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Anthony Anderson

In 18 seasons, "Law & Order" has cycled through a couple dozen actors in lead roles. So the latest change is just business as usual.

But Jesse L. Martin's last episode as one of the show's stars coincides with Anthony Anderson's first episode as one of the show's stars. And that is something out of the ordinary.

"It was really kismet," said Dick Wolf, creator/executive producer of "Law & Order." "I don't think that there was a plan that we were going to do the overlap."

Generally, when a character leaves there's a brief mention after his or her departure.

"This was just an opportunity after 19 years to do something different," Wolf said.

There was plenty of time to plan for it. It's not like Martin is being kicked off the show. He asked out of his contract, and Wolf let Martin go before he had to.

"This is something we've been discussing for about the last six, seven months," Wolf said. "He had made it very clear a year ago that he was feeling kind of burned out. He was going into his ninth season and he (wanted) the option of leaving.

"And I don't feel that — especially when people have done the type of work that Jesse has done — that you keep them under a ball and chain even though we had a deal with him this year."

Then Anderson's Fox show, "K-ville," was canceled, making him available for "Law & Order." He signed on during the writers' strike, and once the strike ended, his entrance and Martin's exit were orchestrated.

Like many of the show's stars before him, Martin found it tough to continue playing a character on a show that isn't about character development, it's about the crimes. Wolf acknowledged that but repeated what he's been telling TV critics for years:

"We do not dole out (personal) information with soup ladles. We do it with eyedroppers," he said. "But if you're a regular viewer of the show, you do know an enormous amount of substantive information about the characters. But you've got to pay attention."

No matter how closely you've watched over the past nine seasons, you're still in for some surprises about Martin's character, detective Ed Green.

In tonight's episode (9 p.m., NBC Ch. 5), Green shoots and kills a suspect. Detective Kevin Bernard (Anderson) is one of the internal affairs detectives assigned to investigate Green's actions. In Green's final episode, the police detective becomes the suspect. And without giving too much away, there are some believable twists that turn this case into something other than it at first appears.

Which is sort of business-as-usual for "Law & Order."

It's not giving away anything, however, to tell you that Green will be exiting, leaving an opening for a new homicide detective. Nor is it a secret that detective Bernard will be that replacement.

While internal affairs officers are so often cast as the bad guys on police shows, that's not the case here.

"He did not volunteer for the job. He was recruited straight out of the academy," Anderson said. "So it's not like he's a turncoat who wanted to police the police. His dream was to become a homicide detective, but he has to serve two years in IAB before that can happen."

And his reassignment is set up in tonight's episode. He tells Lt. Van Buren (S. Epatha Merkerson) how he came to be in internal affairs and that he's aiming for a slot in homicide.

Which is where he'll be beginning with next week's episode.

And Anderson is thrilled to be joining a hit show, albeit one in its 18th season.

"I stepped into a well-oiled machine, and they were so welcoming and open to me," he said. "It was as if we were family.

"Jesse handed this off to me. And I'm taking it and I'm going to run with it."

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