Sam Waterston Exits 'Law & Order' After Almost 30 Years: How Jack McCoy Was Written Off the Show

The actor first joined the crime procedural in 1995 during season 5.

It was an emotional Thursday evening for Law & Order fans as Sam Waterston's District Attorney Jack McCoy made his exit from the hit crime procedural after nearly three decades.

NBC previously announced Waterston's intention to leave the series, as he will be replaced by Scandal star Tony Goldwyn. While viewers knew about Waterston's departure after more than 400 episodes, Jack McCoy's exit proved to be shocking. 

The season 23 episode, titled "Last Dance," featured the district attorney's office investigating the murder of a woman in Central Park. The trail involves a tech mogul with ties to the mayor. Despite the mayor's threats to McCoy, the DA's office still pursues the case, leading McCoy to take over for Executive Assistant District Attorney Nolan Price (Hugh Dancy) as the prosecution. 

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"When I was elected district attorney, I gave a pledge to the citizens of New York to act fairly and ethically without bias or favor, to always act with integrity," McCoy says in his final closing argument. "During my time as district attorney, I’ve tried to uphold that sacred oath in the pursuit of justice, and now, members of the jury, it’s your turn to act fairly and ethically without bias or favor and to find the defendant Scott Kelton guilty of murder."

McCoy and the DA's office won the case, but McCoy shocked Price by sharing that he had tendered his resignation. 

"I've been thinking about this for a while. It’s time. It just is," he said.

"Look, the mayor is a vindictive son of a b**ch ... and he’s going to bury everyone who wronged him, including you, especially you. If I step aside now, the governor will be able to appoint someone new, someone with integrity," he added, seemingly referencing Goldwyn's upcoming entrance as DA Nicholas Baxter. 

Noting "it's been a hell of a ride," McCoy and Price cheers each other. The episode ends with McCoy giving the courthouse one last look before walking away. 

In addition to his character's exit, Waterston also took the opportunity to address what the past 30 years has meant to him in a touching farewell address, which NBC's Law & Order account posted on Thursday. 

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"Dear friends, no one not in my situation can appreciate the sadness of this parting," Waterston said. "To this place and the kindness of these people, I owe everything. Here I have lived for a quarter of a century and gone from a young to an old man. If 25 or 30 years doesn't matter, then nothing matters at all and that's what this has been. This is just amazing, and I have had a privilege that practically nobody in show business has, to be involved over that long period of time with different people but the same community." 

Waterston first appeared on Law & Order as Jack McCoy in 1994, joining the show's fifth season. He also made appearances in Homicide: Life on the Street, Exiled: A Law & Order Movie, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and Law & Order: Trial by Jury as Jack McCoy. He went on to appear in 405 episodes of Law & Order.

He was nominated for three Emmy Awards for the role as well as a Golden Globe. In 1999 he won a SAG Award for his performance in addition to the 10 other SAG nominations he received. 

Law & Order airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. ET on NBC. 

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