A television entry that was peculiarly New York in tone, almost like the old live black and white dramas of my teenage years, will be relocated to Los Angeles and lose its mojo as well as most of its audience. Tonight will be the finale, populated by a whole universe of actors that look to me like newcomers.
Like most Americans, I have devoted quite a bit of time to watching the "original" Law and Order over the past 15 years or so. It captures the city in a unique way, its actors becoming as familiar as the cop on the beat. I watched the stage actress S. Epatha Merkeson play a police supervisor all this time; I watched when Michael Moriarty had the Sam Waterston role; when Jerry Ohrbach so convincingly played the troubled recovering alcoholic police detective Lenny Briscoe that he was often stopped on the street by guys calling him Lenny; when a trail of beauties from Angie Harmon to Carey Lowell worked in the D.A.'s office.
I still lament the exit of the best District Attorney New York ever had, the complex yet avuncular Steven Hill. Hill was one of those solid New York actors seldom seen on the screen, a founder of the Actors' Studio and an early proponent of Method Acting. His own personality melted into the characters he played, and his mental acuity and intensity permeated his every performance. In Law and Order, the character he played was based on real life New York District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, whom he is said to have captured perfectly in his nuanced and elegant style. His Adam Schiff was a man you respected without question, a man of integrity and wisdom, and, although a bit jaded by his job, a man with a big heart. He was detached without being bloodless.
The actor was one of the most interesting men ever to work in television. Born Solomon Krakovski, he was appearing as Sigmund Freud in A Far Country on Broadway when he confronted his own heritage. A character screamed the line "You are a Jew!" to him in the play and the experience sent him right back to his roots. Hill realized the impact of his Jewishness and embraced it by becoming strict Orthodox -- he began observing a kosher diet, wearing specially lined clothing,and strictly observing the Sabbath. This made Hill unavailable for Friday night or Saturday matinee performances and effectively ended his stage career and closed many roles to him in the movies most notably The Sand Pebbles.
Nevertheless, Steven Hill has had a good career without ever becoming a household word. He felt that artists needed to take breaks from their work for years at a time to refresh and he practiced what he preached.
He had undergone one of those long breaks before taking on the role in Law and Order, and it served him well. His work on that show was a seamless as a bolt of fine fabric. He was as real as an actor can be. If you missed the show under his reign, try to find a re-run that old. He was just wonderful.
Law and Order replaced him with Dianne Weist, an excellent actress who never seemed at home in the role. It was a rare misstep for both the show and Weist, who just didn't have much gravitas and was somehow unconvincing as the boss of the heavy, knowledgeable Jack McCoy as played by Waterston. Of course, her biggest problem was that she was being set up as a replacement for a man who had owned the show for some ten years.
In comes stolid Fred Thompson to replace Weist. Here is an actor with so little range, so little charisma, so little energy that he seems to have gotten the role just based on the fact that he looks likes everybody else. That is, there is nothing about him that looks actorish (like, say, Ronald Reagan), or nothing about him that seems wise (like Steven Hill) or even anything that looks complicated, like Dianne Weist.
He later went back into politics and announced, with consummate poor timing, a run for the presidency that went nowhere. Even his credentials as an actor came into question. The charm that usually goes with that territory is decidedly missing.
Eventually Waterston took on the role, but the new cast, though competent, just didn't seem to fit the roles we had come to think of as friends. The show has run its course, even though its spinoff will probably continue until television itself is just a memory. I hope they'll reach all the way back into the files and show the early shows with the original cast. I'm sure I'm not the only one who'll derive comfort from the persona of Steven Hill back in my living room.