Sam Waterston

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Sam Waterston
Waterston at the PaleyFest 2013 panel for The Newsroom
Samuel Atkinson Waterston

(1940-11-15) November 15, 1940 (age 82)
Years active1962–present
Barbara Rutledge Johns
(m. 1964; div. 1975)
Lynn Louisa Woodruff
(m. 1976)
Children4, including James and Katherine
AwardsFull list

Samuel Atkinson Waterston (born November 15, 1940) is an American actor. Waterston is known for his work in theater, television, and film. He has received numerous accolades including a Primetime Emmy Award, Golden Globe Award, and Screen Actors Guild Award as well as nominations for an Academy Award, a Tony Award, and a BAFTA Award. His acting career has spanned over five decades acting on stage and screen.[1] Waterston received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2010 and was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame in 2012.

Waterston studied at the Sorbonne in Paris and the American Actors Workshop. He started his career in theater on the New York stage, appearing in multiple revivals of Shakespeare. Waterston starred in numerous productions at the Public Theatre including Indians (1969), The Trial of Catonsville Nine (1970), A Doll's House (1975), Hamlet (1975), Measure for Measure (1977), and Benefactors (1980).[2][3] He portrayed Abraham Lincoln on Broadway in Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1993) where he received a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play nomination.[4]

On the big screen, Waterston played Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby (1974) earning a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor – Motion Picture nomination. He received critical acclaim for his portrayal of Sydney Schanberg in Roland Joffe's The Killing Fields (1984), for which he received a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Actor. Waterston has acted in multiple Woody Allen films including Interiors (1978), Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), September (1987), and Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989). Other notable roles include in Rancho Deluxe (1975), Hopscotch, and Heaven's Gate (both in 1980), The Man in the Moon (1991), Serial Mom (1994), Nixon (1995), Miss Sloane (2016) and On the Basis of Sex (2018).

One of Waterston's early television roles was the role of a shoe salesman in a television film adaptation of Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie, alongside Katharine Hepburn. He gained stardom portraying Jack McCoy on the NBC crime series Law & Order (1994–2010, 2022–), for which he received a Screen Actors Guild Award along with Golden Globe Award and Emmy Award nominations. He had the title role in the BBC miniseries Oppenheimer (1980), which aired 1982 in the U.S. on American Playhouse. He also portrayed Abraham Lincoln in the miniseries Lincoln (1988) and the Ken Burns miniseries The Civil War (1990). From 2012 to 2014 he portrayed Charlie Skinner in Aaron Sorkin's political HBO drama series The Newsroom. Other notable roles include in Godless (2017), Grace and Frankie (2015–2022), and The Dropout (2022).

Early life and education[edit]

Sam Waterston, the third of four siblings, was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His siblings are Roberta, George, and Ellen Waterston. Waterston's mother, Alice Tucker (née Atkinson), was a landscape painter of English ancestry and a descendant of passengers on the Mayflower. His father, George Chychele Waterston, was a semanticist and language teacher who emigrated to the U.S. from Scotland via England.[5][6][7] Waterston attended high school at the Groton School, graduating in the class of 1958.[8] He received a BA from Yale College, class of 1962.[9]



Waterston with the American Shakespeare Festival in 1972

The classically trained Waterston has numerous stage credits to his name. For example, he played an award-winning Benedick in Joseph Papp's production of William Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing and played the title role in Hamlet.[citation needed] On October 13, 1969, he starred in Arthur Kopit's play Indians on Broadway at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre. The play was directed by Gene Frankel, and he acted alongside Stacy Keach as Buffalo Bill, Manu Tupou as Sitting Bull, and other actors such as Tom Aldredge, Kevin Conway, Charles Durning, and Raul Julia. The play ran for 96 performances and 16 previews.[10][11]

In 1977, he starred in an Off-Broadway production of William Shakespeare's Measure for Measure as Duke Vincentio alongside Meryl Streep and John Cazale at the Delacorte Theatre.[12][better source needed] In 1980, he starred in Benefactors alongside Glenn Close, Mary Beth Hurt, and Simon Jones at The Brooks Atkinson Theatre on Broadway.[13] In 1993, he portrayed Abraham Lincoln onstage in Abe Lincoln in Illinois and received Tony Award, Drama Desk Award, and Outer Critics Circle Award nominations for his performance.[14]

Waterston has a history of doing theater work in the summer, often seen acting in such venues as Long Wharf Theatre and the Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven.[15][16] Waterston appeared as Polonius in the 2008 Shakespeare in the Park production of Hamlet.[17] His performance received a positive review in The New York Times.[18] In 2015, Waterston appeared as Prospero in a Shakespeare in the Park production of The Tempest, directed by Michael Greif.[19][20]


Waterston made his film debut in the 1965 drama movie The Plastic Dome of Norma Jean.[21] In 1973, he played a shoe salesman in the television drama film The Glass Menagerie (1973), receiving a Primetime Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series for his work in the film.[22][23] Waterston went on to appear as bond salesman Nick Carraway in the 1974 feature film version of The Great Gatsby, which earned him two Golden Globe nominations for Best Supporting Actor, and New Star of the Year.[24] In 1980, Waterston portrayed Old West figure Frank Canton in Heaven's Gate.[25]

In 1984, Waterston played American journalist Sydney Schanberg in the British drama The Killing Fields, opposite Haing S. Ngor and John Malkovich. For his performance, Waterston received an Academy Award for Best Actor nomination.[26][27]


In 1980, Waterston's portrayal of American theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer in the television miniseries Oppenheimer saw him earn another Golden Globe nomination.[24] He played President Abraham Lincoln in the miniseries Lincoln (1988) and the 1990 documentary miniseries The Civil War.[28] Waterston portrayed a district attorney in drama television series I'll Fly Away (1991–93), winning the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Television Series Drama.[24][29]

In 1994, Waterston debuted as Executive Assistant District Attorney Jack McCoy in the fifth season of the television series Law & Order. He played the role of John James "Jack" McCoy, who would eventually become Manhattan District Attorney, through the series finale in 2010. The role won him a Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Drama Series, as well as several Emmy and Golden Globe nominations.[22][24][30] Upon the show's cancellation, Waterston was the second longest-serving cast member (behind S. Epatha Merkerson), having reprised his role through 16 seasons.[31][32] He has also made guest appearances as McCoy on other crime shows, such as Homicide: Life on the Street (1997, 99), Exiled: A Law & Order Movie (1998), and spin-offs Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (2000, 07, 10, 18) and Law & Order: Trial by Jury (2005).[28] Due to the success of the New York–based TV series, Waterston and his fellow longtime Law & Order castmate Jerry Orbach were declared "Living Landmarks" by the New York Landmarks Conservancy.[33]

In 2021, Waterston was cast in the revival of Law & Order, reprising his role as District Attorney Jack McCoy. He appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert to promote the show.[34]

Waterston has had several other high profile television roles, including his portrayal of cable news president Charlie Skinner in The Newsroom, an HBO series by Aaron Sorkin.[35]

In 2015, Waterston joined the cast of the Netflix series Grace and Frankie, starring alongside Martin Sheen, Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin. In an interview with the New York Daily News, Waterston supported Tomlin and Fonda in demanding higher salaries than the supporting actors, saying, "I think they're being cheated."[36] His character Sol appeared on all seven seasons of the show, which concluded in 2022.[citation needed]

Waterston displaying gifts from fans

Waterston has appeared as a celebrity contestant on Jeopardy! twice.[citation needed] He made a popular cameo appearance on an episode of Saturday Night Live as himself, extolling the virtues of Old Glory Insurance, meant to protect the elderly from robot attacks.[37]

Other activities[edit]

On February 12, 2009, Waterston portrayed Abraham Lincoln in Earl Robinson's "The Lonesome Train: A Music Legend for Actors, Folk Singers, Choirs, and Orchestra" at the Riverside Church in New York City. The concert was performed to celebrate Lincoln's 200th birthday.[38][39]

Personal life[edit]

Waterston married his first wife, Barbara Johns, in 1964.[40] The couple had one son, actor James Waterston, before divorcing in 1975. In 1976, Waterston married his second wife, former model Lynn Louisa Woodruff.[41] They have three children: Daughters Katherine Waterston and Elisabeth Waterston, who are also actresses; and a son, Graham.[42]

Waterston is a board member of Oceana.[43] In 2012, Waterston received the Goodermote Humanitarian Award from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health for his longtime support of refugees around the world.[44]

Waterston is a practicing Episcopalian.[45]

He was a spokesman for the Unity08 movement, which unsuccessfully sought to run a non- or bipartisan presidential ticket in the 2008 presidential election.[46] Waterston stated in 2007 that he had been a Democrat until leaving the party in disgust following the airing of Lyndon B. Johnson's "Daisy" election advertisement in 1964.[47] However, he endorsed Democratic President Barack Obama for re-election in 2012.[48] As of 2016, Waterston is a registered Democrat.[49]

Waterston is a longtime friend and fan of the Mark Morris Dance Group and hosted the television presentation of Mozart Dances on PBS's Live from Lincoln Center on August 16, 2007.[50]

On October 18, 2019, Waterston was arrested with Grace and Frankie co-star Jane Fonda for protesting the Trump administration's policies concerning climate change outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.[51]

Acting credits[edit]

Awards and honors[edit]

Waterston received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor for his performance in The Killing Fields (1984), losing to F. Murray Abraham for his role in Amadeus (1984). Waterston also received three Primetime Emmy Award nominations and two Golden Globe Award nominations for I'll Fly Away, winning a Golden Globe in 1994. He received a 1994 Tony Award nomination for Best Actor in a Play for his performance in the Broadway revival of Abe Lincoln in Illinois. For his portrayal of Jack McCoy in Law & Order, Waterston has received three Primetime Emmy Award nominations and a Golden Globe Award nomination; in addition, he has received 11 Screen Actors Guild Award nominations for his work on Law & Order, winning the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Drama Series in 1999.

In 2003, Waterston received The Lincoln Forum's Richard Nelson Current Award of Achievement.[52] AllMovie historian Hal Erickson characterized Waterston as having "cultivated a loyal following with his quietly charismatic, unfailingly solid performances."[53]

On January 7, 2010, Waterston received the 2,397th star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.[54] In 2012, he was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame.[55]


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  10. ^ Indians
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  36. ^ Vanmetre, Elizabeth (May 12, 2015). "Martin Sheen, Sam Waterston agree 'Grace and Frankie' stars Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin deserve pay raise". The New York Daily News. Retrieved June 10, 2015.
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  45. ^ "The General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church". September 28, 2007. Archived from the original on April 29, 2009. Retrieved November 17, 2012.
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