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'Law & Order' finally gives African-American actors a chance

Costar S. Epatha Merkerson tells EW Online why the producers hired a black lead and gave her character more lines

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S Epatha Merkerson
NBC Photo

Benjamin Bratt’s exit from ”Law & Order” last month gave the producers another opportunity to make the show more racially diverse — and this time, they took it. By signing Jesse L. Martin (”Ally McBeal”) to play Jerry Orbach’s latest partner, the Emmy-winning drama will — for the first time ever — have two African-Americans in the cast, a development that has costar S. Epatha Merkerson (Lieut. Anita Van Buren) saying, ”About time.”

”Hiring a black man to take over for Ben is a really smart move,” says Merkerson, 46, who debuted on ”Order” in 1993, after the show’s only other black actor, Richard Brooks (assistant district attorney Paul Robinette), left. Bringing in Martin, Merkerson tells EW Online, is a high-profile reaction to criticism (hers included) from the media and African-Americans that the series has been too white to reflect urban reality. ”(Series creator) Dick Wolf never misses a beat. He knows what has been said (negatively). He could’ve hired another fine, hunky looking white boy, but (this time) he didn’t.”

Not only did Wolf and Co. hire a black star, they also gave Merkerson her most visible season. After five years of pleading for more dialogue, Merkerson’s tough-but-nurturing lieutenant was finally given more screen time, including a story line involving a possible promotion. ”What happened this season should’ve happened the first season, but it has taken this long for the writers and producers to realize it,” she says, crediting her lobbying skills for the change. ”I used to show up to script meetings and say, ‘I shouldn’t even be here, there’s nothing for me to do,’ and then point out where my character needed to be included.”

But Merkerson knows she isn’t the only black actor to be shortchanged in ensemble dramas; she names ”ER”’s Eriq LaSalle (”How many shows were there about the other doctors before he got his own?”) and ”NYPD Blue”’s James McDaniel (”He once said to me, ‘I’m the highest-paid extra on television”’). As for Van Buren, Merkerson promises she won’t be the wallflower-lieutenant anymore: ”If I keep bitching, my character will get hers.”