Yale Bulletin and Calendar

November 3, 2000Volume 29, Number 9

As a Yale undergraduate with a love of Shakespeare, Sam Waterston never imagined he would become a television or movie actor, he told his audience at a Pierson College master's tea. He has maintained his interest in the classics.

Actor extols Yale experience and the power of words

Sam Waterston (Yale College Class of 1962) knew he wanted an acting career back when he was an undergraduate at Yale, but admits he thought he'd be playing Hamlet, not district attorney Jack McCoy on the hit TV show "Law and Order."

Speaking at a Pierson College master's tea on Oct. 23, Waterston described how he first got hooked on acting while playing Lucky in a Yale Dramat production of "Waiting for Godot."

"To be an actor, I thought, meant to be on the stage, and preferably doing the classics," said the alumnus. "Little did I know there was no such business in America. My interest in the classics, and in Shakespeare, in particular -- although not really noticeable on any resume that would be posted on the Internet or deemed worthy of publication by NBC or 'Law and Order' -- continues to this day."

Waterston recalled the influence of a professor from his undergraduate days, Shakespeare scholar Charles Tyler Prouty, and noted that his liberal arts education has served him well.

"Practically anything you learn, at some point or another -- provided you can find work -- will be useful. The Yale base ... has turned out to be very, very useful to me," he said.

Waterston noted several times how "fortunate" he's been in his career. In addition to "Law and Order," his other television credits include "A House Divided," "Miracle at Midnight," "Lewis and Clarke: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery," "Thomas Jefferson" and "The Enemy Within." He hosted and narrated "Lost Civilizations" and was the voice of Abraham Lincoln in Ken Burns' "The Civil War" series. Waterston's film roles include his powerful portrayal of journalist Sydney Schanberg in "The Killing Fields" -- which he called "a life-changing experience" -- Ben in "Crimes and Misdemeanors," Eugene Sutphin in "Serial Mom," Cutter in "Hopscotch," Nick Carraway in "The Great Gatsby," and many others. His stage credits include "The Trial of the Catonsville Nine," Joseph Papp's "Much Ado About Nothing" and two different versions of "Hamlet."

In fact, Waterson noted, he has been unable to dissuade his four children from careers in theater or film, because "they've watched somebody who has been unbelievably fortunate over and over again. ... That's the burden of my children. They've watched somebody be really lucky, so far," he said, knocking three times on the wooden podium.

Speaking with his gravelly voice and using his bristly eyebrows to good effect in his exaggerated facial expressions, Waterston declared: "As I grow older, I've become less and less certain about things." So instead of making a speech, he responded to questions from the audience.

Several students wanted to know about his acting technique. When asked whether he is conscious of his movements and expressions while playing a role, Waterston did a comic double take, pretended to choke on the water he was drinking, and squeaked out, "Not at all!" in mock dismay.

"There's a lot of good reason not to get self-conscious. I basically don't watch anything that I do, because I think, first of all, I'm familiar with myself by now. I'm probably my own most easily bored audience. ... But also, you tend to develop vain little corrective ideas, and they accumulate. A lot of them are unconscious, but pretty soon you have a problem with getting plastic, so I try to avoid it." He paused, and added, "But maybe it's just laziness."

Waterston spoke of the difference between film and live theater, and how that impacts on preparing for a performance.

"I have had the opportunity to rehearse for films, and it's sometimes good and sometimes not," he said. "We rehearsed a lot when I did 'The Glass Menagerie' with Katherine Hepburn, and we rehearsed it like a play. That was great, because the dialogue of a play is a different animal than the dialogue of most movies, and so there was a real payoff to rehearsing. A certain artificiality is not necessarily terrible in theatrical language. But sometimes you can kill the baby by practicing too much."

Films are shot out of chronological order and with almost no rehearsals, he explained. "I've made a bunch of movies with Woody Allen. He doesn't like actors to have the script, to know how things are going to turn out. Part of the reason for that is that when people know the ending, they inevitably play to the ending."

Again and again, Waterston returned to the uses of language and the power of words. "Public speech now is not so well formed or carefully shaped or strictly argued," he contended, "and its purpose is sometimes obfuscation rather than clarity, so the rhetoric of today is an entirely different thing" than the language of the great playwrights or orators like Lincoln.

"Apart from the pulpit, the classroom and the law courts, there aren't very many places where the word by itself, and the structure of an argument has to stand on its own two feet. This is particularly true in movies and television, where the focus of attention, the pacing of the story and the nature of the story itself ... are determined by the editor and where you place the camera. It's out of the hands of the speaker."

Inevitably, the discussion turned to "Law and Order." When asked if he had any favorite episodes of the series, Waterston said, "They blur in my mind almost completely. I have an enormous amount of focus on them, I hope, as we make them, but what they were two weeks after they're shot, I have a hard time remembering." He paused a beat and added, "This could be age."

Unlike many other television shows, the characters in "Law and Order" have considerable impact on the scripting of each episode, he said, noting that the cast customarily holds readings of the script about a week before shooting. "The original motive was not to have work come to a grinding halt when the clock was ticking and money was being spent, about lines that didn't make sense or things that people couldn't understand," said Waterston. "But then it grew and grew, and I think it ... has a real importance.

"It's more input than I've ever had on any material that I've worked on before. Input is invited. ... Since there's hardly any time for rehearsal, the actors become engaged with the material when they're fighting about it around the table. You say, 'This stinks. I can't say that.' And the writer says, 'No, it doesn't stink, and this is why,' and you say, 'Oh. Okay.' And then you have something to hold on to."

Asked what he would do if he couldn't act, Waterston replied that it was "a little late in the day" to consider another profession. Anyway, he said, "Acting is really an awful lot of fun. I can think of some other things that, if you gave your life to them, might be as much fun. And I can certainly think of some things that might make a bigger difference in the world. But they require almost as much time and attention as I've given to this already. If you could grant me another life, then we could talk."

Waterston's visit was sponsored by Pierson College and The Yale Record, an undergraduate humor magazine.


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