Actor. Born November 15, 1940, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Sam Waterston grew up in New England with his three siblings and parents. His father, George Chychele, emigrated from England and was a semanticist and language teacher in North Andover, Massachusetts. Waterston’s mother, Alice Atkinson, was a landscape painter. As a child, he acted in school productions and in plays directed by his father, an amateur dramatist. Waterston made his first stage appearance at age seven, as Creon’s page in Jean Anouilh’s Antigone, directed by his father.
Before he went to college, Waterston attended the Groton School in Groton, Massachusetts, a prestigious preparatory school, where he continued acting. At Yale University, he studied French and history but couldn’t stay away from the theater. He joined the Yale Dramat, the university’s dramatic society and performed in many productions, including Oedipus Rex and Waiting for Godot. During the production of Waiting for Godot, Waterston said he had an epiphany — that he must become a professional actor.
But Waterston did not pursue his dream right away. During his junior year, he studied abroad at the University of Paris and even tried to give up acting altogether. It was only a few weeks before he gave in and began taking classes at the American Actors Workshop, organized by John Berry, the expatriate American director, who taught theory based on the techniques of Stanislavsky and Chekhov.
Waterston graduated from Yale in 1962 and spent several months in summer stock at the Clinton (Connecticut) Playhouse, where he again appeared in Waiting for Godot. He then moved to New York City and continued to train professionally. He made his New York debut at the Phoenix Theater late in 1962 in Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad. He went on a national tour with the show, and in August 1963 it moved to Broadway.
In the next decade, Waterston appeared in many plays, including Thistle in My Bed, Colin, The Knack, Maxime Furland’s one-act play Fitz, the world premiere of Sam Shepard’s La Turista, and Posterity for Sale. On Broadway, Waterston racked up another list of credits, including the hippie son of a crotchety English general in Halfway Up the Tree, the Indian spokesman John Grass in Arthur Kopit’s Indians, and the son in a revival of Noel Coward’s 1925 comedy Hay Fever. Waterston received especially high critical praise for his role as Thomas Lewis in the chilling courtroom drama The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, which moved to the Lyceum Theatre in June 1971 after several sold-out months off Broadway.
In mid-1972, Waterston took on the roles of Laertes in Hamlet and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing at the New York Shakespeare Festival. Though his rendition of Laertes faced criticism, it didn’t keep him away from Shakespeare. In fact in 1975, he took on the role of Hamlet for the New York Shakespeare Festival. At first his Hamlet was not warmly received either, but by the time the production moved indoors to the Vivian Beaumont Theatre in Lincoln Center Waterston’s portrayal was being lauded. Waterston went on to play an unconventional Prospero in The Tempest and Vincentio in Measure for Measure. He had the most critical success, however, in 1972 for his Benedick in A.J. Antoon’s production of Much Ado About Nothing at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park, which moved to Broadway later that year. For his role, Waterston earned a Drama Desk Award, a New York Drama Critics Circle Award, and an Obie.
Waterston went on to reprise the role of Benedick in a televised version of Much Ado About Nothing. He also played Tom Wingfield in a television production of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, starring Katharine Hepburn. For that role Waterston was nominated for an Emmy for best supporting actor. He had already appeared in several television shows, including Dr. Kildare, N.Y.P.D., and Hawk, and the PBS specials The Good Lieutenant and My Mother’s House. More notably Waterston portrayed the title character in the BBC’s seven-part Oppenheimer in 1981. For his rendition of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, Waterston was nominated by the British Academy of Film and Television for best actor. He is also well-known for his role as a single father coping with dramatic social change in the 1950s South in the critically well-received series I’ll Fly Away (1991 – 93).
On film, Waterston has appeared in Three (1969), Cover Me, Babe (1970), and Who Killed Mary Whats’ername? (1971), as well as James Ivory’s Savages (1972). When he played Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby in 1973, Waterston was one of the only actors in the film (including Mia Farrow and Robert Redford) to receive positive reviews. Waterston went on to appear in the films Rancho Deluxe (1975), Dandy, the All-American Girl (1976), and Interiors (1978), as well as Sweet William (1982), Capricorn One (1978), Heaven’s Gate (1980), and Hopscotch (1980).
Waterston went back to the stage in 1975 to play Torvald Helmer in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and Vershinin in the Manhattan Theatre Club’s staging of Chekhov’s The Three Sisters in 1982. He also appeared in the comedy Lunch Hour, Gardenia, and Traveler in the Dark. Conveying a gentle yet determined intensity, Waterston also played Abraham Lincoln in a 1993 revival of Abe Lincoln in Illinois, recreating a role he had earlier played in the TV movie, Gore Vidal’s Lincoln (1988). Waterston’s long and distinguished stage, film, and television career came to a head when he starred in the enormously successful film The Killing Fields in 1984. He was nominated for an Academy Award for best actor.
Waterston joined another intelligent dramatic television series in 1994, when he replaced Michael Moriarty as the resident executive assistant DA on Law and Order. He still plays DA Jack McCoy.
Waterston lives in Connecticut. He and his wife, Lynn Louisa Woodruff, a model, were married on January 26, 1976. He has three children: Elisabeth, Graham, Katherine, and James. James, who played his son in Oppenheimer, is the child of Waterston’s first marriage, to Barbara Johns.