‘Law & Order’: Sam Waterston’s 10 Most Iconic Moments as Jack McCoy

After 400 episodes, the actor says farewell as the beloved D.A. on Thursday’s episode of the NBC drama

Sam Waterston as Jack McCoy on "Law & Order"
Sam Waterston as Jack McCoy on "Law & Order" (CREDIT: NBC)

Sam Waterston, who has been the face of “Law & Order” since the 1990s, is sadly leaving the NBC procedural this week.

Over 400 episodes and 30 years, his crusading District Attorney Jack McCoy has served with a variety of lineups of detectives and assistant D.A.s, and tackled cases ranging from a mass shooting to dirty cops to medical malpractice.

In that time, McCoy has butted heads not only with rival lawyers, but often the judicial system itself. He had a reputation for the most creative prosecutorial arguments, such as in the 2008 episode “Rumble,” in which he invoked a terrorism act to convict street fighters who caused the death of an innocent bystander.

And let’s not forget his fiery temper: Whether directed at a hostile witness or someone obstructing an investigation, anyone who stood in his way was put on full blast, as shown in the blistering tirade he gave in “Rubber Room.”

Here are some of the most iconic Jack McCoy moments as we prepare to say goodbye to this essential TV character.

Annie Parisse and Sam Waterston in Season 15 of "Law & Order"
Annie Parisse and Sam Waterston in Season 15 of “Law & Order” (CREDIT: NBC)

10. “Trophy”: He wore the same jacket for years

McCoy’s relatively down-to-earth mentality was reflected in the fact he wore the same informal jacket for several years. An ex-girlfriend calls him out about it in the Season 6 episode “Trophy,” saying, “I begged you to get rid of that years ago.” He’s still wearing the same jacket (or a replacement) in Season 15, when Annie Parisse joined the show as A.D.A. Alexandra Borgia. By the time he became the D.A. in Season 20, he was more often seen in an elegant long overcoat he wears in his last episode.

Sam Waterston and Sandy Duncan in the "Paranoia" episode of "Law & Order"
Sam Waterston and Sandy Duncan in the “Paranoia” episode of “Law & Order” (CREDIT: NBC)

9. “Paranoia:” He collaborated with a defense attorney to get a mentally ill killer committed

In this Season 6 episode, McCoy is trying a mentally ill college student who murdered her roommate — and who killed her own sister when she was younger. The woman’s attorney (guest star Sandy Duncan) persuades McCoy to help her see that her client is committed to a mental institution and not to jail. A.D.A Claire Kincaid (Jill Hennessy) suspects something is up between the two, but McCoy does not confide that he let the other team win one in this case.

8. “Fluency”: He used the Orson Welles classic movie “The Third Man” to win a case

When 16 people die from the flu despite having received the flu shot, it’s revealed that a con artist was passing off saline solution as the vaccine. The suspect insists he’s not responsible for their deaths, but McCoy successfully makes his point by quoting from Orson Welles’ ferris wheel speech in the 1949 movie “The Third Man.” In the classic noir, Welles’ character Harry Lime is a war profiteer who deals in phony penicillin, resulting in the deaths and horrendous side effects in dozens of children. At the top of a ferris wheel, Lime says the people below are just “dots.” saying, “Would you really feel anything if one of those dots down there suddenly stopped moving?”

“What was your expectation when you labeled your saline solution as flu vaccine and then sold it in bulk?” McCoy demands of the defendant, who is convicted thanks to the D.A.’s moving arguments.

7. “Wannabe”: He did not take kindly to a snob dissing the Irish

In this season 5 episode, McCoy’s temper flares when the upper-class father of a suspect is quick to blame a working-class suspect and his teenage son for a fatal shooting: “He and his father, they’re all alike with their Irish temper. They lose control and next thing you know you have a murder.”

McCoy snaps back, “Oh, Harrigan did it because he’s a Mick. Det. Logan’s a Mick. I’m a Mick, sir and if you don’t shut up, I’ll lose control and throw you out of the room!”

6. “Showtime”: He got a high-profile suspect to admit he chopped off his wife’s head on the stand — while waving the machete he used in the crime

In the finale of this three-part storyline, Hollywood director Eddie Newman (Scott Cohen) is on the stand for the gruesome murder and beheading of his wife. McCoy asks him to hold the alleged murder weapon, a machete, while winding Newman up with his questions. Sure enough, Newman shocks the courtroom when he violently wields that knife in the same way he did the night of the murder.

5. “Open Season”: He didn’t let a compromised lawyer off the hook, even though she was a friend

“Law & Order” diehards will remember Danielle Melnick (Tovah Feldshuh), a dedicated defense lawyer who frequently opposed McCoy in court. He is dismayed to realize, however, that she has crossed a line in a case where she is representing a white supremacist. He goes to her apartment to personally confront her in this Season 13 episode, informing her that her choices led to the killing of a colleague. She is horrified, but doesn’t expect what McCoy says next: He expects her to turn herself in the next morning.

4. “Virtue”: He came up with a creative way to prosecute a lawyer who forced a female colleague to have sex with him

This Season 5 episode takes several turns, as McCoy and Kincaid look into accusations of rape against a lawyer (played by Anthony Heald, who was so memorable as the slimy prison official who hits on Clarice in “Silence of the Lambs”). A female lawyer at the same firm says she was also raped, but admits she did unhappily consent because her job was on the line. McCoy comes up with a statute that does fit the unique circumstances: “Larceny by extortion.”

3. “Gunshow”: He took on the gun industry in a show-stopping prosecution

In this landmark Season 10 episode, after a mass shooting that killed 15 at Central Park ends up in a settlement with the shooter, McCoy decides to prosecute the gun manufacturer. In his closing argument, he dramatically dumped spent shells on his desk — a moment featured in the trailer for the character’s last episode — to illustrate how many bullets the killer was able to fire in 30 seconds. The jury sides with McCoy and finds the gun makers responsible for the carnage, but the judge then throws out the verdict.

"Law & Order" episode "Aftershock"
Sam Waterston, Jill Hennessy, Jerry Orbach and Benjamin Bratt in the “Law & Order” episode “Aftershock” (CREDIT: NBC)

2. Aftershock: He revealed his traumatic childhood

The execution of a convict in this Season 6 episode impacts the squad in different ways: McCoy hits up a working class bar, gets drunk and reveals that his father used to beat both him and his mother. This was also the final episode for Jill Hennessy’s character Claire Kincaid, who is killed by a drunk driver. Jack doesn’t learn of her death until later, but the impact of her loss — the two were lovers and colleagues — affected him deeply.

1. Rubber Room: He threatened to “crucify” a union rep who refused to reveal the identity of a teacher planning a mass shooting

In this tense Season 20 episode, Lupo and Bernard learn from an internet chatroom that an embittered teacher is planning to gun down students at a New York school: They just need to find the anonymous suspect and stop him. McCoy nails an uncooperative bureaucrat (played by Michael Santoro) to the wall in a speech that’s still ringing in our eyes.

“If your obstruction allows a massacre to happen, I will crucify you, Mr. Kralik. I will charge you with negligent homicide and after I convict you, I will resign my job and represent the families of the victims in a wrongful death suit against you and the union. By the time I’m done, you’ll be finished. So my advice to you is, GET OUT OF MY WAY.”


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