Sam Waterston on Television
Though most famous for his long-running role as prosecutor and District Attorney Jack McCoy, Sam has has been in two other television series and a mini-series (Oppenheimer) and has made guest appearances on Amazing Stories, Tales from the Crypt, Saturday Night Live, The Family Guy (where he was the voice of the dog's psychiatrist), and Masters of Science Fiction. His face has also been seen on the airwaves doing TimeLab2000 on The History Channel in the late 1990s, and, more recently, on commercials for TD Ameritrade. His political activities have also led him to be intereviewed on news programs for Unity08. What follows are brief reviews of his three televisions series, his mini-series, and his dramatic guest appearances, in chronological order
This miniseries made for PBS was filmed in Britain, and was shown in the early 1980s. It tells the story of Robert Oppenheimer from the late 1930s, when he was a university professor, to the end of his life. It catalogs his career, starting with his left wing political activities on campus, and then setting up and being the main focus of the project that made the first atomic bomb during World War II. It continues after the war detailing the problems Oppenheimer had with the government because of his ties with people who had been members of the Communist Party. Sam plays the role to perfection. Oppenheimer is not a hero as much as a very flawed human being who goes ahead without thinking about consequences. Sam showed these flaws but made the character still interesting-especially good was his reaction to the dropping of the bombs on Japan, and realizing what he had done. His anger at the government's political manipulations was also very well done--you got the sense of fear and uncertainty that was behind the anger. This series is now out on DVD, but in Europe only. If you live in the US and have a friend who can convert it for you, it's worth it.
This series, filmed in Britain, was supposed to be for children. Sam played Quentin E. Devereaux, an American professor ahead of his time as far as inventions go, who left Harvard and the States in disgust and moved to Britain, where he meets up with an arch villain with whom he fights in order to save the day. The main problem with the series, which was canceled after only six episodes, was that it was a bit too sophisticated for youngsters, but simplistic plots made it a bit boring for adults. Devereaux looked incredibly sexy in his Edwardian clothes and beard, but was indifferent to the fairer sex, interested only in science. Too bad, because Sam really outshone the others in acting. In one of the rarer episodes that still exists, he pretends to be drunk-with hilarious consequences.
Amazing Stories-Mirror, Mirror(1983)
This episode is about a writer of horror stories who scoffs at those who get frightened by their own imagination. Until his rather horrific imagination starts staring back at him in any reflective surface. It is fascinating to watch the writer change from a smug, successful author to a quivering lump of flesh cowering in the fetal position in his own bed. Sam does a great job showing this slow but inevitable change.
I'll Fly Away(1988-1993)
This series faired better than QED--it lasted for two years on network television and then was picked up by PBS, who did a movie that closed the saga, which they showed along with the re-runs of the origninal. The series was a fictional account of a district attorney in a small Georgia town during the Civil Rights era and the interactions he and his family had with their black maid. The stories were quite moving, and based upon things that did happen in the South in the Fifties and Sixties. What is great about the series is that the writing and directing helped support the actors, bringing out their full potential. In this series, unlike another one he would be involved in later, his character, Forrest Bedford, has a family and his home life is shown-including his mentally unstable wife, his adultery, and his unwillingness to let politics get in the way of doing what he felt was honest and just. Forrest grows during the course of the series, as he changes his ideas and attitudes about blacks and tries to be a good parent to his three children. Though critically acclaimed, the series could never garner the numbers that the networks clamor for, and it was cancelled.
Tales from the Crypt-As Ye Sow(1993)
Sam had a grand old time playing someone who is downright slimy and evil. That is, to be concise, the descripton of G.G. Devoe, an unsavory private detective who is willing to arrange illegal actions if the price is right. Every pore oozes sleeziness from this fellow. He looks nasty, and acts nasty--in one scene,he's eating Chinese food, and Sam does it in such a way you think of a snake catching and eating its prey. Sam's body language, costume, and way of speaking create a memorable character.
Law & Order(1994-present)
Sam once said that the Jack McCoy role was "the first steady job I've ever held." And he's been able to find nuances that help keep the character of the fiesty Irish American fresh in the minds of the public. He came on with a bang with his first episode, when we find out that McCoy has had affairs with his female assistants--all of them. And he appears to be well on the way of conquering Number 4 as he changes clothes behind a door while talking to Claire Kincaid, giving us a flash of bare knee for titillation. But really that is about as open as it ever got--the rest of their affair was only hinted at, as was Jack's reaction to Clare's death, his struggle with drinking too much, and his opinions about what it means to be Executive Assistant District Attorney. (For a summation of Jack's character, click on the poster in the center above, or simply click here. The poster was created by Samsonite, brilliant free-lance graphic artist, and thanks to her for providing it. ) In the 2007-8 season, we will see him make the transition to District Attorney, which will bring on a whole new way of looking at the character. What makes this role so interesting is that it must be underplayed. There's a certain amount of emotion, sure, but no real back story, no scenes with chases, romantic moments, or great and continued terror. To bring off McCoy and to keep him interesting is a real challenge to an actor, and Sam has shown he can do it. The only sad thing is that many only know him by this one role. It would behoove them to check out Sam's other TV appearances and his film roles. He is terrific in whatever he does.
Masters of Science FictionA Clean Escape(2006)
This story, set in the future, features a psychiatrist and her confused and befuddled patient, who appears to be stuck about 25 years in the past. As the story unfolds, you find out the reason why.
Sam did this project while on hiatus from Law and Order. In fact, he was called while he was in Norway, attending the christening of his grandson. He flew back to Canada where the program was being filmed, and praised the director and fellow actors for letting him go all out. And it worked. The episode has been critically acclaimed, with Sam's acting lauded.