S. Epatha Merkerson leaving 'L&O'

Actress has longest tenure of current cast

S. Epatha Merkerson is leaving "Law & Order."

Merkerson, who has been on the veteran NBC series longer than any other cast member, has asked producers to be released after the current 20th season.

She made the request before the cop drama was to enter production on the last episode of the season so her character could be given an appropriate send-off.

Merkerson, Emmy winner for HBO's "Lackawanna Blues," had no deal for next season's "Law & Order." That season is still up in the air as a pickup by NBC hinges on the network's ability to ink an off-network deal with TNT.

The cable network, which carries "L&O" reruns, has no obligation to pick up more seasons beyond Season 20. NBC has been looking to the TNT license fee to offset the cost of production in order to renew "L&O" for a record-setting 21st campaign.

The chances for that happening have increased recently as TNT has reportedly made an offer to NBC.

Merkerson joined "L&O" midway through the third season after guest starring in Season 1 in a different role. She has appeared in almost 400 episodes of the venerable police procedural, playing no-nonsense supervisor Lt. Anita Van Buren.

NBC, Wolf Films and Merkerson's reps at ICM and McGowan Management had no comment.