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Sam Waterston returns to 'Law & Order,' glad to be working into his 80s

<em>Law & Order</em> actor Sam Waterston, shown here in 2016, also co-stars in the Netflix series<em> Grace and Frankie </em>and in the Hulu series <em>The Dropout</em>.
Chris Delmas
/
AFP via Getty Images
<em>Law & Order</em> actor Sam Waterston, shown here in 2016, also co-stars in the Netflix series<em> Grace and Frankie </em>and in the Hulu series <em>The Dropout</em>.

When actor Sam Waterston first joined the cast of the original NBC series Law & Order in 1994, his contract was only for one season. But something clicked, and he wound up playing the role of district attorney Jack McCoy on the show for 16 years, until the series wrapped in 2010.

Now Law & Order is back — and so is Waterston. He says returning to the original set was "extraordinary and strange."

"It looked exactly like the same old sets, the same furniture, the same books, the same linoleum on the floor," he says. "I [had] wondered whether to do it or not do it ... but the minute I was back there, I thought, What a fool I would have been to have missed this. It's been fabulous."

At 81, Waterston is not ready for retirement. In addition to Law & Order, he also co-stars in the Netflix series Grace and Frankie, and he plays former Secretary of State George Shultz in the new Hulu series The Dropout.

"Time does take its toll, but working keeps you young," he says. "It helps to have a job because you have to show up. Somebody is expecting things of you and you need to deliver. So it works for me."


Interview highlights

On doing 16 seasons of Law & Order

I think Law & Order is a show to be proud of being in. And the other things that I might have done were not as exciting. It also permitted me and even enabled me to do other things like Shakespeare plays and Long Day's Journey into Night on the spur of the moment, with my son playing my son. These things were made possible by ... the celebrity that came with doing Law & Order. It made it possible on short notice to fill up a theater. Of course, the fact that John Slattery and Elizabeth Franz were also in the company helped a little bit, too. But Law & Order was definitely a big factor. And it kept me out of trouble. I might have wound up doing other things that I wasn't as glad to be in — dumb roles or dumb projects. And let's not leave out the fact that [my wife] Lynn and I had four kids who needed to go to school and go to college and Law & Order paid for it.

On New York theater actors working as guest stars on Law & Order

There are a lot of TV shows being shot in New York now, but when Law & Order started, it was basically the only show in town. And you couldn't go to the theater in New York and read the program [and] most of the actors have been on Law & Order, too. And it was one of the things that made it possible for actors to continue to pursue the theater in New York. I've been and I remain an advocate for [Law & Order executive producer] Dick Wolf getting a Tony Award for this, because I think he made a material difference to the theater in New York, and then New York theater paid him back by having really fabulous guest stars on Law & Order. It was like a parade.

On working with seasoned actors Martin Sheen, Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda in Grace and Frankie

We all sense that we're lucky to be working and we all love to work. The old joke is if you want to hear an actor complain, give them a job. But in this case, we were just very pleased to be working and then to be working with each other. I knew Jane and I knew Martin a little bit. I didn't know Lily Tomlin. I knew she was very funny. I didn't know that she was funny just standing there. I didn't know that [somebody's] whole body could be made out of funny bones. But we were glad to be there, and I think that helped the whole feeling on the set immeasurably. I think it was infectious.

On playing former Secretary of State George Shultz in The Dropout (Shultz was a key investor and supporter of Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos)

Let's take George Shultz as a cautionary tale ... about how one should think of oneself. Because, "what fools we mortals be" applies to each and every one of us, and we're really in terrible danger when we forget it. I think that's what happened to George Shultz. I don't think he was any less capable, competent or wise when he was taken in about that Theranos investment. But we're all terribly vulnerable. We need to take ourselves with major grains of salt.

On his commitment to environmental issues and being on the board of Oceana

I mean my feeling about being semi-famous, which is where I classify myself, is that not that you can change minds, not that you can do anything material necessarily, but that you can point. So the kinds of things that I did with Jane Fonda, the protests that I did at the Harvard-Yale game a few years ago, where we protested Harvard and Yale's investments in fossil fuels, all of that stuff, I feel, is in the category of being able to point. But then there's getting something done. And the great blessing of Oceana having found me for me, is that week in, week out, day after day, Oceana is making changes around the world, some of them small, some of them dramatic, but steadily. Oceana is on the case all the time. It's on the case while I'm doing Law & Order. It's on the case when I'm here at home, so that you can feel that you're connected to results, in a way that just pointing doesn't let you do.

On how the 1984 film The Killing Fields, about the war in Cambodia, (which earned him a Best Actor nomination) changed his life and career

It was life changing. ... It led me to be involved with Refugees International for 25 years, a quarter of a century. It changed my life in very big ways.

... It is wonderful to be honored by the Academy ... and I remain very, very proud of that movie. I think it's a wonderful movie, a really fabulous antiwar movie. And given what we're looking at in the world today, the thing that made [producer] David Puttnam want to make this movie was that he found a story that told about war from the point of view of the victims instead of the combatants. And that was the central reason that he wanted to make this movie. And again, that's what we're looking at today. There isn't really any other way that we ought to be looking at this. It is the people who suffer the war. They are the people that deserve our attention and our sympathy and our response.

Lauren Krenzel and Joel Wolfram produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Natalie Escobar adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.