Sam Waterston Reveals Why He Almost Didn't Take Role on 'Law and Order'

Sam Waterston looks back on his amazing journey from Dr. Kildare to Law & Order, and everything in between.

There’s no mistaking Sam Waterston on a Manhattan street. Tall and lanky with a mop of white hair, he’s insta-recognizable despite wearing a mask and being draped in a disarmingly casual leather jacket. Maybe that’s because he strides down Columbus Avenue with the confidence of someone who owns the city.

And in a way, he does.

“One of my favorite things about New York is feeling adopted by it,” says the Massachusetts native. “People will be two blocks away and not even calling me by my name but shouting, ‘Hey, Law & Order!’ First time it happened, I was over the moon. It’s still a very special thing. This is my city.”

Call it a fantastic side effect of starring on a timeless made-in-NYC television staple. Well, starring isn’t quite the right word. Law & Order fans have been watching an ensemble of various detectives and lawyers help put criminals behind bars since 1990, but they know that Waterston’s attorney Jack McCoy embodies the show’s grit and glory. Ever no-nonsense, he uses his legal smarts in a quest to see justice served.

And while reruns are comforting, brand-new da-dums can’t be beat. Waterston is currently in his second year on the recently revived Law & Order (Thursdays on NBC). This marks his 18th season overall, with McCoy now serving as the elder statesman district attorney and pragmatic advisor. “The part is forever interesting,” Waterston says. Quoting creator Dick Wolf, he adds, “Dick has always said that my character got to kill the bull. Now Hugh Dancy [who plays executive assistant district attorney Nolan Price] gets to kill the bull. And that’s fine with me!”

Indeed, the Tony, Oscar and Emmy nominee, who turned 82 on Nov. 15, has left it all out there in the ring—and that goes way beyond the work on his signature show. When told that he’s amassed 96 screen credits in 57 years, he chortles, “Good . . . I’m impressed with me!” And that number doesn’t include a slew of impressive stage roles. He even met his wife of 46 years, actress Lynn Louisa Woodruff, doing a Shakespeare play in Central Park. (“She would say that Shakespeare had nothing to do with us getting married!” he jokes.)

Law & Order aside, he also recently played former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz in the acclaimed 2022 Hulu limited series The Dropout—which depicted the saga of doomed Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes—and wrapped up his seven-season run as good-natured Sol Bergstein in the Netflix comedy Grace & Frankie. “I’ve had an enormously satisfying career,” says Waterston. “I’m a very lucky man.”

Laying Down the Law

On this crisp Friday morning in late September, Waterston is nibbling on an apricot Danish and sipping espresso at a bustling corner restaurant on the Upper West Side. He picked the spot, explaining that the owner has a son who went to school with his grandson. Plus, he says emphatically, “There’s too much Zoom!”

The actor logged hours on the Law & Order set in Long Island City yesterday. He has the weekend off and then will report back mid-week. He’s scheduled to appear in all 22 episodes, and wouldn’t have it any other way. “I love the grind,” he says. He raves about the ambitious crossover episode featuring all three Law & Order series. Other installments have explored hate crimes and abortion.

“The producers still want to dramatize current events,” he says. “And the appetite from the audience is still solid. It’s a good thing to have a TV show that talks about what’s fair, what’s justice and what’s the right thing to do. It’s a public service as well as entertainment.”

The irony is Waterston didn’t even originally want to take the part. Back in 1994 when he was approached to replace the outgoing lead attorney played by Michael Moriarty, the classically trained stage and film actor—then fresh off a two-year stint on the acclaimed NBC drama I’ll Fly Away—hesitated. “I didn’t foresee myself doing a lot of television,” he explains.

But he knew he had to put his four kids through college. (He has one son, actor James, with his first wife, Barbara Rutledge Johns; he and Woodruff have three children: the actresses Elisabeth and Katherine, and filmmaker Graham.) So, he agreed to sign a one-year contract. He re-upped a year later and ended up staying on for the duration.

Throughout his tenure, he watched several co-stars, including Jill Hennessy and Carey Lowell, come and go. “Many of them became close friends even though they were people I may never have gotten to know in my ordinary life,” he says. “They were going on to do exciting things, so how can I not be happy for them?”

(However, he’s still heartbroken about the 2004 death of Jerry Orbach, who played wry detective Lenny Briscoe: “He was a wonderful man. It was a big loss. I learned lots of things from working with him.”)

After Law & Order was cancelled in 2010, Waterston maintained his crammed schedule and appeared in plum projects such as The Newsroom and Grace & Frankie. He didn’t catch the omnipresent reruns. “I pretty much left it behind,” he says. He even considered moving out of NYC and residing full-time in the family’s estate in Connecticut. His wife and one of his daughters talked him out of it.

That decision proved wise when he got the call in 2021 that the series was resuming operations. At age 80, he was ready to put back on McCoy’s suit and tie. “Obviously time has done what time does,” he says. “But it was so comfortable to be back that it was eerie.” And as cameras rolled for the first time on the reconstructed set, he says, “I felt like I was right back to where I was.”

The Man in the Movies

Tracing Waterston’s familial past takes a bit longer. One of his descendants on his mother’s side “got off the boat” at Plymouth Rock. His dad, a teacher at a New England boarding school, was an immigrant from Scotland. He leans in and talks with a glint in his eye about how his maternal cousins paid their dues in Massachusetts in the 18th and 19th centuries. “Roads had to be built and governments had to be run so some of my ancestors were recruited off the street because there was so much to do!”

Waterston, by the way, studied history and French as an undergraduate at Yale University. He considered becoming a diplomat, a minister or a pilot. But he couldn’t shake the acting bug and his love of performing on a stage (which he cultivated in high school). Even while studying at the Sorbonne in Paris for his junior year, he reports that he did a lot of acting. He graduated with a drama degree and uprooted to New York City with the hopes of being a Shakespeare thespian.

Though he wasn’t looking for a job in California, he landed one for his very first screen credit. The role: “Mark” in two episodes of the NBC medical drama Dr. Kildare in 1965. Waterston recalls the experience with exacting detail, especially his uncertainty and unfamiliarity collaborating with a crew on a set. Co-star and roommate Dean Stockwell took him to lunch to quell his nerves and offer a little tough love. “He said, ‘People are going to say, ‘Why is Sam Waterston acting like a stick of wood? So, relax.’”

He acted steadily throughout the 1970s, yet didn’t truly break through until 1984 with the acclaimed biographical drama The Killing Fields. Playing a real-life war journalist on assignment in Cambodia, Waterston’s searing performance led to a Best Actor Oscar nomination. “Chasing prizes is not the reason for being in the business, but it’s wonderful to be picked out by your peers,” he says. (He lost to AmadeusF. Murray Abraham).

And when you’ve racked up 96 different credits, you’re bound to cross paths with many fellow actors on their way up—and ones already there. Waterston has admitted he was starstruck sharing oxygen with Katharine Hepburn (1973’s The Glass Menagerie) and Robert Redford (1974’s The Great Gatsby).

During that same era, while doing Shakespeare in the Park, he marveled at the talents of an unknown actress named Meryl Streep (“She was so good that I wanted to just stop and watch her.”) as well as a young Jeff Daniels performing in the play Three Sisters. “I’d watch this kid from the wings every night and wonder how he did it,” he says of his future Newsroom co-star. More memorably (to fans, that is), he played the dad to a 14-year-old Reese Witherspoon in the 1991 coming-of-age drama The Man in the Moon: “She was a kid, but a very gifted kid.”

Waterston himself blanches at watching his own work; not that he doesn’t appreciate all he’s done. “One of the things you learn as you get older is that you don’t get better looking,” he says. “So it pays to be content with you how you look when you’re younger because it’s only going to get worse!”

Off the clock, Waterston is deeply content in a role he has yet to play on a screen or stage: farmer. He and Woodruff operate the Birdseye & Tanner Brooks Farm in West Cornwall, Conn., where they raise the likes of goats, Icelandic sheep and cattle. “Being connected to animal life is a very good balancing thing because it’s much less under your immediate control than a performance,” he says.

He’s also the chairman of the board for Oceana, which advocates the protection of oceans. “It’s not an honorary position—they put me to work,” he says. He goes on to detail how the right kind of help can lead to immediate positive results and recalls that he and his Grace & Frankie co-star Jane Fonda were arrested in 2019 for protesting climate change. (No charges were filed.)

Waterston says it’s his responsibility as a public figure to speak up: “You can’t change minds but you can point. I don’t expect people to say, ‘Oh, Sam Waterston says this therefore I will.’ But they may just take a look. I recommend that everybody do something.”

In the summers, he and the family, which includes six grandchildren, convene in Duxbury, Mass. “My great-grandfather bought this big elephant of an old white house that’s tumbled down a little bit but can absorb a lot of people,” he says.

He hopes they’ll reunite for the holidays, but it will be challenging as all four of his kids have joined the family business and work in far-flung places on chaotic timetables. (His daughter Katherine, 42, is part of the Harry Potter prequel Fantastic Beasts series.) “My wife and I tried to distract them from acting but the trouble is that we were getting away with it,” he says. “It eventually became hard to change the subject.”

Besides, they learned from the master. And as long as Jack McCoy is going strong in his professional life, so is Waterston. “The work is interesting and I really enjoy working so I can’t see any reason to stop,” he says. “I think they’ll tell me when it’s time to leave. And if they won’t, I won’t do it.”

Sam Waterston's Favorites

Favorite Childhood Movie:

“I didn’t have one but I went to see Superman at the Saturday matinees.”

TV Habit:

“My wife and I are news junkies. We also watch a lot of old films on Turner Classic Movies.”

Book I’m Reading:

Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements by Charlene Carruthers

Acting Motto:

“Fans will hold you accountable for your journey. So if you’re the face on the screen, you better own it.”

The Secret to a Successful Marriage:

“I think it’s true that a happy wife is a happy life.”

Favorite thing about working in NYC:

“There are a million things here going on all day. There’s a treasure trove of great art, great theater, great ballet and great opera. If you’re feeling sleepy and come into the City, you’re awake because it’s like a shot of energy.”

Sam Waterston's Best Roles

Beyond Law & Order, Waterston has impressed on the big and small screen for decades.

Dr. Kildare (1965)

His first screen credit? Two episodes of this Richard Chamberlain-starring NBC medical drama.

The Great Gatsby (1974)

This was the first—but not the last—big-screen adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel. Waterston, who played Nick Carraway, recently admitted to Stephen Colbert that he was starstruck acting alongside Robert Redford (i.e., Jay Gatsby).

Capricorn One (1977)

In this sci-fi thriller (later referenced on a 1999 episode of Friends), Waterston played a NASA astronaut involved in a covert mission. The eclectic cast included James Brolin, O.J. Simpson, Elliott Gould, Telly Savalas and Brenda Vaccaro.

The Killing Fields (1984)

Waterston landed a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Sydney Schanberg, a real-life journalist who goes on assignment to cover the Cambodian Civil War. (His co-star Haing S. Ngor won in the supporting category). “It was certainly a high point of my career,” he says of the acclaimed drama.

Crimes & Misdemeanors (1989)

He popped up in two Woody Allen 1980s classics: Hannah and Her Sisters and this thought-provoking crime thriller. His future Law & Order co-star Jerry Orbach also appeared in the film, though the two don’t share any scenes together.

I’ll Fly Away (1991-1993)

There’s a certain audience still nostalgic for this beloved (albeit short-lived) drama set in a Southern town in the 1950s and 60s. Waterston played a district attorney and dad who gleaned a unique view on race relations thanks to his housekeeper (Regina Taylor).

The Newsroom (2012-14)

After Law & Order, Waterston took a supporting role as a bow tie-wearing network honcho in this fast-paced Aaron Sorkin-created HBO drama. (Fun fact: his daughter, Katherine, later worked with Sorkin on the film Steve Jobs.)

Grace and Frankie (2015-22)

“It was good fun from beginning to end,” Waterston says of his time on this breezy Netflix comedy. He and Martin Sheen played friends-turned-lovers—and the jovial exes of the titular characters (Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin). Of course, his Sol character was a lawyer as well.

The Dropout (2022)

This buzzy based-on-fact Hulu limited series charted the ups and downfall of Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes (Amanda Seyfried). Waterston’s George Shultz was an early investor in the fraudulent business in his 90s. “I think he felt like it was a late opportunity to make a difference in the world,” he explains.