S. Epatha Merkerson

Active - 1986 - 2020  |   Born - Nov 28, 1952 in Saginaw, Michigan, United States  |   Genres - Drama, Children's/Family, Comedy

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Biography by Bruce Eder

S. Epatha Merkerson is a Tony-nominated and Obie-winning, African-American stage actress, but is best known for her portrayal of detective squad chief Lt. Anita Van Buren in the series Law and Order. Born and raised in Detroit as the youngest of five children, she was a fine arts graduate of Wayne State University and began her New York theater career in the late 1970s. Merkerson was nominated for a Tony award for Best Actress for her performance as Berniece in The Piano Lesson and won an Obie award in 1992 for her work in I'm Not Stupid. Her screen credits include Jacob's Ladder and Loose Cannons and, perhaps most visibly, her role as Joe Morton's terrified wife in James Cameron's Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

Merkerson made her television debut as Reba, the Mail Lady on Pee Wee's Playhouse, and has appeared on The Cosby Show, among other series, but her most important single television appearance may have been in the first season Law and Order show "Mushrooms," in which she portrayed the grief-stricken mother of an 11-month-old boy who is shot accidentally. Her work was not only memorable to the audience during that key first season, but also to the producers, who later picked Merkerson for the role of the new detective squad chief in the series' fourth season--a role she continued to play for over ten years. Merkerson's talent on the small screen led to roles in numerous TV movies such as Breaking Through and A Mother's Prayer, as well as roles in such films as Radio and The Rising Place. Still, her monumental gifts in both presence and interpretation may not have truly been utilized until she took the part of a strong matriarch who runs a 1960's boarding house in HBO's mini series Lackawanna Blues. Her first leading role in almost twenty years on screen, her performance earned her an Emmy Award as well as a Golden Globe. After her triumphant turn in Lackawanna Blues she returned to the big-screen in Craig Brewer's follow-up to Hustle & Flow, Black Snake Moan co-starring Christina Ricci and Samuel L. Jackson.

Over the coming years, Merkerson would appear in a number of films, like The Six Wives of Henry Lefay and Mother and Child.

Movie Highlights

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  • The youngest of five children raised by a single mother in Detroit.
  • Made her big-screen debut in director Spike Lee's first feature, 1986 romantic comedy She's Gotta Have It.
  • Theater honors include an Obie Award in 1991 for I'm Not Stupid and a Helen Hayes Award in 1999 for The Old Settler.
  • Covered her unprocessed hair with a wig to play New York police lieutenant Anita Van Buren on Law & Order.
  • A former smoker who quit cold turkey after losing a close friend to lung cancer, she has become a spokesperson for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
  • First name is really Sharon, but she jokes that the "S" stands for "Sweet."