Sam Waterston’s 60-year career on stage

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Barbara Ruben

Actor Sam Waterston plays a nefarious lobbyist for the gun industry in the movie he’s now filming. And like Toronto, which is filling in for the Washington-set movie since filming is cheaper there, Waterston is also playing somewhat off-type.

“I’m not a very nice guy,” Waterston says of his role in Miss Sloan, also starring Jessica Chastain and John Lithgow, and set to be released in 2017. “I don’t think he has too many principles at all”

But that doesn’t mean Waterston, who when not on screen works with such issues as campaign finance reform and refugee assistance, might not recognize a bit himself in the role.

“You go looking for pieces of yourself you can use in a new way for a character. I think that’s mostly what actors do. So there must be some of this in me,” Waterston, 75, told the Beacon in an interview about his long acting career as he took a break from working on the movie.

Waterston will be in the real Washington when he’s honored with the annual Productive Aging Award from the Jewish Council for the Aging in May.

“Law and Order” star

Waterston may be best recognized for his character Jack McCoy, the charismatic district attorney on the long-running TV show “Law and Order.” He won both Golden Globe and Screen Actor’s Guild awards for his work on the show. While he enjoyed the role, he said when the show ended in 2010, that after 16 years and more than 360 episodes, he was ready for new challenges.

He found that in HBO’s “The Newsroom” a few years later and  currently in Netflix’s “Grace and Frankie,” in which he plays Lily Tomlin’s (Frankie’s) husband. In the show, Grace (played by Jane Fonda)  and Frankie deal with the emotional toll as their husbands reveal they are gay and leave their wives for each other.

“The company of Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Martin Sheen is really unbeatable, and since it’s a comedy, we just laugh all day. It’s pure delight, and I love [my character] Sol.

Waterston is happy to see a show where older actors are front and center, and said he thinks that as the population ages, there will be increasing room in movies and television for older characters.

“There’s a large population of people interested in seeing someone their own age,” he said.

Waterston said he hasn’t noticed a dearth of parts for himself as he’s gotten older.

“I’ve been awfully darn lucky. I guess there isn’t really any time limit on acting. As long as you can walk and talk, you can keep on acting if people will have you. And people have been asking me to work, so it’s been great,” he said.

All in the family

In fact, they’ve been asking him to work for more than 60 years. Waterston, who was born in Cambridge, Mass., got his start as child when his father, an amateur director at the school where he taught, asked him to be in a play.

“I got to stay up late with my father without any of my siblings around to compete with for attention. I was sort of adopted by all the big hero guys in the school,” he recalled. “It seemed like an awful lot of fun. I was predisposed to becoming an actor you might say.”

And so were his children, three out of four of whom have followed him into the profession.

“There’s always the problem of getting work in show business and that’s what makes it such a tough profession,” he said. “Show business is a terrible profession. But acting is soooooo much fun. I think they were pretty clear about that, and they made up their own minds. All three of them are very, very good, let me tell you.”

Daughter Katherine was most recently in the movie Steve Jobs, daughter Elisabeth and her husband have both been in a number of films, and son James got his start in The Dead Poet’s Society and has a guest role in numerous television programs. Son Graham has done some directing and producing.

Revered roles

What are the roles that still resonate with Waterston?

In 1993, won a Golden Globe award for portraying a Southern district attorney at the dawn of the civil rights movement in “I”ll Fly Away,” which ran on PBS.

“I went into that job thinking, ‘Television, how good can this be?’” Waterston, who had primarily acted in movies and theater until that point.

“And then I thought the show was really good. The reaction of people I met on the street and on airplanes and toll booths on highways — people of all ages and races, particularly people from the South, but not just people from the South — so many people felt that we were telling their story. It just goes to show you what TV can do.”

Another stand-out role: Waterston was nominated for an Oscar for the 1984 film The Killing Fields, in which he played an American journalist during the Khmer Rouge’s brutal regime in Cambodia.

But has he thinks back, there was one year that might cap them all.

“I had a wonderful year [1973-4] in which I did The Glass Menagerie, The Great Gatsby with Katharine Hepburn and Much Ado About Nothing in Central Park and on Broadway — and I met my wife. Maybe that’s the best memory of all.”

Waterston will be honored by JCA at the Productive Aging Award dinner on Sunday, May 15 from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. at the Bethesda North Marriott in Rockville, Md. For ticket information and additional details, call (301) 255-4231 or see www.AccessJCA.org/2016dinner.