'Law and Order' Veteran Sam Waterston Previews Jack McCoy's 'SVU' Return

"It was completely strange and wonderful, like stepping back in time," the actor tells THR of his return to the Dick Wolf franchise.
Michael Parmelee/NBC

Law & Order: SVU is poised to host both a crossover and a reunion in the same episode when franchise veteran Sam Waterston guest-stars as District Attorney Jack McCoy, reprising his 16-season role from Dick Wolf's flagship drama. Waterston returns for Wednesday's episode, "The Undiscovered Country," an hour exploring a family's right-to-die court case.

As The Hollywood Reporter  revealed at the beginning of SVU's current, 19th season, the guest spot reunites the Grace and Frankie star with new SVU showrunner Michael Chernuchin, who worked with Waterston on the first two seasons of the mother ship and helped create the character of Jack McCoy.

It's Chernuchin who persuaded Waterston to return to the franchise, the actor told THR — though he didn't actually need much convincing.

"I knew him well; I know he's a wonderful writer, and so it was really easy to say yes," he said. Although he didn't necessarily expect that SVU would still be running eight years after the original Law & Order signed off, Waterston said he's not surprised it endures because of the "genius of the original architecture of the storytelling."

Said Waterston, "It's something that J.P. Morgan said, which is that it's all right to put all your eggs in one basket as long as you watch it very carefully. And of course, it's not one basket for Dick Wolf except in the sense that it is a kind of single universe with many branches. I think that the story, really, is how careful Dick Wolf and his entire organization have been about keeping the standards up."

Jack McCoy has worked with the SVU team before, appearing in crossover episodes beginning in the spinoff's first season (and referenced in even more). So while he wasn't a stranger to the SVU team, and it felt a bit unusual to be back in a courtroom — "At first, for about a half a day it was completely strange and wonderful, like stepping back in time, and then it was just very familiar. It suddenly became like I'd never left," Waterston said — it still helped that star Mariska Hargitay was so happy to have the well-respected actor around.

"I can't tell you how wonderful she was; how welcoming, how generous," he said. "They treated me like visiting royalty, all of them did. But she was at the front of that; she was the leader of that and it was just a delightful time."

While the actor has told THR in the past that he would be interested in reprising his Law & Order role in a revival, he said he has no opinion on a potential reboot nor another guest spot on SVU. (There was a rumored revival of the original L&O a few years ago but the project stalled.) Waterston did, however, admit that he does sometimes think about what television would be like if another of his former shows were still on the air: Aaron Sorkin's The Newsroom.

"There certainly would be plenty to talk about, wouldn't there?" he said of HBO's politically themed TV news drama. "It would have been a wonderful platform for him to be able to talk about what's going on today [in the country politically], and it's something that we could sure use. So yes, if you miss The Newsroom not being there to talk about what's going on today, I'm with you. I feel the same way. But on the other hand, Charlie would be dead."

There's also the fact that being a part of a comedy is much easier on the soul than a ripped-from-the-headlines series like The Newsroom or Law & Order, with SVU recently taking on Harvey Weinstein and sexual harassment in the workplace.

"[It's] an awful lot of murders. When you do Law & Order, it's a nasty world. Now I'm doing Grace and Frankie and I'm telling jokes and laughing all day long, and I have to say it's a pleasant contrast. I've missed the quality of the show, but I've been lucky," he said of the Netflix comedy in which he stars opposite Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin. "I've been doing other shows that have very high standards. That was a long time to spend in homicide."

Law & Order: SVU airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on NBC.

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