The apocrypha Interview: Sam Waterston
By Kitteridge
 
Sam Waterston
Executive Assistant District Attorney Jack McCoy, 1994-Present
Typical Line: "Men are pigs and we should all rot in hell. Unfortunately, that's not my jurisdiction."

A stage and screen actor since the 1960s, the tall, patrician Sam Waterston was an early contender for the role of Ben Stone, when Law & Order was first casting. He joined the show in 1994 as concertedly blue-collar-backgrounded Jack McCoy, and proved he can be versatile in any role, because Waterston transcends class. apocrypha spoke with the actor as he prepared for a part in a play.

 
What play is that?
The Black Monk, a new play by David Rabe, based on a Chekov story. It's going to be in New Haven at the Yale Rep in May [2003]. Send everyone!
But you don't get any time off.
No! I'd say that's the idea.
You don't want any down time?
No.
Were you surprised that L&O reached 300 episodes?
I was surprised. We just do one after the other without paying attention to the number. And then I thought, 300, 299, 298, what the heck! And then you start to realize it gets to be -- we're in a rare company here. There are only five or six shows that have gone this long ever. And it's kind of neat. The number I would think that would be the one that would count the most is there have been quite a few you wouldn't mind watching again.
But as I understand it, you don't watch them.
I don't have a policy against them; this is turning into some kind of syndrome or something, but it's not. It's not anything as dramatic as that. I don't watch them very often. I feel like the time I have a contribution to make is done by that time.
If you weren't on it, would you watch it?
I don't know! If I was watching television. I'm sort of obsessed with the news. That is a syndrome. But I don't watch a whole lot of TV. If I did, I'd be very content to watch this. That's what I mean by them being shows you could watch again.
I understand it that you were one of the names up for Ben Stone initially.
I didn't know that!
But you were doing a play at the time.
That's an interesting story. Thanks.
Do you think Stone would have been just like McCoy if you had played him?
I think they conceived of the DA in a different way, so they probably would have asked me to play that part. But when I came on board they were looking for someone to be in contrast to Ben Stone, so they asked me to play a different thing.
What did they ask you to do? How did that come about?
They just talked about him being a merry attack dog, which has been my watchword ever since. He's eager and pragmatic and aggressive and gets very -- gets a lot of satisfaction out of his job. Lives his job.
Any personal background given to you?
Oh, yeah, and I supplied some of my own. I met a man in the DA's office when I went there for a visit that I consciously modeled myself off of in the beginning. Except I think he had a beard, and they wouldn't let me do that. So to the extent that they let me, I used him as a model. Along with reading and stuff I made up out of my own head.
What did you contribute to the development of the character?
The fact that he had another life, that he changed into civilian clothes when he left, that he rode a motorcycle, that sort of stuff. But the central thing we're talking about of his kind of purpose in life, that was there, and I just tried to fill it. With the very important help of [director, former EP] Ed Sherin, who was indispensable to making the character, and making me feel comfortable on the show.
Has it been hard doing series television for so many years. It's a grueling schedule.
It is. The only thing I feel that has made it difficult is to be able to do what I'm doing now and still have some vacation. [Laughs] But otherwise, I think it's been very, very satisfying and it's a whole combination of fortuitous things -- the show was already made, so I was spared the anxious period of will it survive, will it die, should we change everything, turn it into a musical comedy that happen when a show first goes on the air had already been gone through. It was a great idea, shot in New York, and it's turned into a great blessing.
How much did the fact that it was shot in New York contribute to your taking the role?
Very, very, very important to me. This is where I live. I did commute to Atlanta when I was doing I'll Fly Away, but it was just okay. And it was in the same time zone. We would have been presented with some hard choices if we'd been in California.
Have you minded working with different cast members almost every season?
Well, I think we've been extraordinarily lucky. We haven't been lucky to lose people, but we've been very lucky in the people that have come to replace them. Both in their natures and their talents. It has not been an unusually difficult thing, and you would have thought that it would have to be at least once, but it has never been.
Any plans to leave?
Oh, I don't know what the date will be -- but will the day come? Certainly. I answer the question at the end of every year, and that's the only time I answer it. So I know what I'm doing next year, but after that I don't know. And I don't know what they'll want, they've replaced a lot of people on this show. I could be next! You must never count on anything in this business. So it's a very nice job, but you don't want to count on anything.
Why do you think it has lasted as long as it has?
Two things. Because it was a very good idea to start with, they've been very fortunate to have excellent head writers and writers in general, and I think we as a company here in New York have taken enormous pains week after week to make sure it's good. And they are sort of all connected to one another -- the original idea excites the writers, the writers write interesting stories, which inspires the people to do a good job, which refreshes the idea, which inspires the writers, so it's a virtuous circle.
Do you remember any lines or scenes you've had that have been memorable to you?
The thing that immediately comes to mind is I remember pouring bullets on the prosecution table [during "Gunshow"], but partly I remember that because I very often see the dents that the bullets made in the table when I go to work. So it's memorable and I keep getting reminded. 

 

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