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What Happened to Sam Waterston's Character Jack McCoy on Law & Order?

Look back on the career of the iconic lawyer played by Sam Waterston, a Law & Order legend.

By Jessica White

It takes a force of dedicated investigators and legal experts to put a perp behind bars on Law & Order, but it was certainly been made easier with the help of courtroom powerhouse Jack McCoy, played by the beloved Sam Waterston

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Having appeared in over 400 episodes and closed countless cases, McCoy was a force to be reckoned with as the show's longtime District Attorney. McCoy not only demands attention in the 21st Precinct, but he's also a wisdom-slinging guest star of several Law & Order spin-offs. In 19 nail-biting seasons (including a decade-long hiatus and a 2022 reboot) McCoy dominated the legal ladder of Manhattan, and many of his cases ended with justice being delivered. 

RELATED: After More Than 400 Episodes, Sam Waterston Announces He's Leaving Law & Order

And then, Season 24, Episode 5  ("Last Dance"), he left the courthouse one final time.

Read on to relive Jack McCoy's greatest Law & Order moments.

Sam Waterston as Executive A.D.A. Jack McCoy, Steven Hill as D.A. Adam Schiff, and Jill Hennessy as A.D.A. Claire Kincaid in promotional images for Season 5 of Law & Order

When did Jack McCoy first appear on Law & Order?

McCoy made his first Law & Order appearance in the Season 5 premiere (“Second Opinion”), joining a dynamite cast of lawyers and cops as the Executive Assistant District Attorney. McCoy began taking cases for Manhattan's 27th Precinct after Ben Stone (Michael Moriarty) left due to guilt from one of his witnesses being murdered during a trial. He had reputation as one of Manhattan's most ruthless and tenacious prosecutors, earning him the nickname "Hang 'em High McCoy." 

Despite McCoy being found in contempt of court on several occasions, his preternatural ability to successfully put criminals behind bars quickly made him paramount to the 27th Precinct's success. McCoy could be abrasive and stubborn, but his motivations for making convictions stick were inspired by his passionate wish to create a safer life for New York City's civilians. As the years went by, McCoy's litigation strategies became more by the book, a shift that has fueled his acceleration within New York's legal system.

McCoy served as the EADA until Season 17, when he was appointed the interim district attorney for Manhattan, an elected role. He was elected Manhattan District Attorney just before the start of Season 20.

Jack McCoy's Romantic History

Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston) appears in Season 6 Episode 12 of Law & Order

As if McCoy's early legal gymnastics didn't earn him enough of a problematic impression within the D.A.'s office, his romantic history with his assistant district attorneys certainly didn't help in polishing his reputation. Before his on-screen arrival on Law & Order, McCoy was twice divorced and had fostered romantic relationships with three of his former ADAs — the only three to that point who had been women. 

McCoy had caused a stir by getting romantically involved with Diana Hawthorne (Laila Robins), Sally Bell (Edie Falco), and his eventual ex-wife and former ADA, Ellen McCoy, whom viewers never met. McCoy and Ellen divorced sometime after the birth of McCoy's only daughter, Rebecca (currently played by Waterston's real-life daughter, Elisabeth Waterston).

Fans did meet the seedy Hawthorne after it was revealed she deliberately convicted an innocent man in Season 6, Episode 12 ("Trophy"), while Falco made four guest appearances as then-defense attorney Bell throughout Seasons 3-8 of Law & Order.

McCoy eventually became involved with his fourth female ADA, Claire Kincaid, until she passed away.

Thereafter, he remained primarily single.

What happened between Jack McCoy and ADA Claire Kincaid?

When McCoy met ADA Claire Kincaid (Jill Hennessy) in the Season 5 premiere, she was keen to comment on his messy romantic history, telling him that she would not be sleeping with him like the many ADAs that came before her. McCoy wryly clarified that he had only slept with three of his former ADAs — but earned an eye-roll after it was revealed he only had three former ADAs who were women. 

McCoy and Kincaid worked closely on several cases, and despite her warnings to quell any romantic advances, their relationship teetered toward flirtatious on several occasions. 

But before Law & Order fans could get any confirmation of a McCoy-Kincaid romance, tragedy struck in Season 6, Episode 23 ("Aftershock"). While driving home an inebriated Detective Lennie Briscoe (Jerry Orbach), Kincaid was killed after the car she was driving was hit by a drunk driver. 

McCoy was tormented by Kincaid's death and the nature of her demise strongly influenced his legal strategies in the wake of her passing. In Season 8, Episode 11 ("Under the Influence"), McCoy went too far while convicting a drunk driver of murder, clearly haunted by the details of Kincaid's death.

In Season 9, Episode 14 ("Sideshow"), McCoy eventually confessed that he and Kincaid had become lovers before her tragic passing.

A.D.A. Alexandra Borgia (Annie Parisse) and Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston) appears in Season 15 Episode 14 of Law & Order

When did Jack McCoy serve as Interim District Attorney on Law & Order?

McCoy was tapped to become the Interim District Attorney after D.A. Arthur Branch (Fred Dalton Thompson) resigned from his elected post following Season 17. Then-Governor Donald Shalvoy (Tom Everett Scott) appointed McCoy to the role, prompting a jovial relationship to develop between the two.

McCoy's legal rhetoric got quite a facelift after becoming District Attorney, because many of the risky tactics he utilized as a prosecutor wouldn't fly higher up in the D.A.'s office. Throughout Season 18 of Law & Order, McCoy thrived at his new post, but as the interim DA, he was forced to launch a campaign to maintain his position in Season 19 of Law & Order.

But, by the end of Season 18, Shalvoy proved to be a wolf in sheep's clothing: His kind demeanor was a ruse meant to distract McCoy from learning about the governor's involvement in a prostitution ring, which was connected a murder case McCoy was prosecuting at the time. McCoy tried to investigate Shalvoy, who then turned around and backed McCoy's opponent.

Danielle Melnick (Tovah Feldshuh), A.D.A. Serena Southerlyn (Elisabeth Rohm) and Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston) appears in Season 13 Episode 7 of Law & Order

How did Jack McCoy become the Manhattan District Attorney on Law & Order?

McCoy's campaign for New York County District Attorney — colloquially known as the Manhattan District Attorney — officially began in Season 19, Episode 11 ("Lucky Stiff") and it wasn't without its fair share of headaches. The political pandemonium of running for the position cast a grim spotlight on McCoy's problematic moments throughout his career.

In Season 19, Episode 19 ("Promote This"), McCoy's ex-wife was revealed to have once accidentally hired an undocumented immigrant as a nanny, which created a political stir when a murderer McCoy was prosecuting was revealed to have racist motivations against his immigrant victims. 

In Season 19, Episode 21 ("Skate or Die"), after learning the venue for his final campaign fundraiser was owned by an ex-con who had served 20 years in prison for racketeering, McCoy had to scramble for a different fundraiser location. 

In the Season 19 finale ("The Drowned and the Saved"), McCoy was able to prove that the governor — who was backing and directing donors to his rival — had attempted to purchase his wife a Senate seat. He convinced Shavoy to resign from his post to avoid a scandal (and, indirectly, causing his own opponent in the D.A.'s race to lose his political patron). 

Fans learned McCoy won the election and officially became the Manhattan District Attorney in the Law & Order Season 20 premiere (“Memo from the Dark Side”) in 2009. McCoy served as the team's mentor and legal leader until some time after Law & Order's hiatus in 2010; a new D.A. was mentioned in Law & Order: Special Victim's Unit at the start of that show's Season 13 in 2011. 

McCoy later returned to the D.A.'s office, appearing again as the Manhattan District Attorney in SVU Season 19, Episode 13 ("The Undiscovered Country") in 2018 and has held the role ever since.

Jack McCoy on Other Law & Order Franchises

D.A. Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston) appears in Season 23 Episode 4 of Law & Order

Aside from his hundreds of episodes of the original franchise, McCoy has appeared in several of Dick Wolf's spin-offs, including four episodes of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, two episodes of  Law & Order: Trial by Jury, Exiled: A Law & Order Movie, and two episodes of Wolf's Homicide: Life on the Street.

Despite Law & Order's extended hiatus, McCoy remained a force within the New York legal system, and viewers appreciated any check-in from the fan favorite. SVU Captain Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) mentioned McCoy on several occasions, because, even with her cases, McCoy was the ringleader of the courtroom circus.

Jack McCoy returned for Law & Order Season 21

D.A. Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston) in a scene from Law & Order.

Waterston returned with the 2022 reboot of Law & Order, reprising his role as Manhattan D.A. alongside a remixed cast of stars. 

"Obviously I haven't really been trying hard to escape [Jack McCoy]. Because here I am after a 10, 12-year break, right back where I was before," Waterston told NBC Chicago in 2023. "I consider myself extraordinarily lucky to have such a long run doing something of real quality that really talks to this country in plain language about what's going on right now today. It's just been a wonderful blessing."

In the Season 21 premiere (“The Right Thing”), fans learned that McCoy's experience and track record of wins has made him a cherished mentor to many, including EADA Nolan Price (Hugh Dancy) and ADA Samantha Maroun (Odelya Halevi).

Still, he began spending more time running the D.A.'s office and less time in the courtroom. But, make no mistake — McCoy's legal finesse was still intact, as proven by a harrowing Season 22 case. 

Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston) and Rebecca McCoy (Elisabeth Waterston) appear in Season 22 Episode 22 of Law & Order

What happened between Jack McCoy and his daughter Rebecca McCoy on Law & Order?

Due to McCoy's chaotic romantic history and his diligence as a DA, McCoy didn't have the best relationship with his daughter, Rebecca McCoy, as she grew up, and the two were estranged for most of his time on the show.

McCoy and Rebecca first made amends in Season 17, Episode 19 ("Fallout"), with McCoy later learning that he became a grandfather after Rebecca gave birth to a son. But their relationship, for better or for worse, always played out off-screen until Law & Order's Season 22 finale (“Open Wounds”).

The episode began after a senator was shot and killed by a man upset by the politician's recent vote on a gun control law. Rebecca was representing the defendant. 

Rebecca's client pleaded not guilty due to post-traumatic stress disorder, which he got from surviving a deadly school shooting. However, the murder was premeditated and New York law states that premeditation can be evidence that a defendant was able to appreciate that his conduct was wrong and the consequences of said conduct. McCoy thus rejected his daughter's request for a plea deal and pursued a first-degree murder charge against her client, who who ultimately found guilty of those charges.

After the trial concluded, Rebecca refused to get dinner with her father, but did tell him that his grandson would soon be enrolling in Columbia's Law School.

DA Jack McCoy in court talking to Jordan Payne on Law and Order Episode 2305

When did Jack McCoy leave Law & Order?

Waterston made his final appearance as McCoy in Law & Order Season 24, Episode 5 ("Last Dance"). After the New York City mayor's son landed on the Homicide Unit's radar as a primary murder suspect, McCoy insisted on moving forward with the case despite receiving political backlash.

McCoy laughed at the idea of twisting the system in favor of the mayor's nepotism — so he pushed through on the case and landed a guilty conviction. 

However, McCoy knew that his decision didn't come without consequences, as the mayor had promised political revenge. So after securing the conviction, McCoy revealed that he'd resigned from his elected post, hoping to guarantee an honorable replacement rather then a mayoral lackey.

RELATED: Check Out Who's in the Law & Order Cast for Season 23

“It’s been a hell of a ride,” McCoy told Price before the two men made a final toast. 

Waterston had previously revealed Season 23 would be his final season as the mythic McCoy in a letter addressed to fans.

"Greetings, you wonderful people," he wrote. "It’s a pleasure to talk directly like this to the backbone of Law & Order’s absolutely amazing audience. The time has come for me to move on and take Jack McCoy with me."

"There’s sadness in leaving, but I’m just too curious about what’s next," the statement continued. "An actor doesn’t want to let himself get too comfortable. I’m more grateful to you than I can say. L&O’s continuing and amazing long run, along with its astounding comeback, is all thanks to you and to Dick Wolf, but for whose vision, patience, perseverance, and unique combination of creative and business talents, none of this would have happened. I feel very blessed. I hope to see you all on the flip side."

Originally published Feb 21, 2024.