when actor sam waterston first joined the cast of the nbc original series, law & Ordered in 1994, his contract was for one season only. But something clicked and he ended up playing the role of District Attorney Jack McCoy on the show for 16 years, until the series ended in 2010.
now law & Order is back, as is Waterston. says going back to the original set was “extraordinary and strange”.
“It looked exactly like the same old games, same furniture, same books, same linoleum on the floor,” he says. “I [had] wondered whether or not to do it…but by the time I got back there, I thought, what a fool I would have been if I had missed it. It was fabulous.”
At 81, Waterston isn’t ready to retire. plus law & order, he also co-stars in the netflix series grace and frankie, and plays former secretary of state george shultz in the new hulu series the dropout.
“Time takes its toll, but working keeps you young,” he says. “It helps to have a job because you have to show up. Someone is expecting things from you and you have to deliver. So it works for me.”
on doing 16 seasons of law & order
I think the law & order is a show to be proud to be in. and the other things he could have done weren’t that exciting. it also allowed and even trained me to do other things like shakespeare plays and a long day trip into the night on the spur of the moment, with my son playing my son. these things were made possible by…the celebrity who came with doing law & tidy. made it possible to fill a theater in a short time. Of course, the fact that John Slattery and Elizabeth Franz were also at the company also helped a bit. but the law & the order was definitely an important factor. and kept me out of trouble. he might have ended up doing other things he wasn’t so happy to be in: silly roles or silly projects. And let’s not get away from the fact that [my wife] Lynn and I had four kids that needed to go to school and go to college and law & order paid by him.
about new york stage actors guest starring on law & order
A lot of tv shows are being shot in new york right now, but when law & started the order, it was basically the only show in town. and you couldn’t go to the theater in new york and read the show [and] most of the actors have been in law & order, too. And it was one of the things that made it possible for actors to continue to pursue theater in New York. I have been and continue to be an advocate for [law & order executive producer] dick wolf getting a tony award for this, because i think he made a material difference in new york theater, and then new york theater paid him back with really fabulous guest stars in law & tidy. it was like a parade.
on working with experienced actors martin sheen, lily tomlin and jane fonda in grace and frankie
we all feel lucky to work and we all love to work. the old joke is that if you want to hear an actor complain, give him a job. but in this case, we were very happy to work and then to work together. I got to know Jane and I got to know Martin a little bit. I didn’t know lily tomlin. I knew it was very funny. I didn’t know she was funny just standing there. I didn’t know [someone’s] whole body could be made of funny bones. but we were glad to be there, and I think that helped the feeling on set enormously. I think it was infectious.
on playing former secretary of state george shultz in the dropout (shultz was a key investor and supporter of elizabeth holmes and theranos)
let’s take george shultz as a cautionary tale… about how one should think of oneself. because, “how dumb we mortals are” applies to each and every one of us, and we are really in terrible danger when we forget it. I think that’s what happened to george shultz. I don’t think he was any less capable, competent, or wise when he was duped about the theranos investment. but we are all terribly vulnerable. we have to be very careful.
on his commitment to environmental issues and his participation in oceana’s board of directors
I mean my feeling of being semi-famous, which is where I classify myself, not that you can change your mind, not that you can necessarily do something material, but that you can point. so the kind of thing i did with jane fonda, the protests i did at the harvard-yale game a few years ago where we protested harvard and yale investments in fossil fuels, all of that, i feel, is in the category of being able to point but then you have to do something. and the great blessing that oceana has found me is that week after week, day after day, oceana is making changes all over the world, some small, some dramatic, but constant. Oceana is on the case all the time. is on the case while I’m doing law & tidy. it’s on the case when I’m here at home, so you can feel like you’re connected to the results, in a way that just pointing can’t.
on how the 1984 film the killing fields about the war in Cambodia (which earned him a best actor nomination) changed his life and his career
it was life changing. … led me to be involved with international refugees for 25 years, a quarter of a century. it changed my life in big ways.
…it’s wonderful to be honored by the academy…and I’m still very, very proud of that film. I think it’s a wonderful film, a really fabulous anti-war film. And given what we’re seeing in the world today, what made [producer] David Puttnam want to make this movie was that he found a story that talked about war from the point of view of the victims rather than the combatants. . . and that was the central reason why he wanted to make this film. and again, that’s what we’re looking at today. there’s really no other way we should view this. it is the people who suffer the war. they are the people who deserve our attention and our sympathy and our response.
lauren krenzel and joel wolfram produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper, and Natalie Escobar adapted it for the web.