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The Untold Truth Of S. Epatha Merkerson

S. Epatha Merkerson is an American actress best known for her role in NBC's "Law & Order" as Lieutenant Anita Van Buren and her more recent role as Sharon Goodwin on "Chicago Med," "Chicago Fire," and "Chicago P.D." 

Her screen acting career began in 1986 when she was cast as Doctor Jamison in Spike Lee's comedy "She's Gotta Have It." Growing up, her family always called her Epatha, never calling her by her first name, Sharon. In an interview with The Television Academy, Merkerson joked her first initial stands for "Sweet" before admitting a classmate from high school divulged her first name, making it public knowledge. Merkerson explained how she started using just her first initial because she got the idea from G. Gordon Liddy.

Although most of us only know Merkerson as a television actress, she has a wealth of acting experience on both the big and small screens and the stage. She has even branched out into producing and directing at one point. Merkerson splits her time between New York City, which she considers home, and Chicago, where she films "Chicago Med." But she wasn't always an award-winning actress living in a city that never sleeps. Once upon a time, she was just a little girl from Michigan with a big dream and a bright future. Join us in discovering the untold truth of S. Epatha Merkerson.

She grew up in Detroit

S. Epatha Merkerson was born in 1952 in Saginaw, Michigan. In an interview with the Television Academy, Merkerson talked about her youth growing up in Detroit, the youngest of five siblings, raised by her mother after her parent's divorce. Her mother, Anna, was always an enormous influence in Epatha's life, working for the US Postal Service when Epatha was growing up.

When Epatha was a small child, she lived in what she described as a multicultural neighborhood. Epatha attributes her curiosity about other cultures and Black history to living in this neighborhood as a small child. By the time she reached high school, her family had moved to a predominantly white area, being the second Black family to move to the neighborhood. While chatting with the Television Academy, Epatha talked about her high school, Cooley High, being 90% white when she began as a freshman and 50% white by the time she graduated as a senior.

Epatha and her family witnessed what we now call "white flight" firsthand, as her neighbors put their homes up for sale, moving out of Detroit to the suburbs where there was less ethnic diversity. The star remembers the rioting in Detroit during the summer of 1967 when she was a teenager, recalling it being scary. But, she also mentions many advantages to living in the city, like having opportunities to see dance performances and plays, sparking an early interest in the arts and entertainment in Epatha.

S. Epatha Merkerson holds multiple degrees

After graduating from Cooley High School in 1970, S. Epatha Merkerson first went to Eastern Michigan University, where she enrolled as a dance major. She later transferred to the University of Indiana, changing her major to theater. During an interview with the Television Academy, the celeb discussed the difficulty she had being cast during her years as a theater major because casting was not colorblind in universities during the '70s. Merkerson said much of her college acting experience was in studio, or through the African American Studies department, rather than in university productions. 

Merkerson later transferred to Wayne State University, where she graduated with a BFA in 1976. Although she never went back to school after getting her BFA, she has been awarded four honorary doctorates. Her first honorary doctorate came from her alma mater, Wayne State University, in 2009. Later, Maryland Eastern University, Montclair State University, and the University of Pittsburgh awarded her additional honorary doctorates.

She played Reba on Pee-Wee's Playhouse

After graduating from Wayne State, S. Epatha Merkerson moved to Albany, New York, where she worked in a children's theater. While working at the theater, she toured around upstate New York, performing in schools. In an interview with the Television Academy, Merkerson said this job was "probably the worst job I've ever had," but later shared that the highlight of this experience had been traveling to Rome and Israel with the theater troupe to perform. In 1978, Merkerson moved to New York. The actress said she knew one person there, spending two months sleeping on her friend's floor while she auditioned for stage work, continuing to land roles for nearly a decade.

In 1986, Merkerson auditioned for and was cast in the role of Reba the Mail Lady on the children's show "Pee-wee's Playhouse," starring Paul Reubens as Pee-wee Herman. The series was spectacularly received, winning multiple awards, including Daytime Emmys, gaining a following with children and adults alike. "Pee-wee's Playhouse" is still considered by many a cult classic. 

Chatting to the Television Academy, Merkerson said, "It was just a mad, crazy, fun job!" Merkerson explained Reubens would allow her to come to set a day early to take everything in because she found the set "distracting" and exciting. As USA Today reported in 2014, Merkerson wasn't the only big star to get their start on the children's show; Laurence Fishburne was cast as Cowboy Curtis.

She's the longest serving cast member on Law & Order

Most fans of the series don't know this, but a couple of years before we met the no-nonsense Lt. Van Buren on "Law & Order," S. Epatha Merkerson auditioned for a one episode part and got the role. In 1991, Merkerson played Mrs. Denise Winters, a maid in the episode titled "Mushrooms." In an interview with the Television Academy, Merkerson shared how this acting gig led to her being a big fan of the show. Two years later, in 1993, she would begin her long-term role on the procedural drama, making Merkerson's role the longest-running character in the series. For 16 years, Merkerson would play Anita Van Buren, deciding to leave her role mid-season when Merkerson realized her contract was up and the storyline of her character having cancer seemed like a good time to leave the show.

When she spoke to Entertainment Weekly, they asked if it was an emotional conversation to have with Dick Wolf. Merkerson said, "It was. But I'm taking all the good with me. It was 16 years of employment — actors rarely have that experience. And so I know that I'm really, really lucky, because that's what we look for — the next gig ... But the things that I'm doing now are interesting and challenging. I'm producing and directing a documentary about African-American benevolent societies. It's exciting for me to be able to learn new things. I'm sure it will be emotional, but right now I'm just really happy for having had the opportunity."

She's an advocate for quitting smoking

S. Epatha Merkerson has been advocating for the campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and other cancer organizations for years. Within a year of quitting, she got involved in sharing her story. As she shared with WebMD in 2008, "I'm an actor, so what I do is run my mouth. It's not like I can get in front of a group and talk about a CT scan with real authority, but I can talk to young people about my experience." And her experience is both personal and devastating.

In 2006, Merkerson told Real Health Magazine that she was once a three-pack-a-day smoker who had tried to quit for years, "I woke up that morning, and it felt like an elephant was sitting on my chest. I could not take a breath. And I just remember lying there, looking at my pack of cigarettes on the nightstand and thinking that the great thing about life is that you always have the opportunity to make another choice — so I did."

Two of the star's best friends, Yvette Hawkins and Billie Neal, died of lung cancer. "One of them passed away in 1995; the other in '97. I was actually there when Yvette took her last breath ... We found out Billie had cancer in June, and she was dead by December. It is an awful, awful way to die." Merkerson's sister, Debbie, was also diagnosed but thankfully recovered. The actress has also worked with CancerCare and the American Lung Association, advocating for people to quit smoking.

S. Epatha Merkerson hosted Find Our Missing

In 2012, S. Epatha Merkerson signed on to host two seasons of TV One's docu-drama series "Find Our Missing." This series used reenactments, archival and police evidence to raise awareness of Black missing persons whose stories haven't been given mainstream media coverage. The hope of the show creators is to jog witnesses' memories, so they can offer information to help authorities find these missing persons. As reported on the TV One website, "African Americans make up about 12 percent of the U.S. population, but are almost one-third of all missing person cases reported each year. Though they may be gone, they are no longer forgotten."

The disparity between coverage of whites who go missing and people of color in America has been a heated topic of debate. Many young women who go missing are victims of human trafficking. As Merkerson said in an interview with HuffPost, "a lot of the missing young women [are] between the ages of 11 and 17 ... so it becomes more important that we have a national forum to discuss these stories and these cases." This is a problem "Find Our Missing" directly addressed.

 "I noticed that there's been this dialogue, especially on the black radio stations, about the dearth of information on people of color who are missing on a national scale," Merkerson added. "So when TV One called and asked me to host, I thought to myself, 'Wow, some things happen for a reason.' There was a reason why I was hearing this dialogue, because it was this show coming up. And it was a no-brainer when they asked."

She produced and directed a documentary

S. Epatha Merkerson branched out of acting to produce and direct the 2012 documentary "The Contradictions of Fair Hope" narrated by Whoopi Goldberg. In the film, Merkerson explores a little-known part of American history through the African-American "benevolent societies" that were formed by newly freed slaves after the civil war. Merkerson's film is about the last remaining benevolent society in Alabama. 

In 2012 Merkerson spoke with HuffPost about the documentary saying, "We took the story back to the beginning of the creation of the Benevolent Society, and we come all the way to now to show the way this organization has morphed from what it originally was to what it is now." This documentary was the actor's first foray into producing and directing with her co-director Rockell Metcalf. As The Philadelphia Tribune reported, Merkerson describes her film as "a fascinating albeit disturbing story of what happens when a community steeped in mutual care and concern loses its way and begins to put the 'almighty dollar' ahead of benevolence."

S. Epatha Merkerson has Type 2 diabetes

In 2002, when S. Epatha Merkerson was still with "Law & Order," she attended a health fair in Washington D.C. for NBC, making a segment with an affiliate cameraman. She talked to someone about exercise, cooked something healthy, and had her blood sugar tested at the Howard University table while on camera. The doctor asked her to come back after she finished filming for the day, taking her blood sugar again. On this day, Merkerson learned she had Type 2 diabetes. As reported by USA Today, Merkerson said, "As an African American, I knew Type 2 diabetes was a significant health concern among our community, but I was unaware of the signs and symptoms, let alone that I might be displaying them."

As reported on HealthyWomen, Merkerson acknowledged diabetes runs in her family, "My father died from complications of diabetes. My grandmother lost her sight. My uncle had amputations. But it's something we never discussed. It was always, 'Mama Pearl has a touch of sugar.' Well, no, Mama Pearl has diabetes." It took several years, but Merkerson eventually changed her diet and exercise routine, losing a significant amount of weight. As reported in USA Today, Merkerson checks her blood sugar twice a day and tracks how she's doing with regular doctor visits. She discovered walking is an exercise she actually enjoys. "New York is a great place to walk. Now I'm here in Chicago doing 'Chicago Med,' and Chicago is a great walking city as well," she told HealthyWomen.

Her acting career started on stage

Although most of us know S. Epatha Merkerson for her work on "Law & Order" or "Chicago Med," she began her acting career on stage, and she loved working in theater. In an interview with the Television Academy, Merkerson was effusive about her love of theater and how she initially didn't have aspirations to do screen work. When Merkerson first arrived in New York after graduating college, she found work in Black theater, first in musicals and then as an understudy.

In this interview, Merkerson credits her part of Berniece in the Broadway show "The Piano Lesson" for getting her role in "Law & Order." Merkerson had her first Tony nomination for her role in "The Piano Lesson." But she didn't stop stage acting once she landed on the small screen. According to Broadway World, Merkerson took the role of Lola in the revival of "Come Back, Little Sheba" in 2008 and was nominated for a Tony for her portrayal. She also played Sharon in "The Roommate" in 2017.

She has won prestigious awards

Over the years, S. Epatha Merkerson has been nominated and won awards for her various roles in the entertainment industry. In 2005, Merkerson won an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress for her role as Rachel Nanny Crosby for HBO's gem "Lackawanna Blues." The following year, Merkerson also won a Screen Actors Guild Award and a Golden Globe for her performance as Nanny in the HBO film, as well as a Black Reel award for Best Actress. In total, Merkerson has won nine awards for her role in the 2005 flick.

As per IMDb, Merkerson has had 23 nominations and 14 wins during her career. She has won numerous Image Awards from the NAACP and multiple Screen Actors Guild awards over the years for her role in "Law & Order." Merkerson has been nominated for a Tony Award twice, once in 1990 for "The Piano Lesson" and again in 2008 for "Come Back, Little Sheba." Merkerson is also a recipient of the Obie Award for her off-Broadway role in "Birdie Blue."

She was a guest on Finding Your Roots

S. Epatha Merkerson has been a guest on the PBS series "Finding Your Roots" not once but twice. In Season 5, Episode 5, Merkerson learned of her family history when professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. explained some of her ancestors were part of a group of enslaved people who the Jesuits owned. This was an emotional revelation. In the episode, Merkerson says, "It boggles the mind ... these are men of the cloth." For the descendants of enslaved people, there is so much mystery about their family roots because of the horrors of slavery their ancestors endured.

But Merkerson learned more about these ancestors. On a 2019 panel Merkerson took part in at Georgetown University, following a viewing of the episode of "Finding Your Roots," The Georgetown Voice reported these nine slaves Merkerson is descended from were amongst the 272 people sold in 1838 to finance keeping the university open. After this information was revealed to Merkerson, she tearfully said, "They have names. They're not just faceless people." 

S. Epatha Merkerson was once just a little girl from Detroit with big dreams of moving to New York to become an actress. In an interview with the Television Academy, Merkerson shared how she had four aunts who lived in Queens when she was a girl. She recalled visiting with her family once, and she talked about seeing the lights in Times Square, thinking someday she was going to move to New York too. If her ancestors could see her now, they would be so proud of all her accomplishments and the woman she has become.