By Dana Kennedy
Updated April 14, 1995 at 04:00 AM EDT
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Chris Noth, in character as hunky Det. Mike Logan from NBC’s Law & Order, is sitting in the witness box at the Tweed Courthouse in downtown Manhattan when the director suddenly yells, ”Cut!” He smells smoke. Turns out it’s coming from a huge fire at the nearby Fulton Fish Market by the Brooklyn Bridge. Real detectives at One Police Plaza across the street will later say that wiseguys, angry at Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s plan to clean up the allegedly Mob- controlled market, deliberately set part of it on fire. u It’s the kind of ripped-from-the-headlines story you’d ex-pect to find on Law & Order, the critically acclaimed series shot in New York City. And you probably will, says executive producer Ed Sherin, when the fire makes front-page news the next day. ”We already have one coming up about the Russian Mafia, and this one is a natural.” * Since its debut in 1990, Law & Order has stuck to a simple, compelling format: Cops make arrests in the first half, and DAs attempt to nail the defendants in the second. Unlike flashier, more melodramatic hits such as NYPD Blue and ER, Law & Order focuses exclusively on cases instead of delving into its characters’ personal lives. From the start, the formula has received critical raves, but now it’s also reaping ratings success: This season, the series earned its best numbers yet-reaching as high as No. 17-and has been renewed for two more years. Behind the scenes, however, the show is more like, well, a soap opera. Last month, the cast was rocked by the announcement that Noth, 38, the last remaining original cast member (Steven Hill, who plays DA Adam Schiff, did not appear in the pilot), will be let go after this season to make way for a younger detective. Noth’s departure is just the latest cast shake-up. George Dzundza resigned after the first year; Paul Sorvino, who replaced him, left soon after the second season; Dann Florek and Richard Brooks were fired after the third season to bring in the show’s first two principal female characters; Michael Moriarty left under a cloud of controversy last year and was replaced by Sam Waterston. How does a show that loses six cast members in five short years survive-and still thrive? To find out, we asked the people who make up Law & Order. As they say about the cops and prosecutors in the show’s sonorous opening voice- over, these are their stories.

Smoke from not-so-distant fires is just another reminder of the show’s gritty urban setting. ”It keeps us honest,” says Jill Hennessy, 26, who joined the cast last season as assistant DA Claire Kincaid. ”You run into real lawyers every time we film outside. You can’t fake it here, baby.” Nobody seems to fake it on Law & Order, either on- or off-camera. Free from the hothouse politics of isolated Hollywood soundstages, the cast members are as open and voluble as old-fashioned New York cabbies. Take S. Epatha Merkerson, 42, who plays Lieut. Anita Van Buren. ”They got a bargain with me,” she says about being African-American and female. ”Just picture what it’s like trying to explain to the six white guys who write the show what it’s like to be black and a woman. I win some and lose some, but I don’t back down.”

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