Like Jack McCoy? Prefer Ben Stone? You might be surprised to learn how close the two actors' careers parallel....
When Sam Waterston replaced Michael Moriarty as Law and Order's EADA, most of the buzz addressed the differences between these two fine actors. But look at their similarities and you'll find quite a few. Regarding their respective personal lives, both of these men were wartime babies, born within a year of each other to fairly well-to-do families. Both were educated at Ivy League colleges. Both paid their dues on the New York stage and in Shakespeare theatre. Both (to date) have been married twice. While neither possessed traditional "cover boy" good looks in their prime, both had sufficient charisma, along with the talent, for big-screen success. Unfortunately, neither became movie superstars, perhaps in part because they retained their east coast affiliations. But both made their big splashes in films based on outstanding books and released within a year of each other. In 1973, Moriarty's portrayal of pitcher Henry Wiggen in the baseball drama by Mark Harris, Bang the Drum Slowly, put him on the map, and Sam Waterston gained national recognition as Nick Carraway in the third, 1974 film adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic novel The Great Gatsby.
This "everyman" who is "over his head" in uncontrollable phenomena became the stock-in-trade of both Moriarty and Waterston as their careers progressed. Think of Moriarty's Richard Maple of Too Far to Go, who fails to stem the tide of marital erosion, and his underrated Beauregard Lockley of Report to the Commissioner, an early rough brush with the legal system for a Moriarty character. In the Waterston canon, look at his Rabbi in Crimes and Misdemeanors, who experiences both literal and figurative blindness to sin, as well as his Oscar-nominated performance in The Killing Fields as reporter Sydney Schanberg, when, in his inability to rescue Dith Pran, he heatedly tells a colleague, "This ain't a (expletive) 40s movie, where I can get on a plane and make everything right."
The one instance (known to me) where Moriarty and Waterston co-starred was in a 1973 television production of Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie. I hadn't seen it when it first aired, and upon learning of its existence, I was sure that Moriarty won the Emmy playing Tom Wingfield and that Waterston was a splendid Gentleman Caller. Imagine my surprise to find that the casting was reversed! And here's a challenge: name one successful comedy or light romantic film that starred either Moriarty or Waterston. I cannot think of a one.
The similarity between the big screen personas of Moriarty and Waterston appears to have shifted to the small screen. Stone and McCoy have been cut from the same bolt of cloth, only we've met them at different career stages. Moriarty's Ben Stone is the EADA in the eager-to-please, idealistic career stage. He's not as quick to cut deals, to delegate responsibility, or get personally involved with co-workers as his successor. He takes it very hard when a killer walks or when a jury comes up with the wrong verdict (remember the final scene of Black Tie?). Waterston's Jack McCoy is a jaded, cynical Stone after twenty-plus years at the same job with scant or no chance for promotion. He's much more willing to negotiate with the defense (has McCoy said "no deal" or counted off the minutes left on an existing plea even a fraction of the number of times Stone has?). McCoy plays faster and looser with the system and the truth, reaps the fringe benefits of personal involvement with attractive co-workers like Claire Kincaid, and, with the seasoned, confident Jamie Ross now on board, allows his second-in-command to take the initiative in a case. Had Moriarty stayed longer than four seasons, we would no doubt have seen Ben evolve from his unflagging "stone"-like presence into a more vulnerable character subject to human temptations and failings - more of the "real McCoy," one might say.
So while the Ben Brigadiers and McCoy Toys may be adamant in their opinions as to who was better for Law and Order, one can also look at this particular cast change as a development of character. Consider it a change in the starting line-up: Nick Carraway going in to relieve Henry Wiggen.