“Keep on running and don’t look back, because somebody may be gaining on you.”
During a recent press conference promoting the return of the original Law & Order, Sam Waterston recalled that quote from legendary baseball player Satchel Paige. He first saw the phrase on a New York City bus and says it’s been his “motto about show business ever since.”
Waterston says he’s always “scrambling to do things all the time . . . It’s just what I do.” He’s not kidding. At 81, he is one of television’s busiest actors. In April, he can be seen in NBC’s Law & Order, which airs on Thursdays (and is available the next day on Peacock), Hulu’s The Dropout, which releases its series finale Thursday, and Netflix’s Grace and Frankie, which returns to complete its seventh and final season on April 29.
He currently has 96 (!) acting credits listed on IMDb, starting when he appeared on Dr. Kildare in 1965. He was nominated for an Oscar for his performance in the 1984 film The Killing Fields, and he’s been nominated for an Emmy eight times.
While hard work, hustle, and luck can never be discounted as reasons for success, I’ve been wondering what it is about Waterston that makes him television’s go-to elder statesman. Why do viewers love him so much? And why do producers love casting him in their projects? The answer, I soon realized, is not all that complicated. Waterston is really, really good. While he’s one of television’s most recognizable faces—and I may never forget that I’m watching Sam Waterston—he effortlessly disappears into roles, allowing viewers to believe him no matter what he’s playing. There’s also something comforting about him being on your TV screen. So many TV viewers have literally grown up with him.
So Waterston is, without question, a versatile man for all seasons. His gravelly voice and commanding demeanor is a natural fit for Law & Order. Fans of the original series were introduced to Executive Assistant District Attorney Jack McCoy when the actor joined the venerable NBC drama in 1994, in the show’s fifth season premiere. With his unorthodox ways of obtaining a conviction, McCoy quickly became a fan-favorite character. And along with his co-star, the late Jerry Orbach, Waterston was named a living landmark in 2000 by the New York Landmarks Conservancy.
Waterston remained with the series for the next 15 seasons, when its original run came to an end in May 2010. At the time, McCoy had been serving as interim district attorney and was embroiled in a bitter election campaign. After a nearly 12-year hiatus, the show returned in February for its 21st season, and Jack is back, filling the role of the levelheaded boss as the show’s district attorney.
The first time we see him in the revival, he’s arguing with the new executive assistant district attorney, Nolan Price (Hugh Dancy). The latter wants to keep a confession out of trial since it was obtained by lying to the defendant. “If it’s legal, it’s ethical,” Jack admonishes. “The big bad police department is our partner, and in case you haven’t been paying attention, they are under attack.” Having come almost full circle, from being the maverick to becoming the pragmatic voice of reason, Jack McCoy is a throughline for fans, connecting the past to the present.
The performance stands in stark contrast to Waterston’s work on The Dropout. In the eight-episode series, he portrays former Secretary of State George Schultz. At the age of 91, Schultz joined the board of Theranos, the infamous company that promised to revolutionize the blood testing industry, but never actually had the technology to do so, and subsequently lost investors billions while also misdiagnosing thousands. Schultz’s grandson, Tyler Schultz (Dylan Minnette), was one of the whistleblowers who revealed Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes (Amanda Seyfried) and Theranos itself to be frauds. Waterston is simply heartbreaking in the role. He portrays Schultz as a man so worried that people will see him as a doddering old fool that he refuses to admit he’s made a terrible mistake. “Are you saying that I don’t understand the data? I resent you implying that I’m so old I’ve lost the ability to judge another person’s character,” he tells his grandson when he’s confronted. There’s a poignant vulnerability to his performance, and I found myself sympathizing with Schultz even as he behaved terribly and turned his back on his family.
But perhaps Waterston’s most surprising recent performance is as Grace and Frankie’s Sol Bergstein, a man who leaves his wife of 40 years because he’s in love with his law partner (Martin Sheen). Sol’s late-in-life acceptance of his homosexuality is a celebration of living your truth no matter your age. Waterston and Sheen’s rapport as a couple who’d been hiding their relationship for more than 20 years is genuine. The show is Netflix’s longest running comedy, and it’s easy to see why: It is an utter delight. But I definitely didn’t have Sam Waterston, sitcom star, on my TV bingo card.
So I must ask: Is there anything (or any genre) Waterston can’t do? I honestly don’t think so. He just keeps running.
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer and a member of the Television Critics Association. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal).
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