From 1993 through 2010, S. Epatha Merkerson played Lieutenant Anita Van Buren on “Law & Order” for a stunning 388 episodes (via IMDB). She finished her stint on the show not only as the longest-running cast member of the original series, but also the longest-running Black character on primetime TV (via NPR). Even after series veterans like detectives Lennie Briscoe (Jerry Orbach) and Mike Logan (Chris Noth) departed the franchise, Merkerson remained steady.
Merkerson’s record as the longest-running Black character on primetime TV was eventually eclipsed in 2017 by her fellow “Law & Order” franchise star Ice-T (via KISS 104.1 FM), who, at the time of writing, is in his 22nd season as Detective Fin Fututola on “Law & Order: SVU.” That left Merkerson with the more specific record of longest-running Black woman character on primetime TV. Either way, Merkerson clearly understands the weight of her place in TV history. During a 2009 Paley Center panel she proclaimed, “I’m Black, I’m female and I’m in my 50s. There’s no one who sits at our table who sits from my perspective.”
Merkerson may soon pass the baton to Chandra Wilson (or already has, depending on how you judge the record), who has appeared as Dr. Miranda Bailey in 377 episodes of “Grey’s Anatomy” since that show began airing in 2005 (via IMDB). But with the revival of “Law & Order” on its way, there’s always a chance that we’ll see Lieutenant Anita Van Buren back in action once again.