Sam Waterston Biography


Born November 15, 1940, in Cambridge, MA; son of George Chychele (a teacher) and Alice Tucker (a painter) Waterston; married Barbara Rutledge Johns (a photographer and writer; divorced); married Lynn Louisa Woodruff, January 26, 1976; children: James (from first marriage), Graham, Elisabeth, Katherine (from second marriage). Education: Yale, B.A., 1962; studied acting at the Sorbonne, Paris, France; studied with the American Actor's Workshop, Frank Corsaro, and Herbert Berghoff.

Addresses: Office —NBC, 39 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10112.


Actor on stage, including: Antigone, 1947; appearances with the New York Shakespeare Festival, 1963-76, including As You Like It, 1963, Henry IV, Part I, 1968, Henry IV, Part II, 1968, Much Ado About Nothing, 1972, and Hamlet ; Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feelin' So Sad, New York City, 1963; Indians, 1969-70; The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, New York City, 1971; Much Ado About Nothing, New York City, 1974; Lunch Hour, 1980-81; A Walk in the Woods, 1988; Abe Lincoln in Illinois, 1993; Long Day's Journey Into Night, Syracuse Stage, 2000; Much Ado About Nothing, Delacorte Theatre, New York City, 2004; Benefactors. Television appearances include: Camera Three, CBS, 1964; The Glass Menagerie, ABC, 1973; Much Ado About Nothing, 1974; Friendly Fire (movie), ABC, 1979; Oppenheimer, PBS, 1982; Q.E.D., 1982; Finnegan Begin Again (movie), HBO, 1985; Gore Vidal's Lincoln (movie), NBC, 1988; I'll Fly Away, NBC, 1991-93; Law & Or-

der, NBC, 1994—; David's Mother (movie), CBS, 1994; Miracle at Midnight, (movie), 1998; Exiled: A Law and Order Movie (movie), NBC, 1998; A House Divided (movie), Showtime, 2000; The Matthew Shepard Story (movie), 2002. Film appearances include: The Plastic Dome of Norma Jean (unreleased), 1965; Fitzwilly, 1967; The Great Gatsby, 1974; Journey Into Fear, 1976; Dandy, the All American Fear, 1976; Interiors, 1978; Sweet William, 1979; Hopscotch, 1980; Heaven's Gate, 1980; The Killing Fields, 1984; Hannah and Her Sisters, 1986; September, 1987; Crimes and Misdemeanors, 1989; The Man on the Moon, 1991; Serial Mom, 1994; The Journey of August King, 1995; The Proprietor, 1996; Shadow Conspiracy, 1997; Le Divorce, 2003. Television producer of A House Divided, Showtime, 2000; television director of I'll Fly Away, NBC, 1992; film producer of The Journey of August King, 1995. Served as spokesperson for TD Waterhouse, a brokerage firm, 2003—; also worked as a cab driver and for a theater club.

Awards: Obie Award for distinguished performance, Village Voice, for Much Ado About Nothing, 1973; Drama Desk Award for outstanding performance, for Much Ado About Nothing, 1973; Golden Globe Award for best actor in a leading role—drama series, Hollywood Foreign Press Association, for I'll Fly Away, 1992; William Shakespeare Award for Classical Theatre, The Shakespeare Theatre of Washington, D.C., 1996; Emmy Award for outstanding information series, Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, for Time Life's Lost Civilizations—Egypt: Quest for Immortality, 1996; Actor Award for outstanding performance by a male actor in a drama series, for Law & Order, 1998; Screen Actors Guild Award for Law & Order, 1999.


Though American actor Sam Waterston is probably best known for his long-running role on the television drama series Law & Order, he began his career on stage and film. He appeared in a number of productions with the New York Shakespeare Festival and in New York City, beginning in the 1960s. It took a little longer for Waterston to establish himself as a film actor, but after a breakthrough role in the mid-1970s, he appeared in several prominent Woody Allen films.

Born on November 15, 1940, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Waterston was one of four children born to George, a teacher who had emigrated from England, and Alice, a painter. Waterston began his acting career on stage as a child. His stage debut came in 1947 when he was only six years old. He played the Page in a school production of Antigone. His father served as a director of the production.

After graduating from the Groton School, a prep school, Waterston entered Yale University. There, he studied history, French, and drama. During his junior year, Waterston studied with the American Actor's Workshop. This experience also included a stint in Paris, France, studying related stage craft at the Sorbonne. After Waterston earned his B.A. in 1962 from Yale, he began working as an actor nearly right away. His first role was in Oh, Dad, Poor Dad, a touring production. Waterston also studied acting in New York City with Herbert Berghoff and Frank Carsaro.

Though Waterston had some early success as an actor, he did not work on a consistent basis. He supported himself by taking jobs as a cab driver and at a theater. Despite these early difficulties, Waterston had many significant credits in stage productions, primarily in New York City. From 1963 to 1976, Waterston appeared regularly with the New York Shakespeare Festival (NYSF). His first production with NYSF came in 1963 when he played Silvius in As You Like It. That same year, Waterston made his Broadway debut in Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feelin' So Sad. In this comedy, he played Jonathan Rosepettle.

Over the years, Waterston appeared in a number of acclaimed stage performances. One such role was Benedict in the 1972 NYSF production of Much Ado About Nothing. This production later moved to Broadway and won the actor two awards. Water-ston also played the title role in Hamlet and Prince Hal in Henry IV, Part I and Henry IV, Part II, both done by NYSF in 1968.

Waterston developed a reputation for a taking a cerebral approach to characters and craft. He told Samuel G. Freedman of the New York Times, "What I really like to play is people in morally ambiguous situations. That's where things get juicy. The whole area of melodrama is, 'He killed my father, and I'm gonna kill him.' But Hamlet is: 'Am I allowed to do this? If I kill him, does he go to heaven?'"

Waterston also had an impressive range as a stage actor. He appeared in comedies, dramas, and biographical works. In another significant production that was staged in 1988, Waterston co-starred in the two-man drama, A Walk in the Woods, which was based on the events surrounding an arms negotiating session between the United States and the Soviet Union. While the events the play was based on actually occurred in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1982, the names of the men involved were fictionalized. Waterston played the U.S. diplomat. After a run in New York, the production later toured the United States. Another key role for Waterston was playing former U.S. president Abraham Lincoln in a play called Abe Lincoln in Illinois.

As Waterston's career took off in film and television, he continued to appear in a few stage productions. On occasion, he was able to work with some of his own children, who had their own acting ambitions. In 2000, Waterston appeared with his oldest son, James, in a production of Long Day's Journey into Night. Four years later, Waterston appeared with his daughter, Elisabeth, in Much Ado About Nothing. Waterston played the play's family patriarch, Leonato, while his daughter played his character's daughter, Hero.

Waterston's film career was not as prominent as his work on stage, though he appeared in a number of well-known films. He often played supporting roles, usually average types with a dreamy side. Water-ston's career in film did not start well. His first film, The Plastic Dome of Norma Jean, was not released after being shot in 1965. The first film in which he appeared that was released was 1967's Fitzwilly.

It was not until the mid-1970s that Waterston's film career gained notice. One of his first big roles came in the 1974 adaptation of The Great Gatsby, based on the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Waterston's portrayal of Nick Carrawy in the film led to two Golden Globe Award nominations for best supporting actor and most promising newcomer.

In the late 1970s, Waterston began appearing in films directed by noted filmmaker Woody Allen. The first film he did with Allen was 1978's Interiors. Waterston also appeared in critically acclaimed films by Allen such 1986's Hannah and Her Sisters and 1989's Crimes and Misdemeanors. Waterston later stated that he appreciated his time with Allen.

Arguably the most important film role that Water-ston took on in his career was the lead in 1984's The Killing Fields. The film was based on a nonfiction work by Roland Joffe. Waterston played Sidney Schanberg, a journalist, who was doing research in Cambodia. Waterston was nominated for an Academy Award for his work in the film.

Though television became Waterston's primary acting medium in the 1990s and 2000s, he continued to appear a few films. In 1994, he had a supporting role in Serial Mom, a dark farcical comedy directed by John Waters. Waterston played the dim husband to Kathleen Turner's murderous title character. Three years later, Waterston played the U.S. president in Shadow Conspiracy. In 2003, he appeared in Le Divorce, playing the father of two women who lived in Paris.

Waterston began his television career in 1964, when he appeared in Camera Three, but it did not begin in earnest until the early 1970s. In 1973, he appeared in a television production of the Tennessee Williams' play The Glass Menagerie. Waterston's work as Tom on that show led to his first Emmy Award nomination.

Beginning in the early 1980s, Waterston appeared in a number of television movies and miniseries, many with a biographical or true-life bent. In 1982, Water-ston played Robert Oppenheimer in the PBS minis-eries, Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer was the physicist who played a key role in the development of the nuclear bomb. Six years later, he played President Abraham Lincoln in the television movie, Gore Vidal's Lincoln. In 1998's Miracle at Midnight, Water-ston played Dr. Karl Koster. Set during World War II, Koster was a Dane whose actions saved the lives of a number of Jews in the face of the Nazi threat. Waterston's work was particularly acclaimed in the 2002 television movie, The Matthew Shepard Story. Waterston played the father of Matthew Shepard, a young man who was murdered because of his homosexuality.

In 2000, Waterston served as both producer and co-star of a movie for the cable network Showtime. Called A House Divided, the somewhat controversial movie focused on the life story of Amanda America Dixon. Waterston played her father, a plantation owner. Dixon was the product of the rape he committed on one of his slaves, Julia. The owner and his family raised Dixon as white and did not tell her that one of their servants was her mother. Dixon did not learn she had a black mother until she was an adult. She left the home after learning this fact. After her father's death, she was left her father's fortune, for which she had to fight in court. Water-ston was intrigued by the dynamics of the situation. He told Dusty Saunders of Denver Rocky Mountain News, "As a producer I was attracted to the tantalizing prospect of trying to figure out how this worked out between all these people and how they made their way in life."

Throughout his career, the one television genre Waterston was uncomfortable was series television. He had heard and believed that the hours were long and the scripts not always worthy of his time. He had an early short stint on Q.E.D., playing a physicist and professor named Quentin E. Deverill. The show only lasted for eight episodes in 1982. However, Waterston went on to appear on two signifi-cant television series, both critically acclaimed.

The first show of significance was the drama I'll Fly Away, which ran for two seasons on NBC in the early 1990s. Though it did not have high ratings, the show did have a loyal core following. I'll Fly Away was also regarded by some critics as the best show on television at the time. Set in the 1950s in the southern part of the United States, Waterston's character, Forrest Bedford, was a single father who worked as his town's district attorney. Bedford was a moderate in race relations trying to move ahead politically by bowing to white supremacy for the most part. Joshua Brand, a creator and producer of the show, told Freedman of the New York Times, "Forrest is a flawed man, struggling to do the right thing. And when we described that to Sam, he said, 'That's what I do best.' By which he meant, 'I play people who think.'" The race issue was often brought forward by his black housekeeper/nanny named Lilly, played by Regina Taylor. Waterston was nominated three times for Emmy Awards for his work on the show.

In 1994, a year after the cancellation of I'll Fly Away, Waterston joined the cast of a show that was already a hit and had been on the air for five years. Called Law & Order, the drama looked at a case from the point of view of the police investigating the crime and the prosecutors who try these criminals. Waterston played Jack McCoy, the assistant (later executive assistant) district attorney. The character was complicated, and a few people saw parallels between the actor and the character. Waterston told Robert Fidgeon of the Herald Sun, "If you think I possess similar qualities to McCoy, then I graciously accept that. He's a fine man. But the truth is I accepted the role because it meant I could spend more time with my family." The show was shot in New York City.

Waterston continued to play Jack McCoy for more than ten years. However, the cast around him often changed and he was given several new partners. Waterston also appeared in a related television movie, Exiled: A Law & Order Movie. Waterston won at least one award for his work on the show. He was also nominated for an Emmy Award three times, though he did not win.

Of his acting career, Waterston told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "I consider myself to be extraordinarily fortunate. There are so many other things that one can do with one's life that aren't anywhere near as much fun. And then there are so many people who have tried to do this or make it their way in other arts who are just as talented and determined as I am and haven't had anywhere near the chances I've had. So I'm lucky, lucky, lucky."



Celebrity Biographies, Baseline II, 2005.

Periodicals, November 10, 2003.

Denver Rocky Mountain News, July 30, 2000, p. 4.

Herald Sun, May 10, 2000, p. H4.

New Yorker, July 26, 2004, p. 90.

New York Times, January 21, 1988, p. C21; November 17, 1991, sec. 2, p. 31; September 25, 1994, sec. 2, p. 33.

Pittsburgh-Post Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), April 24, 2000, p. D2.

Seattle Times (Seattle, WA), April 15, 1994, p. D3; January 24, 2005, p. E1.

Washington Post, September 15, 1991, p. Y9.


"Sam Waterston,", http:://www.nbc. com/Law_&_Order/bios/Sam_Waterston.html (August 8, 2005).

A. Petruso

User Contributions:

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic: