Sam Waterston

Active - 1966 - 2020  |   Born - Nov 15, 1940 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States  |   Genres - Drama, History, Comedy

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Biography by Hal Erickson

Educated at Yale and the Sorbonne, Sam Waterston, born November 15th, 1940, is far more than the "general purpose actor" he was pegged to be by one well-known film historian. A respected player on the stage, screen, and television, Waterston has cultivated a loyal following with his quietly charismatic, unfailingly solid performances.

After beginning his career on the New York stage -- where he has continued to perform throughout his long career -- Waterston made his film debut in The Plastic Dome of Norma Jean in 1966. For a long time, his film career was not nearly as remarkable as his work on the stage and television, although non-New York audiences were made acutely aware of the depth and breadth of Waterston's talents when, in 1973, he starred in the television adaptation The Glass Menagerie (appearing alongside Katherine Hepburn) and -- also on TV -- in Tony Richardson's A Delicate Balance. The following year, the actor further impressed television audiences when he starred as Benedick in the CBS TV adaptation of Joseph Papp's staging of Much Ado About Nothing.

Also in 1974, Waterston proved to be the best of the screen's Nick Carraways when he was cast in that expository role in the The Great Gatsby; subsequent films ranged from the midnight-movie favorite Rancho Deluxe (1975) to the unmitigated disaster Heaven's Gate (1981). In the late '70s, Waterston was "adopted" by Woody Allen, joining the director's ever-increasing unofficial stock company for such films as Interiors (1978), Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), September (1987), and Crimes and Misdemeanors. Waterston was nominated for an Academy award for his powerful portrayal of a conscience-stricken American journalist in The Killing Fields (1984); three years later he appeared in Swimming to Cambodia, Spalding Gray's acclaimed documentary about the making of the film. Subsequent film appearances included a turn as Kathleen Turner's hilariously timid husband in Serial Mom (1994) and a role in Ismail Merchant's The Proprietor in 1996.

However, Waterston has continued to make his greatest mark on television, starring in the acclaimed The Nightmare Years in 1989 and in the similarly lauded series I'll Fly Away and Law & Order. In addition, he has gained a certain amount of fame playing Abraham Lincoln multiple times: In 1988, he starred in Gore Vidal's Lincoln on television, while he won a Tony nod playing him in the Lincoln Center production of Abe Lincoln in Illinois and supplied the president's voice for Ken Burns' documentary The Civil War.

Though Waterson is most recognizable for his work in Law & Order, he took on a variety of other television roles throughout the 1990s and 2000s, among them including a turn as the District Attorney Forrest Bedford in I'll Fly Away (the role would win him an Golden Globe). In 2012, Waterson joined the cast of HBO's The Newsroom.

Movie Highlights

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  • In 1947, made his stage debut at age 6 in a school production of Jean Anouilh's Antigone.
  • Spent his junior year of college at the Sorbonne in Paris, where he worked with the American Actors Workshop and studied under blacklisted Hollywood director John Berry.
  • Has become closely associated with the role of Abraham Lincoln, whom he's portrayed on stage and screen, notably in the 1988 NBC miniseries Gore Vidal's Lincoln and in the 1993 Lincoln Center Theater production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Abe Lincoln in Illinois.
  • Featured in a national advertising campaign for brokerage firm TD Ameritrade.