It’s been 25 years since Law & Order first hit the airwaves, making avid fans and amateur sleuths out of us all.
Though the groundbreaking cop drama centered on some of New York City’s most gruesome crime stories, when stars Dann Florek, S. Epatha Merkerson, Carolyn McCormick and Jill Hennessy think back on the show’s early days, all they can do is laugh.
In celebration of the show’s September anniversary and WE TV’s current Law & Order Binge-A-Thon, PEOPLE sat down with the four actors, who dished on everything from cracking jokes during gory corpse scenes to scary run-ins with real life criminals.
Wow, 25 years! Does that first season feel like a distant memory, or is it still fresh?
Florek: It’s somewhere in between. At times it feel so far back, but the fact that I’ve been involved with the brand all along, it’s kind of crazy. Now I’m thinking back to how it all started. I remember the call, getting the job, and everything. It’s a big part of my life.
McCormick: For me it all felt like one long episode. It’s hard to differentiate one moment. Except for my different hairstyles. And I remember being pregnant twice on the show. They tried to hide it. They were successful the first time, but the second time I was just too big.
Florek: I can’t remember titles and I only remember a handful of details. Somebody will say in the airport, “Do you remember the one with the rape?” and I’m like, “Dude, there’s about 100 of ’em!”
The show is so dark and heavy, did it feel that way on set?
McCormick: There were so many antics going on when the cameras weren’t rolling, especially if there’s a dead body in the room. Everyone gets really inappropriate and very funny. The only one who suffers is the poor guest star who has to be crying over the body and stuck trying to really emote while we’re all making jokes.
Merkerson: I’ve always been taken by the sense of humor of real police officers. Doing the show, I realized that if you get caught up in that darkness, it will stay with you. The makeup artist Carla White was extraordinary, so if there was a sliced neck, you really felt like that’s what you were seeing. But then there would be songs because sometimes the actor playing the dead person could sing.
Florek: Sing through the neck!
Merkerson: So I think you find those ways to get yourself out of it.
Did you have moments where things were too true to life?
Hennessy: I never had to step away. We all had these very intimate relationships with the plot lines based on our own personal feelings about whatever story that the plot was based on. So at points it was tough, especially if the character differed from your own personal point of view on the issue of, for example, capital punishment. Or one episode with the death of babies.
Florek: I think it was also cumulative. Episode one is one thing, but when you’re getting to about episode 20 of the year, it’s hard. You know it’s just photos and makeup, but it reminds you of things. After a while I was ready for the break.
Looking at what it’s become, do you feel like pioneers?
Florek: [The show] was groundbreaking. It was so real and so honest that it changed the way you watched television.
McCormick: It was before you had so much cable and Netflix and Showtime, so we were very anonymous. It took years to for it to become, “Hey, you’re the girl on Law & Order.” We thought we were doing this quiet little show at this funky little abandoned pier that no one was really watching. But we were having so much fun.
Merkerson: For Van Buren, I think that character was a precursor to a lot of women in positions of authority on television. She was the first African-American female to have a position of power on television. I’m very proud that people will come up to me and say “We loved what you did.” Cops will even say, “You represented.”
Hennessy: The writing really set a bar too. The stories were ripped from the headlines and most of our writers were former attorneys. Lawyers and cops would come up and say to me, “You guys are the first people who tell it like it is.”
Tell me about filming the show. New York City was a much different place in the 90s.
Florek: We shot it at this desolate pier. People were nervous to come down to audition. Cabs wouldn’t even go there.
Merkerson: The neighborhood was so dangerous that we all got picked up at home. Which was great, because once that whole area changed, they couldn t take that part out of our contracts!
Hennessy: New York City is an amazing character in the show, but there were also challenges, like getting permits and the pedestrian contingent yelling “Hey I love you guys!” in the back of a scene.
What are funniest memories from set?
McCormick: Remember when it was minus six degrees on Riverside Drive, and Dann was directing –
Merkerson: Yes! Earlier in the script meeting I had said, “Van Buren should be in this scene. This is a high-profile case. Van Buren should be there.” Dann tried to talk me out of it and I said, “No, she should be there.” So he was like, “Okay.”
Florek: You were right. Then it was 10 below zero –
Merkerson: He walked up to me while I was freezing my ass off and he said, “Never volunteer.”
Florek: One time early on [a cast member and I] were at some restaurant downtown where all the models hung out. We come out and the cab s coming and he goes, “NEW YORK CITY POLICE, WE NEED THIS CAB NOW!” The cab pulls over and we jump in. Then we pull up somewhere, hop out, and the cabby goes, “You owe me 40 dollars.” [My castmate] says, “This is New York City police, pal.” We walk away and I’m going, “We’re gonna go to jail!”
Merkerson: Each one of us can probably tell you any number of stories because at the time we were always together. It’s been hilarious thinking back.
Any memorable run-ins with fans?
Florek: I was sitting at a bar and a guy walks up, and he’s just looking at me. He goes, “I know you’re a cop,” and I’m like, “I’m not a cop”. And he goes, “Dude, I know you’re a cop.” I’m like, “I just do a TV show.” And he goes, “All I’m saying is this: I know people.” And I’m thinking he’s gonna have me beaten up! You could tell he was like a low-level fake mafia guy.
Merkerson: There are diehard Law & Order fans that recognize me immediately. They know I’m Van Buren, and there are no two ways about it. Some of them will ask me for legal advice, and I’ll say to them “I just did that on television”. Or I’ll get people who say, “Where do I know you from?” Instead of going through a bunch of [questions], I’ll go Law & Order, and they’ll go, “No, I don’t watch that.”
McCormick: Sometimes I’ll get, You look like the younger version of this girl that used to be on Law & Order. And I’m like, “Younger – really?”
Florek: Sometimes I just say, “I’m the guy who killed all those people in Florida,” and walk away.
Do you guys ever watch the show?
Merkerson: I’ll channel-search and watch for a few minutes. Especially if I see an actor who now has a huge name. “I’ll go, “Lauren Lenny was on the show? Lena Dunham! I didn t know she was on.”
McCormack: I was in Paris and we turned on the hotel TV, and an episode was on and it’s me walking outside, speaking perfect French! I was like, “Boys, look, look at mommy speaking French!”
Hennessy: Every time I see myself in Italian, French, or German, it’s at least two octaves higher. I used to sing tenor in choir with the boys, and this is who you choose to cast for me?
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WE TV’s Law & Order Binge-A-Thon continues with its two night marathon Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET. And throughout August, catch episodes Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays from 5-11 p.m. ET.