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Law & Order: Articles, 1995-1996
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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."

A Creative 'Law' Case
Verne Gay, Newsday, 1995

Shocking news, "Law and Order" fans: Chris Noth, one of the most enduring characters on NBC's Wednesday drama and a regular since it was launched five years ago, will depart at the end of this season. Why shocking? Noth, who had a five-year contract, has been darned good as Det. Mike Logan, and by all accounts the show's producers agree. But in a phone interview yesterday, a somber Noth said, "I have a lot to look forward to, and I've had a great time. I'm sorry we couldn't work it out, but I never even got to the table to negotiate any kind of equitable deal. I assume they are probably saving money on some level." Executive producer Ed Sherin, who gave Noth the news Tuesday, said, however, the actor's departure is tied to creative - not financial - reasons. "This had nothing to do with Chris' brilliance as an actor, nor with his following," Sherin said. "It had much more to do with a desire to change the mix, and perhaps to enliven the relationship of the two detectives." (The other, Det. Lenny Briscoe, is played by Jerry Orbach.) Sherin added he and the show's creator, Dick Wolf, want a "litte more personal abrasiveness in the relationship and two distinctly different personalities. I think there's a certain sameness in them, and you very often get the notion that their lines are interchangeable." Noth, however, said he was given no reason for the change. "If they feel they can do without me, I'm fine with it. I've got a movie career, but I love the people, especially the crew. They're a big part of the reason it's been such an enjoyable thing to do. But I'm fine with it." Noth joins other cast members who have left, Paul Sorvino to sing, Michael Moriarty because he was angry. And frankly, the show did not appear to suffer after their departures. Still, Noth has been a crucial figure for five years.

Bond Girl to Shake Up Law and Order
Neal Watson, Edmonton Sun, 8.21.96

Looking to shake up her career, stirred by the possibilities, an old Bond girl is the new Law and Order lady lawyer.

Carey Lowell, who starred opposite that lesser Bond Timothy Dalton in 1989's Licence to Kill, is the latest actor to step through the revolving door that regularly spits out cast members of the long-running police/legal drama.

Lowell will play the new assistant district attorney, Jamie Ross, replacing Canadian actress Jill Hennessy who, at her own request, left the show. Hennessy's character, assistant DA Claire Kincaid, appeared to perish in a car crash at the end of last season.

Of late romantically linked with actor Richard Gere, Lowell will play a successful, but disillusioned, criminal defence lawyer who crosses over to the other side. Jamie Ross will be introduced in the courtroom after, in keeping with the show's style, a minimum of information about her personal life.

"She's very smart and also very moral,'' Lowell said of the character in a recent chat. "I become a prosecutor because I'm sick of all the scumbags I represented as a defence lawyer.''

Lowell's character, like the actress, is a single mom and lives in New York. She does not expect that Ross will become romantically involved with Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston).

"I don't think it will happen in the first year," said Lowell, citing McCoy's implied relationship with Kincaid. "It would be insensitive to put me in the sack with him.''

Lowell's slightly checkered career includes the Geena Davis role in the sitcom version of A League of Their Own and the part of the bank teller who is harassed by Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas. She said the writing in Law and Order is far superior to the feature film scripts that pass her desk.

"Because I did the Bond film, I get offered a lot of tough-chick-with-big-gun roles,'' she said. Courtroom scenes will be acting heaven for Lowell, who signed a three-year contract.

Hennessy was the seventh major character to leave Law and Order in six seasons. Despite the exodus, which also included Michael Moriarty and Paul Sorvino, the continued success of the show (it is again nominated for best drama series at the upcoming Emmy Awards) appears to confirm executive producer Dick Wolf's belief that viewers tune in for its format and treatment of crime/justice issues, and not for its stars.

(Wolf makes a practice to not negotiate with unhappy actors who are under contract. He launched a lawsuit against the stars of New York Undercover, another Wolf show, and was holding auditions to replace Malik Yoba and Michael DeLorenzo when they held out for more money. They have returned to work - for the same salaries.) Law and Order returns for its seventh season Sept. 18 on CFRN.

Ejections Overruled
A benchful of cast members may have departed, but airtight acting and a reliable structure make a convincing case that 'Law & Order' is still one of tv's best dramas.
Ken Tucker, Entertainment Weekly, 1996

Now in its sixth season, LAW & ORDER (NBC, Wednesdays, 10-11 p.m.) remains one of television's most solid dramas, despite--or is that because of?--its ever-changing cast. When the series premiered in the fall of 1990, it starred George Dzundza and Chris Noth as weather-beaten New York police detectives, and Michael Moriarty and Richard Brooks as world-weary prosecutors for the district attorney's office. Five years later, there's a whole new crew. Jerry Orbach is in his fourth season as Lennie Briscoe, the old-pro cop with the basset-hound eyes. And Lennie has a brand-new partner, Reynaldo "Rey" Curtis, played by young, granite-jawed Benjamin Bratt. On the lawyer side, it's now Sam Waterston and Jill Hennessy who are barking "Objection!" and petitioning judges for maximum sentences.
Law & Order's initial claim to distinction was its structure: The first half of every episode followed the investigation of a crime; the second half showed us the trial for that crime. I think it's the show's adherence to this game plan that has allowed for the shifting of cast members without the confusion or alienation of viewers. You may not know who's going to be the star at the start of any season, but you can depend on the cozy familiarity of the way an L&O drama will be played out.
To be sure, there have been cast changes I lament. Carolyn McCormick still pops up from time to time as the DA office's criminal psychiatrist, Dr. Elizabeth Olivet. Her sloe-eyed intelligence, though, deserves more, not less, screen time. And S. Epatha Merkerson is fine as the cops' boss, Lieut. Anita Van Buren, but I still miss the understated sarcasm and hard-bitten integrity Dann Florek brought to the role in the 1990-93 episodes. Most of all, I miss Noth, who was a real find as a TV actor. Good-looking without being a mere hunk, brooding without being merely sulky, he always managed to suggest a hot temper and a complex private life while delivering the show's patented calm, simple dialogue. Thank goodness the producers have kept Steven Hill on as dependably crusty DA Adam Schiff.
Of the newer hires, Bratt is the most problematic. On paper, his Rey Curtis sounds intriguing: a Latino cop, a practicing Catholic, happily married with three young daughters, and just inexperienced and cocky enough to clash with Lennie. But so far, Bratt has chosen to play Rey as a humorless, sobersided square.
L&O's ratings are stronger now than they've ever been, but I've noticed a drop in the quality of the writing. Too many cases derive their initial inspiration from real events (the Susan Smith case, and even, recently, that of Patty Hearst), with slight, facile alterations. Then too, the dialogue, once a model of hard-boiled terseness, is all too often now a jumble of gabby cliches.
Lennie and Rey have exchanges intended to convey how tough they are, but instead they come off sounding corny ("Ya kidnap a kid from a church? How many Hail Marys does that get ya?"; "Somehow I don't think this guy was counting"). And Waterston's Jack McCoy offers puffy, op-ed-page bromides such as "The Oprahfication of America ended when the Menendez brothers weren't convicted. The pendulum has swung, Adam. People don't care about why anymore--they care about what." What?
But you never know when L&O will let loose a corker, such as a November episode about the murder of the editor of an online magazine called BiteHead. It lampooned the absurdities of cyberspeak, had a suspenseful mystery plot, and featured a terrific performance by one of the slew of New York theater actors--in this case, Peter Frechette--that L&O employs to give the show a fresh look. When L&O clicks into place like that, it's as good as the best of TV.
Grade: B+