General under then President Bill Clinton. Moriarty claimed that Reno wanted to censor the violence from shows like Law & Order, even a series as benign as Murder She Wrote.
This time 28 years ago, Moriarty and members of the ACLU conducted a press conference in NYC. Moriarty likened Reno to Sen. Joseph McCarthy. He said her efforts to keep violence off specific times at night was similar to the Cultural Revolution in China.
“She’s disgraced the entire tree of criminal justice,” Moriarty said at the press conference. He wrote a letter to Clinton, saying Reno was “an unleashed and mindless attack dog” and an “abusive personality.”
Moriarty and other top TV figures met with Reno the month before. That’s when she talked about her support for three Senate bills that would have limited violence in prime time between the hours of 7 and 9 p.m. and on Saturday mornings.
Moriarty opted to quit Law & Order. Six years ago, he talked about his decision to leave with the site Money Into Light. “I had decided to leave America around the end of that time,” Moriarty said. “Both the East and West Coasts, meaning New York and Hollywood, ostracized me after my public indictment of Attorney General Janet Reno.”
Moriarty said he’d returned to the show if NBC fired Wolf. Can you imagine that happening? There are blocks of Wolf-produced shows three nights a week on both CBS and NBC. Wolf wrote Moriarty off the show by having Stone quit his job following the killing of a murder witness.
And then Wolf replaced Ben Stone with Jack McCoy, who was portrayed by Sam Waterston. And it’s not possible to think of Law & Order without Jack McCoy. Waterston was in 368 episodes, the second-most on the show after S Epatha Merkerson, who portrayed Lieutenant Anita Van Buren in 391 episodes.
Law & Order is coming back to network TV. It’s set for a premiere on Feb. 22. And there’s not a chance Ben Stone will return. In a 2018 episode of Law & Order: SVU, McCoy gave the eulogy at Stone’s funeral.