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Sam Waterston Biography


Home > Actors > W > Waterston, Sam > Biography


Birth Name: Sam Waterston
Born: 11/15/1940
Birth Place: Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA


One of four children by Scottish semanticist and language teacher George Chychele Waterson and his wife, landscape painter Alice Atkinson, Samuel Atkinson Waterston was born Nov. 15, 1940 in Cambridge, MA. He began acting in school productions and in amateur plays directed by his father, who first cast him at the age of seven in "Antigone." He continued his interest in performing at the exclusive Groton School in Groton, MA, and at the Brooks School in Andover, where his father was employed. He attended Yale on a scholarship in 1958, and while his initial interest was French, he was soon lured back to the stage. During a production of "Waiting for Godot" with the university's dramatic society, the Yale Dramat, he came to the realization that he wanted to be a professional actor.

However, he experienced some resistance to the decision before giving himself wholeheartedly to his craft. While studying abroad at the University of Paris during his junior year, he actually thought of abandoning acting, but after a few weeks, was studying with director John Berry at the American Actors Workshop. He graduated from Yale in 1962 and lit out for Connecticut to join the Clinton Playhouse for summer stock. He then relocated to New York City, where he made his stage debut in 1962 with Arthur Kopit's "Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feelin' So Sad." He later appeared in the show's national tour before appearing in its Broadway run. Waterston was soon a staple of the New York theater scene, earning critical praise for modern drama like "The Trial of the Catonsville Nine" and Kopit's "Indians," as well as classic fare like a revival of Noel Coward's "Hay Fever." His defining work during this period came in Shakespearean fare, most notably with a turn as Benedick in a 1972 production of "Much Ado About Nothing" at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park; for his work, he went on to earn an Obie, a Drama Desk Award and a New York Drama Critics Circle Award.

His film career began in 1965 with "The Plastic Dome of Norma Jean," a quirky drama about a young woman whose psychic abilities are exploited by a rock star. More supporting roles on episodic television and arthouse-minded fare like the Merchant-Ivory production "Savages" (1972) preceded a string of appearances that put him on the map as a screen actor; he reprised Benedick for a 1973 TV staging of "Much Ado" (CBS), then earned an Emmy Award nomination as Tom Wingfield opposite Katherine Hepburn in "The Glass Menagerie" (ABC, 1973). As narrator Nick Carraway, Waterston was one of the few actors to survive Jack Clayton's film version of "The Great Gatsby" unscathed - even landing a Golden Globe nomination - and soon settled into a regular schedule of appearances in well-intentioned if not entirely successful films like "Rancho Deluxe" (1975), as the ne'er-do-well Native American pan of Jeff Bridges' professional loafer, and "Capricorn One" (1978) as an astronaut at the center of a massive NASA cover-up. Waterston's appearance as Mary Beth Hurt's filmmaker boyfriend in Woody Allen's drama "Interiors" (1978) marked his first collaboration with the director, who would later cast him in a bit role as the man Dianne Wiest loses due to her competitive streak in "Hannah and Her Sisters" (1986), and as Peter, a writer who falls for the married Wiest in "September" (1987). In 1989, Waterston appeared in Allen's critically acclaimed "Crimes and Misdemeanors" as a rabbi who maintains his faith despite losing his eyesight before his daughter's wedding.

Leading roles were rare, but Waterston manfully handled the challenge of playing Manhattan Project creator J. Robert Oppenheimer in "Oppenheimer" (PBS, 1980), as well as a starring role as a turn of the century crime fighter in the short-lived "Q.E.D" (CBS, 1982). His performance as the haunted Oppenheimer earned him BAFTA and Golden Globe nominations. However, 1984's "The Killing Fields" proved to be his most significant film role to date. As New York Times reporter Sydney Schanberg, who discovers the truth behind the brutal Year One regime and genocide in Cambodia, Waterston embodied the horror felt by the world at large, as well as the internal struggle to accept praise for his coverage while his interpreter, Dith Pran (Dr. Haing S. Ngor) remained behind. Waterston received nominations from nearly every major critical and award society, including the Oscar, BAFTA and Golden Globe nods. His performance also solidified Waterston's screen persona as a deeply moral and trustworthy individual, which would carry with him throughout his career.

In 1988, Waterston landed one of his trademark roles as Abraham Lincoln in "Gore Vidal's Lincoln" (NBC, 1988), an in-depth portrait of the man and his extraordinary times. Waterston's physical resemblance to Lincoln, as well as the gravity and sincerity he brought to the role, helped to make his one of the best-regarded portrayals by movie and history buffs alike. He would go on to portray Lincoln on several other occasions, including in the acclaimed documentary "The Civil War" (PBS, 1990) and in a 1993 revival of "Abe Lincoln in Illinois" on Broadway. Waterston signed on for his first weekly series in 1991 with "I'll Fly Away" (NBC, 1991-93), a gentle family drama hinged on the relationship between the family of an upstanding Southern lawyer (Waterston) and his housekeeper, played by Regina King. Though challenged in the ratings - its abrupt cancellation dismayed many viewers, who demanded a proper conclusion to the show with a 1993 TV movie on PBS - it was lavished with critical praise, including a Golden Globe and two Emmy nominations for Waterston. The following year, Waterston began his 16-year tenure as Jack McCoy on the "Law and Order" franchise.

Unlike his predecessor Michael Moriarty, Waterston's McCoy was a tough, combative, even law-breaking prosecutor who butted heads with his staff and other legal figures in his pursuit of justice. The product of a rough upbringing, he rose to the top of his profession through sheer force of willpower, quickly establishing the persona of "Hang 'Em High McCoy" for his persistence in seeing those who would use the legal system to their own end receive their punishment. As McCoy, Waterston reaped the biggest audience of his career, as well as a record for most consecutive appearances by a character on a weekly series (333 from 1994 to 2009). He was nominated numerous times for Emmys and Golden Globes, and claimed a Screen Actors Guild Award in 1999 for his performance. At the time of the landmark show's final episode, it was undetermined as to whether McCoy would continue on other spin-off series.

While working on "Law and Order," Waterston maintained a fairly busy schedule in films and TV movies, including an amusing change of pace as a suburban dentist blithely unaware that his wife is a killer in John Waters' "Serial Mom" (1994). He made his debut as producer in the historical drama "The Journey of August King" (1995), and won a Gemini Award for his portrayal of Dennis Shepard, father of murdered gay teen Matthew Shepard in "The Matthew Shepard Story" (NBC, 2002). His earlier voiceover work for "The Civil War" in turn led to more jobs as narrator, most notably as Thomas Jefferson on Ken Burns' 1997 PBS documentary on the third President, as well as several long-running advertisements for "The Nation" and TD Ameritrade. Waterston amiably spoofed his status as America's most trusted narrator and pitchman in a memorable faux commercial for insurance against robot attacks on "Saturday Night Live" (NBC, 1975- ), and in a recurring bit on "The Colbert Report" (Comedy Central, 2005- ), in which he uttered total falsehoods which sounded true due to his convincing delivery. Waterston twice reunited with James Ivory and Ismail Merchant, first for the little-seen "The Proprietor" (1998) and later for "Le divorce" (2003); the latter of which reunited him with his "Matthew Shepard" co-star, Stockard Channing, to play the parents of star Kate Hudson. In yet another amusing out-of-character performance, he voiced Dr. Kaplan, psychiatrist to Brian the Dog, on two episodes of "Family Guy" (Fox, 1999- ).