The Legend: Sam Waterston
There are many actors who can dig into a reprehensible character with relish. There are many actors who can go for the big, show-stopping performance that dominates their co-stars and who wreak havoc on the scenery with their fiendish chewing and insatiable egomania. It is much rarer to find actors who specialize on not being the center of attention, who craft quieter, more nuanced performances, and who can effectively embody characters that are inherently good. So, who are these people who constitute the moral centers of celluloid and fight against the endless waves of cinematic cynicism? Who are the actors who specialize in channeling some of the same moral integrity that drove a performance such as Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird or the idealistic crusader at the heart of Jimmy Stewart’s collaborations with the great Frank Capra? Well, I’m certainly glad you asked because the answer my friends in fact lies here. In the latest entry to the always enlightening and ever expanding Filmophilia.com feature, The Legend, we probe and profile the professional pathway of the highly underrated yet always reliable Mr. Sam Waterston. As you will soon find out, this wonderful thespian is far, far more than simply that verbose litigator from Law and Order.
Before Sam Waterston blazed onto the small-screen as the brash, spitfire of a prosecutor, Jack McCoy (aptly nicknamed in the show as “Hang-em High McCoy” for his relentless pursuit of justice) he was a young student; graduating from Yale University in 1962 and training for his life-long career at the American Actor’s Workshop soon after. Waterston quickly began to apply his classical training, unleashing a barrage of strong performances on the dramatic stage, including a part in Much Ado About Nothing and the titular central role in a now long-forgotten play called Hamlet. Making a seemingly effortless transition to film, Waterston appeared as Tom in an adaptation of Tennessee Williams‘ The Glass Menagerie. He was soon faced with the formidable task of acting opposite of the legendary Katherine Hepburn -a daunting task for even a seasoned performer, much less a fresh-faced, wide-eyed young buck like Waterston was at the time. It is a strong testament to his gift as a performer that Waterston not only received positive notices and awards consideration (this would be the first of many Emmy nominations) for his work in the film, but he was also able to prove himself as a powerful actor capable of holding his own against the lunatic intensity that is often times synonymous with Hepburn’s work. In the scene below we can clearly see the dynamic effect of the pairing -with Waterston’s emotional output effectively rising throughout the scene to counter Hepburn’s demonstrative effect.
After such an auspicious beginning Waterston’s star soon rose higher, with his mug appearing alongside superstars such as Robert Redford in a somewhat listless adaptation of Fitzgerald’s prolific ode to the jazz age, The Great Gatsby, in 1974 and helping to form the ensemble held hostage by the madness of Michael Cimino’s monolithic critical and commercial atom-bomb, Heaven’s Gate in 1980. With his star miraculously unfazed by the carnage wrought through Cimino’s self-created professional implosion, Waterston’s journey throughout the 1980′s helped establish him as an absolute master in the delivery of vibrant supportive turns; which were indicative of meticulous character work. Particularly notable during this period are Waterston’s collaborations with the one and only jungle cat, Woody Allen, who cast Waterston in four films throughout the late-70′s and into the 1980′s including: Interiors (1978), Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), September (1987), and finally Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989).
Allen once commented on Waterston’s ability to easily project normalcy and it is through his work with the inimitable director during this period where Waterston seemed to firmly establish himself as one of cinema’s quintessential everyman character actors. In each film Waterston is intensely likeable; each character is defined by a quietly contemplative relationship with his universe and a strong adherence to an ethical code of conduct. Consider Crimes and Misdemeanors (pictured below) where Waterston’s character Ben, a rabbi whose unshakable avowal of a moral structure to the cosmos stands in stark dialectical opposition to the doubts and fears expressed by the film’s main character Judah (played by Martin Landau) and also forms the core of the film’s main theme.
In 1984, Waterston took on one of the rare leading roles of his career as Sydney Schanberg in Roland Joffe’s debut feature, The Killing Fields, a role that again featured Waterston’s seemingly innate ability to firmly imbue his character’s with graceful humanity and netted him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. Although his work was overshadowed by the performance that is cultivated through the brutal transparency of Dr. Haing S. Ngor’s connection to the material (he was a Cambodian refugee himself) Waterston’s unflinching honesty in evoking Schanberg’s moral trauma and seemingly boundless compassion proved that he was not only an effective supporting actor but also capable of anchoring a film defined by an epic historical scope.
As the 1980′s wrapped up Waterston set his sights on a myriad of new projects after a decade of working consistently and oscillating between the mediums of film and television. In the late 80′s and early 90′s, after more than two decades in the entertainment business, Waterston diversified his resume even further. Apparently in the mood for a challenge, Waterston began by tackling the role of the President of the United States. And it was not that he chose to take a project focusing on a more modest presidential figure; this wasn’t a Jame Buchanan biopic or James K. Polk story -far from it. In 1988, Waterston inhabited none other than the role of one of the most iconic presidents in American history, Abraham Lincoln, in the TV mini-series entitled: Lincoln.
Capitalizing on his small-screen success Waterston moved quickly into the lead role of Forrest Bedford in the short-lived television drama series, I’ll Fly Away, for which Waterston received excellent reviews and accolades (including a Golden Globe award for Best Actor). However, it was his role in television’s iconic Law and Order series that would eventually come to be Waterston’s defining performance -elevating him into the upper echelon of television acting and throwing him into contention for many accolades. As Jack McCoy, Waterston managed to carve out a deeply felt and richly complex character -resolute in his determination to counter the unstoppable criminality intrinsic to Dick Wolf‘s gritty New York-based odyssey.
Now, in some ways, McCoy shares attributes with many of the actor’s past characters and could, dare I say, be labeled “Waterstonian” at his core. However, underneath his shiny veneer as a professional public “do-gooder” the more complicated and less luminous characteristics of McCoy were often revealed through the wonderful writing of Dick Wolf and the superlative emoting by Waterston. Over the course of 16 years (Waterston played the role from 1994 to 2010) we were shown not only the exterior behavior of a legal crusader but also the fractered interior self of a man haunted by a violent upbringing and prone to bouts of self-destructive action. The scene below focuses more on McCoy as the public figure; however, it is illuminating to watch because the overpowering emotion that the actor invests into this clip is indicative of some of the forces driving McCoy -primarily a raging anger tied to a fear of not seeing justice done.
At 71, Sam Waterston has been leaving an searing mark on the entertainment world for almost 45 years. His career has cycled through nearly every conceivable genre and his work has encapsulated the dynamic highs and lows of the human experience: moving from an analytical debate on the existence of God to personifying one man’s fiscal and emotional obligation to his family to asking what the acceptable cost is of humanitarian journalism. For someone so accomplished you would think that they might wish to rest on their laurels and perhaps enjoy their “golden years” away from the daily grind -not Sam Waterston. Soon, Waterston will be appearing in a new television series called The Newsroom, penned by none other than Hollywood’s golden-boy, Aaron Sorkin. I think we must all count ourselves lucky that this wonderful and underrated actor has chosen to stay in the game and is gracious enough to share his “golden years” with us.
What is your favorite Sam Waterston moment or performance? Tell us.