Playing It Anew, Sam
Waterston takes on a `Law & Order' tough-guy role
Verne Gay, Newsday, 9.21.94
We are sitting in Sam Waterston's office in "Law & Order's" West Side studios, and the view - truth be told - is lousy.
A rotting pier stretches beneath its window, and far beyond that the equally decrepit Hudson shoreline of Jersey looms. The office is not much to look at either - small, cramped, barely a place to hang a coat. A deep pool of water sits in front of the elevator banks downstairs, forcing users to hopscotch to dry spots, or swim.
So what is a guy like Waterston doing in a place like this? Sam Waterston - the distinguished, intellectual Sam Waterston. Groton and Yale-educated. A Shakespearean actor. Writer of movie treatments. Producer of his own movies. Oscar nominee. An American actor who even speaks French.
But there's another slightly jarring "what's wrong with this picture" element: Waterston is the new star of a bona fide hit TV show, unlike his two previous efforts (1991's "I'll Fly Away" was praised but barely watched; 1982's "Q.E.D." was neither praised nor watched). Indeed, "Law & Order" is a hit, and it might just be the most important - and certainly the most visible - role in Waterston's long career.
"I pretty much believed the propaganda about TV series," says Waterston, 53, explaining his paucity of tube roles. "The hours are horrible, and the scripts are terrible, the experience is awful, and the only thing that is pleased is your bank account. So I pretty much avoided the whole thing. I didn't look, and I don't know whether I'd look again either."
That would be a shame. Tonight (WNBC/4 at 10) Waterston makes his "L&O" debut as Jack McCoy, the assistant D.A. replacing Ben Stone (Michael Moriarty). As McCoy, a gruff, takes-no-bull type with a reputation for sleeping with his assistants, Waterston is terrific and perhaps the best addition to this cast in its five-season history.
Yet, in person, Waterston would seem to be a universe away from McCoy, exhibiting none of his character's strident singlemindedness. Press interviews are not his favorite part of the job, and he deftly scuttles away from any personal questions. He asks that the location of his Connecticut home not be revealed, and when one wonders about his hobbies beyond acting, he simply replies his "four children." He also manifests some of that trademark Waterston cerebration, scrunching his face as he scrutinizes his mind for the proper words.
On why he decided to return to TV: "Somebody just said it was a really good show and close to home. There's not a lot that's extraordinary about it."
Naturally, there's a little more to it than that. Dick Wolf, "L&O" creator, approached Waterston last year about starring in another show that he was developing for ABC. But when Moriarty quit, Waterston became a leading contender to replace him. Waterston was intrigued by the role, in part, because "this business of the game of the law and the high purpose of the office is endlessly interesting."
Before joining up Waterston wanted some assurance that he could help create McCoy (he wanted to play something radically different from Moriarty's Ben Stone, who was incorruptible to a fault). "You'd have to have some sort of survival mechanism to be continually plunged into the absolutely horrible morally ambiguous situations [of the D.A.'s office]," he explains. "I mean, the most interesting aspect is staying afloat on a steady diet of bad news."
To research his character, Waterston spent several days in the Manhattan D.A.'s office, including one memorable afternoon with Thomas Schiels, a senior trial counsel and homicide specialist whom Waterston credits for inspiration in creating McCoy.
Schiels declined to comment, but a source said that Waterston "was shocked to learn that our first obligation is to find out whether someone committed the crime." Waterston also learned about the drinking habits of D.A.s. Schiels and a couple of other attorneys took him to Forlini's on Baxter Street in lower Manhattan and bought a round of Buds. Waterston poured his beer into a glass, but when he saw the others drink directly from the bottle, he too, put down his glass and drank from the bottle, says an eyewitness.
Of his education, Waterston says, "I got the very strong impression that [D.A.s] were not all cut from the same piece of cloth. They were not all little gray people in little gray suits all speaking in the same manner," adding that he was "surprised by their humanity."
McCoy would not appear to be vintage Waterston, who has often played characters who must wrestle with complex moral and ethical decisions. (The most recent examples include "Abe Lincoln in Illinois," for the stage, and Forrest Bedford in "I'll Fly Away.")
McCoy's demons, it would appear, have long been vanquished. "He's a very uncomplicated guy," says Wolf. "He's not nearly [as] tortured about the vagaries of criminal law that Ben Stone was. He's more straight ahead…a Nineties character."
In tonight's episode we see this '90s guy in full tilt. He decides to prosecute a female doctor who has presumably been prescribing a laetrile-like concoction to patients dying of breast cancer. The situation appears to be awash in moral ambiguity: Is this doctor selling "false hope," or saving the patients from cruel standard cancer treatments like chemotherapy that prolong dying? McCoy sees no ambiguity: He wants to charge the doctor with murder.
This aggressiveness attracted Waterston to McCoy and "L&O." He says he wanted to make the character "merrier and more unapologetically aggressive than certainly the people that I have played recently."
Perhaps Waterston is concerned about the widespread impression that he is drawn to sensitive, angst-ridden characters. "One of the raps against him - and he and I have talked about this - is that he's got this label as a `decent guy,' " says Newsday columnist Sydney Schanberg, whom Waterston portrayed in "The Killing Fields." "It's a funny rap, but you can get stereotyped."
Waterston denies that he made a career out of playing only one type of character, but he also leaves little doubt that he relishes his new role as a '90s tough guy.