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The Transformation Of Sam Waterston From Childhood To Law And Order

Few men appear as immortal as the inimitable Sam Waterston. He may be 81 years old — old enough that, as he told USA Today, his acquaintances still use flip phones — but really, he doesn't seem to have lost one bit of his on-screen energy and passion for his craft. He's as active in taking on new projects and roles as he was two decades ago, and even returned to his most iconic character for the 21st season of "Law & Order" in 2022, over a decade after the show's first cancellation. 

How did it all begin? Acting first came onto Waterston's radar as a Yale undergraduate in the 1960s. As a member of the drama society, he played Lucky in a student production of "Waiting for Godot" and the experience left him simply enchanted (per Interview Magazine). And although he initially resisted the idea of getting into the entertainment industry, its thrills and rewards left him coming back for more. Here's the story of Sam Waterston's career, from his youth on stage to his most enduring TV characters.

The Plastic Dome of Norma Jean

In 1966, Waterston made his feature film debut in "The Plastic Dome of Norma Jean," an independent avant-garde movie financed entirely by writer-director Juleen Compton. Filmed in the Ozark Mountains, it chronicles a cautionary tale of stardom as Norma Jean (clearly named after Marilyn Monroe) struggles with the fame she garners for her prescient psychic powers. Waterston plays Andy, one of the three struggling musicians inspired to make a little money by creating a show out of Norma Jean's clairvoyant abilities.

Strangely little is actually known about this film, which never received an official theatrical release. Its IMDb and Wikipedia pages are sparse, though copies are known to be stowed away in the archives of the U.S. Library of Congress. It purportedly received a special award at the 1969 Cannes Film Festival (per MoMA), and Barbra Streisand later recorded a version of the movie's theme (via Discogs), but the scarcity of information makes much about the project quite impossible to verify. It's no wonder then why Compton's film soon faded into obscurity; Waterston's career, on the other hand, had just started.

The Glass Menagerie

Several years later, Waterston starred opposite Hollywood legend Katharine Hepburn in the 1973 TV adaptation of Tennessee Williams' classic "The Glass Menagerie." In her television debut, Hepburn portrays Amanda Wingfield, while Waterston plays her son, Tom — arguably the protagonist of this memory play. This drama turned out to be one of the major television events of the year, owing to its stellar ratings and commendable haul at the 26th Primetime Emmy Awards, with Michael Moriarty and Joanna Miles winning Best Supporting Actor and Actress in a Drama, respectively.

Alongside his first-ever award nomination (for Best Supporting Actor in a Drama, which he lost to Moriarty), Waterston took away many fond memories from working with Katharine Hepburn — "I was absolutely mesmerized," he later told The Day about the experience. In particular, he recalled Hepburn telling him that she enjoyed spending her sizable salary buying a "parade of goodies" for all the actors to enjoy on set. 

The Great Gatsby

Hollywood's attention was drawn to Sam Waterston with his 1974 performance as Nick Carraway in "The Great Gatsby." As recounted in Town & Country, the story of how this particular adaptation came to be is pretty interesting. Truman Capote, the eminent novelist behind "In Cold Blood" and "Breakfast at Tiffany's," was originally attached to write its script, but he was quickly replaced by Francis Ford Coppola. In the field of literary classics Coppola possessed far less expertise than his predecessor — the best he could say about "The Great Gatsby" was that he had, at least, read it — but he took on the job anyway because he was just coming off "The Godfather" and was (hilariously, in hindsight) unsure if it would make money.

The movie, led by Robert Redford ("All The President's Men," "Captain America: The Winter Soldier"), was a success, winning two Oscars and three BAFTA Awards, but privately, Coppola wasn't too pleased with the final product. On his home video commentary for "The Godfather," he criticized director Jay Clayton for tossing out his work. "The script that I wrote did not get made," he said (via Slate). The best that critics said about the movie was that it was a faithful to F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel, but other than that, it was a rather stiff and emotionless adaptation. Waterston did bag two Golden Globe nominations, though (for Best Supporting Actor and Most Promising Newcomer), so it wasn't wholly a bomb for him. 

The Killing Fields

Waterston almost achieved Hollywood's highest accolade in 1984, when he was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar for his role as reporter Sydney Schanberg in "The Killing Fields." This British biographical drama depicts the experiences of Schanberg and Dith Pran, a Cambodian New York Times journalist and interpreter, covering the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia.

"The thing that made [producer] David Puttnam want to make this movie was that he found a story that told about war from the point of view of the victims instead of the combatants," he later shared with NPR. "There isn't really any other way that we ought to be looking at this. It is the people who suffer the war. They are the people that deserve our attention and our sympathy and our response."

As he told The Los Angeles Times on the film's 30th anniversary, Waterston credits "The Killing Fields" with changing his life. He had accumulated quite a lot of theater and television experience up until this point, but this was his first big feature film production, working with film veterans like cinematographer Chris Menges ("Michael Collins," "The Reader"), whose work on this movie won the Academy Award for Best Cinematography, and production designer Roy Walker ("Good Morning, Vietnam," "Little Shop of Horrors"), who had collaborated with Stanley Kubrick on "The Shining" and "Barry Lyndon."

Abe Lincoln in Illinois

Does Sam Waterston look like one of the greatest presidents of the United States? Enough people certainly seem to think so, given that Waterston has played Abraham Lincoln several times in his career: in 1988, for Gore Vidal's "Lincoln"; in 1990, for Ken Burns' "The Civil War"; and most notably in 1993, for a second stage revival of "Abe Lincoln In Illinois." 

Waterston himself has a theory: "People knew by then that I like to do Shakespeare. And if I liked to do Shakespeare, I must be serious," he said in a New York Times interview. It was on Broadway that he received a Tony nomination for Best Actor in a Play, but the part did not fall at his doorstep easily. He "begged, harassed, and beleaguered" his agent for it, he told Charlie Rose. "At the center there is an emotional whole — and I think this is the reason why people get so fascinated with the man, because no matter what you do to him, no matter what take there is, the same colossal personality comes out, and trying to name it and really put your finger on what is the center of it becomes terribly fascinating," Waterston explained.

Other than becoming "addicted" to Lincolnian history, Waterston visited the Lincoln Memorial frequently — dragging his wife with him on numerous occasions — to get into the spirit of the American hero by reading out loud the speeches carved on its walls. "It sort of makes the floors tremble, it's so powerful," he told HistoryNet.

Law & Order

When Sam Waterston was thinking about whether to join NBC's district attorney's office, his considerations were quite simple: production was relatively near where he lived, and his children were going to college soon (he joked to NPR that "Law & Order" paid for his children's educations). Season 5 thus introduced "Law & Order" fans to Executive District Attorney Jack McCoy, who is renowned for his ruthlessness and aggression in the dogged pursuit of justice. Though he often finds himself having to wade out of legal trouble for his sometimes shady prosecution tactics, he is widely respected as a brilliant and unyielding mind, earning the nickname of "Hang 'em High McCoy."

Yet while his professional success is admired by colleagues and rivals alike, his personal relationships (including multiple inappropriate affairs with female Assistant District Attorneys) often leave his life in turmoil. Amusingly, when they first meet, McCoy tells new ADA Claire Kincaid that he has only had affairs with three of his ADAs, only for Kincaid to realize shortly afterwards that he has only had three female ADAs before her. His romantic entanglements often have professional fallouts, as he ends up being implicated in the problems of his ADAs and opposing counsels turn his sexual history against him.

Through the 16 seasons that Waterston was on "Law & Order," he appeared in 369 episode. Much like his character, who refuses to quit — and repeatedly tries to talk other characters out of leaving their jobs — Waterston himself is grateful for the show's extraordinarily long run. "It kept me out of trouble," he shared with NPR. "I might have wound up doing other things that I wasn't as glad to be in — dumb roles or dumb projects."

The Newsroom

Sam Waterston does not take career breaks. Hot off of 20 years on "Law & Order," he leapt right into acclaimed screenwriter Aaron Sorkin's high-octane drama "The Newsroom," portraying Atlantis Cable News director Charlie Skinner — a role that he chanced upon completely by accident. As he told The A.V. Club, it just so happened that there was a trade paper lying around his house (even though he doesn't read them), and he found out that Sorkin ("A Few Good Men," "Molly's Game," "The Social Network") was doing a television series. Immediately, he knew that he wanted to be in it. 

"One of the things that actors dread about doing a television series is becoming pigeonholed or getting locked into a character and having your whole identity as an actor be tied up with that character," Waterston told TV Guide about joining a new show after "Law & Order." He went on to add, "I'm getting to play radically different people. It's a trip, and it's a great thing."

Celebrity Jeopardy!

Sam Waterston's humility is admirably outstanding in an industry oversaturated with egos and wealth (he told NPR he only considers himself "semi-famous," for one), and one of the finest ways that he exemplifies this is in his fierce advocacy for his social causes. He and "Grace and Frankie" co-star Jane Fonda went viral last October for being arrested in Washington, D.C., after demonstrating during a climate change protest outside the U.S. Capitol building (per The Hollywood Reporter). In fact, he's often been very vocal about his commitment to environmental protection. 

Twice, Waterston got the opportunity to play Celebrity Jeopardy! to raise funds and awareness for the charities he supports. In his first appearance he came in second place, with $12,000, in a three-way 'Law & Order' contest, raising $25,000 for Refugees International and Oceana. He won $23,800 for Refugees International the second time, comfortably defeating the two other players, who won $9,200 and $200 respectively (via Jeopardy! Archive). 

Interestingly, his encyclopedic knowledge and ardent love for Shakespeare came in handy during the Final Jeopardy round of both games, as both questions were related to the Bard. The first: "Playwright who penned the famous line, 'The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers.'" And the second: "Robert Armin played the role of the fool in 'As You Like It,' in 'Twelfth Night,' and in this tragedy first published in 1608." It's absolutely no surprise that he nailed them both, and was actually the only one who correctly answered "King Lear" for the latter question.

Law & Order Revival

In 2021, NBC announced that "Law & Order" was coming back with a straight-to-series order for a 21st season. Series creator Dick Wolf, for whom Waterston was his first and only choice for Jack McCoy, looked to bring the fan-favorite actor on board right away. "Since day one, Sam has had perfect pitch when it comes to Jack McCoy as a character who both reflects and expands our ability to understand the law," Wolf wrote in a statement (via Deadline). "He is the ultimate conscience of the show."

Waterston was very enthusiastic to get back into the legal fray. As it turns out, he had always wanted "Law & Order" to break the record for longest-running primetime television series before its sudden axing in 2010 (its sister show, "Law & Order: SVU," eventually did break the record). "It was totally surreal. Unbelievable," he told NPR. "It's a step back in time. They built the sets in every detail down to the books on the shelves to the linoleum on the floor. You know perfectly well that it wasn't all being done for you, but you can't escape the feeling that you're being given this opportunity to step back in time in your own life."

Summer theater productions

Even decades after Sam Waterston's career took off and his busy schedule began filling up with film and television projects, he never forgot that his first and most enduring love was the stage — it was where he discovered the thrills of acting and where he enjoyed the earliest successes of his career. Having made his Shakespeare in the Park debut in 1963 (performing "As You Like It"), he kept going back to perform his favorite works — those of William Shakespeare. 

His list of stage credits could fill up an entire IMDb page: Hamlet and Polonius in "Hamlet," Leonato and Benedick in "Much Ado About Nothing," the Duke in "Measure for Measure," Cloten in "Cymbeline," and Sylvius in "As You Like It." Now, he constantly seeks out opportunities to do more live theater productions in the summers in between shooting TV seasons. "His love of that place, you could feel it very tangibly," said Michael Greif ("Dear Evan Hansen"), who directed him in "The Tempest" at the Delacorte Theater (via The New York Times).

"There's no experience like it," Waterston raved to Broadway World. "It is absolutely flat-out the best audience in New York!"

Grace and Frankie

Sam Waterston's latest long-running TV character came with the seven-season Netflix series "Grace and Frankie." The two titular characters (played by Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda) are forced to deal with their clashing personalities, family disputes, and business woes together after their husbands, Martin Sheen's Robert Hanson and Waterston's Sol Bergstein, reveal that they are in love and are planning to get married and leave their wives. 

In much the same way that he stumbled into the role of Charlie Skinner on "The Newsroom," Waterston didn't know what he was getting himself into upon joining the cast of "Grace and Frankie." He didn't even read a script — he merely heard that Tomlin, Fonda, and Sheen were looking for a fourth person to complete their quartet, and he jumped in for an experience that was "nothing but fun" (via The Day). In fact, Waterston and Fonda are often stunned by its huge fanbase, particularly how many young people have connected with the characters.

Sam Waterston's daughter is a famous actress too

As much as Sam Waterston may enjoy working, it's undeniable that retirement must linger in his mind as he carries on into his 80s. But his mammoth presence in the entertainment industry will live on not just through his own work, but through his daughter, who is an accomplished actress in her own right. Somehow despite sharing a rather uncommon surname, most people don't make the father-daughter connection between Sam and Katherine Waterston, recognizable to fans as Tina Goldstein in the "Fantastic Beasts" franchise and as Janet Daniels in "Alien: Covenant." That being said, their acting paths do differ slightly in the sense that Sam has focused primarily on television, while Katherine first rose to prominence with her leading role in "Inherent Vice," and has shone in many feature films, including "Logan Lucky," "The Current War," and "The World to Come."

Unlike her father, Katherine Waterston studied at the prestigious Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. "Maybe that had something to do with being a second generation actor, that I didn't want to be perceived as some kind of silly dilettante who is bopping around and hanging off the coattails of her dad," she told Collider, "that I was interested and really trying to be good at this thing." Yet while she didn't take the same French and history major-turned-actor route to Hollywood, growing up with a father who has always remained inspired and passionate about his work was all the lifelong inspiration she needed to pursue the same career.