Sam Waterston: The Real McCoy
Law & Order's Jack McCoy is just a regular guy
Linda Peterson, A&E Monthly, August 1995
Sam Waterston settles his six-foot-one frame into a comfy armchair in his dressing room on the set of Law & Order. Outside in New York City it is a raw and rainy Bad Hair Day, which means his silver-streaked dark brown hair notably lacks the blow-dried volume we usually see on Jack McCoy, the cocky, aggressive district attorney Sam plays on the show. Yet Sam himself seems unaffected by any "star" vanity or attitude; he came to the set alone, lugging a large duffel bag, wearing a wide- brimmed hat, stadium-type jacket, faded jeans, plain tee-shirt, and penny loafers. He looks just like a Regular Guy Ė and he is. It is already 5 PM., and Samís scenes wonít be filmed until later this night. But if he appears a bit tired and less than chirpy about chatting to a visitor, he is nothing if not a trouper. He is gentlemanly, speaks thoughtfully, and as he warms up to the conversation, displays flashes of a quick wit, often at his own expense.
Ask, for instance, if he has a special affinity for Abe Lincoln or lawyers, because he portrays them so often? "Well, if youíre going to be born ugly and be an actor Ė the least they can do is let you play Lincoln," he laughs, arching Those Eyebrows. "As for the lawyers, I donít know...maybe itís practice for the next round? I sort of hope not because itís more fun to play one than to be one."
And fun he has had in his career Ė which spans 32 years and counting. Yes, hard as it is to believe to those fans who "discovered" him early, Sam is cruising up on 55 this fall. Though his ready smile reveals a crinkling of crowís feet around those deep brown eyes, heís still lean and rangy. (And just for the record, the man ainít ugly.)
Sam Waterston is known and respected for his uncommon versatility, his comfort level in a broad range of roles. Comedy or drama, stage or screen or television, classic Shakespeare or Woody Allen contemporary, Sam has "been there, done that." And though heís never been "box office" in the manner of his Great Gatsby co-star Robert Redford, heís done quite nicely. His roles literally have taken him around the world, from Thailand to Siberia, and along the way heís earned accolades in virtually very entertainment arena: nominations for Emmys, Obies, Drama Desks, Golden Globes, a Tony, and an Academy Award (for The Killing Fields, airing on Screening Room, Sunday, August 20 at 2pm, ET.). Heís also been a narrator, a producer, and a one-time director. Just about the only gap in his resume is that he doesnít sing or dance.
Onstage, Sam has brushed up his Shakespeare and other playwrights with such talents as Meryl Streep, James Earl Jones, "Colleen Dewhurst, Glenn Close, and Liv Ullmann. Among his 30-odd films to date, heís been Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, a genial spy in Hopscotch (with Walter Matthau), the wise- cracking astronaut in Capricorn One. His first Emmy nomination came for playing the brother in The Glass Menagerie with Catharine Hepburn. An interesting trivia bit: the "Gentleman "caller" in that production was Michael Moriarty, whom Sam replaced last season in Law & Order.
More recently heís played the blind rabbi in Crimes and Misdemeanors, one of his four Woody Allen films, and Kathleen Turnerís clueless husband in Serial Mom. In his newest film, The Journey of August King (out in late October), he squeezed in both acting and co-producing duties while juggling the gruelling shooting schedule on L&O.
And of course, he has played Abraham Lincoln three times: in the TV movie Gore Vidalís Lincoln (his wife was Mary Tyler Moore), on stage at New Yorkís Lincoln Centre in Abe Lincoln in Illinois (which earned him his Tony nod), and as the presidentís voice on the PBS series The Civil War. TV viewers also may recall his recent (íolden Globe-winning stint as Forrest Bedford, a 1960s Southern lawyer in the critical hit (but ratings flop) IíLl1íly Away.
If you canít pick a favourite role, youíre in fine company. Neither can he.
"Obviously the first ones that youíre proud of are the ones that everybody else liked too," Sam muses, "but behind the Hamlets and the Iíll Fly Away there arc plays that nobody else remembers that I did. The thing is, Iíve always done what I thought was good if I could live on what they were offering Ė and sometimes if I couldnít. So even when I was broke, my career didnít lack for interest. All these past years have been full of interesting work, and thatís why I feel so fortunate."
Overall he has led a fortunate life. Samuel Atkinson Waterston was born November 15, 1940, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, one of four children of Alice and George Chychele Waterston. The official bio says that Sam "decided" on an acting career at age seven, when he appeared in his schoolís production of íAntigone. Aw, címon, Sam...at seven? Really?
"I did know then that I liked acting, but I donít know that I ever said Iíd signed a contract," he says, deadpan. "I just never had a negative feeling about it."
In that school stage debut, young Sam was directed by his father, a British-born teacher. "My father was an amateur actor when he was in school at Oxford," Sam explains. "Michael Red- grave was a pal of his and Sir John Gielgud was at Cambridge. So he did some amateur acting, and then when he was teaching school he directed these plays. He taught at Brooks School [in North Andover], where I went for one year before I went to Groton."
After graduating from Groton prep school, Sam entered Yale University as a drama major, acting in college productions, and also studying history and French. Upon his college graduation, he immediately headed to New York to seek fame and fortune as an actor. "I can tell you precisely when I thought Iíd made it," he says. "After having been in New York for less than a year, I was hired for the tour of Oh Dad, Poor Dad, which starred Hermione Gingold. While we were on the road, Life magazine did a six-page photo spread on us, and I thought, this is it!" He laughs at his naiveté. "I was wrong."
Sam did end up on Broadway with the show, but afterward became familiar with the actorís continual quest for survival. He worked for a theatre club filling out ticket requests "until the whole office was fired." At one point, "I literally was saved by a role, from becoming a cab driver." He even considered chucking it all and going back to Yale to become an architect. "I never did have to wait tables, though, so looking back I guess I had it pretty soft."
His calculations for success, it turned out, were off by 10 years. "I came to New York in 1962 and it began to look like I might he able to make a living in 1972."
Thatís when he got the genuine "big break". As Sam relates, "I was flat broke. I had come back to New York from doing a play in California, where I had demolished my car. I was split up [from his first wife]. I had no prospects. Things were looking very bleak. "Well, Joe Papp [the producer of the New York Shakespeare Festival] called and offered me the role of Alerts in Hamlet. I told him Iíd like to but Iíd never be able to make a living doing that, and I had to make a living. 1 told him I was going hack to California [to try and do TV] and become rich and famous. So a few days later he called back and said, okay, how about you do Alerts, and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing"
Okay, said Sam. "Much Ado became a big hit, and that was really when people noticed me." Indeed. If a 32-year-old man playing a comic, romantic hero could have been called "adorable," he was. New York ~ Times theatre critic Walter Kerr wrote that "Sam Waterston, splendid; Benedick, is piling up laughs enough to retire on." That summer Sam also did play Alerts to Stacy Keachís Hamlet, and Critic, Olive Barnes observed that "Waterston would make a good Hamlet one day." Three years later, he did. And people started spelling his name right (Not "WaterSON") .
That 1972 Ė 73 "watershed season," was memorable for more than his career success. "I did a major movie, a major television film, and a major play...and I met Lynn!" he says beaming-, referring to his wife. "She was a model when I met her. It was on a blind date, actually, one of the few blind dates that Iíd ever been on in my life." Though the couple will soon celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary, Samís still-obvious delight that he "got the girl" makes it seem as though he proposed only yesterday.
Come to think of it, Samís perpetual-motion work ethic suggests a man who still has several kids to put through college, and he does. The Waterston offspring are 11-year-old Graham, teenage daughters Katherine and Elizabeth, and 26-year-old James (from his first marriage). These days, in the three nanoseconds when Sam is not working, heís happy to just hang his hat at home Ė a farmhouse in rural northwest Connecticut once owned by James Thurber. He says he doesnít have time for hobbies or other non-work interests. "My family is the other thing that I ído,í" he says. "Thatís it, really."
As for his plans beyond L&í0, donít make the mistake of implying that whatever projects he fancies are now his to turn down. Donít say to him, "Now that youíre in a position too pick and choose..."
íYa know, I havenít met the guy whoís doing that, but itís not me," Sam replies. "I mean, I work a lot, thank God I work a lot. Iíve been blessed left, right, and sideways, but that doesnít mean I have this sort of discretion to say, íSummon me the head of Warner Brothers. Thereís something Iíd like to do.í
"But having said that, I have to say, on the other side, that I canít believe what a great career this has been so far. I cannot believe it."