Why I Still Miss Michael Moriarty on Law & Order

Matter-of-fact Michael Moriarty as A.D.A. Ben Stone
Michael Moriarty played Ben Stone on the first four seasons of Law & Order. I love mystery shows (I'm a mystery addict!) and Law & Order supplies a truly awe-inspiring number of mystery stories (20 seasons!) but after Moriarty left, Law & Order just wasn't the same for me. I rewatch the first four seasons quite often. I rarely watch anything from the later seasons.

I was sad when Richard Brooks left; I was disappointed when Chris Noth left. But Michael Moriarty's departure was the make-or-break moment for me. Unfortunately, the adorable Steven Hill (Adam Schiff), the gentlemanly Jerry Orbach (Lennie Briscoe), and the regal Carolyn McCormick (Dr. Elizabeth Olivet) weren't enough to keep me watching. (If Fred Dalton Thompson had showed up earlier, he might have been.)

Michael Moriarty played Ben Stone as a man passionately and seriously committed to the law--to him, law is a workable way to solve problems of justice. He has a unrelenting sense of moral rightness that nevertheless never morphs into self-righteousness.

In "Wages of Love," for example, Stone decides to take manslaughter off the table, forcing the jury to choose between acquittal and murder. When Adam and Robinette comment on how nervous he is, Stone replies, "I never done anything this potentially stupid before."

Moriarty delivers the line with wry self-awareness. There is something highly endearing about his dry, almost staccato delivery. He comes across as achingly real as do the first four seasons of the show.

In contrast, Waterston (and every other Law & Order D.A. except the underused Courtney Vance) comes across as overly dramatic. I CARE! I FIGHT AGAINST WRONG! I WANT TO GET THE BAD GUYS! So much angst and heart-ache and angry yelling. *Sigh.*

Moriarty as Stone was fully capable of portraying wrath without histrionics. In one of best episodes of the first season, "Sonata for Solo Organ," he shows his dissatisfaction with various characters in crisp, non-melodramatic ways:
Defense attorney: What's it going to take to make you happy, Stone?
EADA Ben Stone: The Mets in the Series, peace on Earth, and Dr. Reberty in Danamorra.

Joanna Woodleigh: If you prosecute him, he’ll die. I know he will. And for what? Mr. MacDaniel is going to be a very wealthy man.
Ben Stone: With only one kidney.
Joanna Woodleigh: Just like I have, Mr. Stone. The hope is we’ll both live long and happy lives.
Ben Stone: Please believe me, I’m glad you’re healthy again. I know how close to death you were. But, Ms. Woodleigh, do you really think your father would have acted any differently, if you had needed a heart instead of a kidney?
The other nice thing about Stone is that he can convey warmth without, again, yelling or doing the sad eyes thing. One of my favorite examples comes again from Season 1, "The Troubles," when Stone elicits testimony from a British woman whose husband and children were killed by a terrorist bomb. After she finishes, he uncurls her hands and presses his palms to hers; it is very touching.

Another favorite example comes from "Skin Deep" in Season 3, starring the excellent Claire Danes, Stone listens to this teenager's heart-breaking story of misuse by an older man. Stone is no pushover--he's perfectly willing to put kids in jail. In this case, he recognizes how cruelly the girl was treated. When her lawyer asks that she be remanded for treatment, he bobs his head, seemingly too choked up to talk.

These touches of gentleness are quiet, demonstrative rather than DEMONSTRATING. With Waterston, I always feel like I'm being lectured. With Moriarty, I feel like I'm watching a real guy work through the political and ethical and practical problems of his case.

I really miss Michael Moriarty. I think he defined the first seasons of Law & Order. Without him, the show was never quite as direct or gritty or strong.

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