'Role' Model: Detroit native/'L&O' alum to star in new 'Chicago Med'

– Photo by Chris Haston, courtesy of NBC

By Kurt Anthony Krug

Legal News

Although she was born in Saginaw, actress S. Epatha Merkerson doesn’t consider it her hometown.

“I was only born in Saginaw. I know of nothing of Saginaw. I was raised in Detroit. I’m a native of Detroit,” said Merkerson, 62, of New York City, who’ll be starring in NBC’s “Chicago Med,” debuting
Tuesday, Nov. 17. “Detroit was a great place to grow up. I loved my youth there. I have fond memories of Detroit. My family is still there. My sisters, my brothers, my mom – I’m the youngest of five – are still in Michigan.”

A 1970 alumna of Thomas M. Cooley High School in Detroit, Merkerson earned her BFA in theater at Wayne State University in 1975. She has honorary degrees from Wayne State; Montclair State University in Montclair, N.J.; and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore in Princess Anne.

“My sister went to Cass (Technical High School in Detroit) and I remember seeing her in a dance concert. I thought it was the most incredible thing I’d ever seen. Our family is very musical and it seemed like the right thing. I started out in dance, but I’ve always done theater in junior high school and high school. In my second year at Wayne, I took an elective acting class and realized I was more comfortable there. That was the genesis of it…” recalled Merkerson.

The Broadway veteran made her television debut as Reba the Mail Lady on “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse” in 1986. She also appeared in 1990’s “Navy Seals,” 1990’s “Jacob’s Ladder,” and 1991’s “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.”

In 1991, she played Denise Winters, the grief-stricken mother of an 11-month-old boy who’s accidentally shot, on NBC’s long-running “Law & Order.” Merkerson stated she got this part while performing in “The Piano Lesson” – which earned her a Tony Award nomination – on Broadway. According to Merkerson, “L&O” producer Joe Stern was so impressed by her work that he asked her to audition for “L&O.” 

At the audition, she met “L&O” creator Dick Wolf, which was the beginning of a long, prosperous relationship. She worked with Wolf again on 1992’s short-lived series “Mann & Machine,” a critically panned mash-up of science-fiction and crime drama.

However, this led to Merkerson returning to “L&O” in 1993 as a different character and her best known one: Lt. Anita Van Buren. She replaced Capt. Don Cragen (Michigan native Dann Florek) as commander of the 27th Precinct Detective Squad.

“I had a history of working with (Wolf), and we worked well together. When NBC told him he needed to bring women onto the show, that’s how Jill Hennessy and I became the first woman actors on (‘L&O,’ which debuted in 1990 with an all-male cast),” said Merkerson.

She remained with “L&O” for 17 seasons until its 2010 cancellation, earning several awards and nominations, including the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series. Merkerson has the distinction of being the actor to appear in the most episodes of the “L&O” franchise, coming in at just under 400.

“I think by this point next year Ice-T (alias Det. Odafin Tutola on ‘Law & Order: Special Victims Unit’) will take over that distinction,” said Merkerson, laughing. “But right now, I hold the longest record of actors. The last time that happened was ‘Gunsmoke.’” She added with another laugh: “I am the Miss Kitty of (‘L&O’).”

“L&O” had a revolving cast. Merkerson’s Van Buren was in charge of the homicide detectives played by numerous actors: Jerry Orbach, Chris Noth, Benjamin Bratt, Jesse L. Martin, Dennis Farina, Michael Imperioli, Anthony Andrews, Milena Govich (the first female to play one of the lead detectives), Jeremy Sisto. Merkerson didn’t have a favorite. 

“The truth is I liked them each for different reasons – Jerry and Chris, Jerry and Ben, Jerry and Jesse, Jesse and Jeremy, Jeremy and Anthony, and Dennis Farina,” explained Merkerson. “It was always fun with Jesse and Jerry because they were theater people who did musicals. Lots of times we’d do scenes from musicals. Between the two of them, they knew every Broadway song.

Benjamin was such a great person. The characters he and Jerry played – the young cop and the older cop – brought a whole different feel to show.”

She continued: “When Dennis came abroad, he was a cop who really dressed well and knew his business. For each of them, there was something specific they brought. I would never pick any specific person because they each brought something that I enjoyed, which made it enjoyable for me to work with them. The passing of Jerry Orbach and Dennis Farina, I can honestly say my heart was broken – two very, very decent men.”

“L&O” has spawned several spin-offs over the years, but only “SVU” remains. Wolf went on to create another franchise (which still occurs in the “L&O” universe). In 2012, “Chicago Fire” debuted, followed by “Chicago P.D.” in 2013. “Chicago Med” joins them on November 17 with a 13-episode season.

According to Merkerson, her long history with Wolf led to this new role. Her character – along with co-stars Oliver Platt, Nick Gehlfuss, and Yaya DaCosta’s characters – debuted last season on “Chicago Fire.”

“I appreciate (Wolf)… He’s very innovative. He’s also loyal, which you don’t always find in our business. He’s incredibly intelligent and focused. When you work with Dick, you know that you’re gonna be working on a good production with good writing. There’ll be interesting characters and actors on the show. I was in my 40s when I started (‘L&O’). He understands what’s needed for a complete
look at a story… He looks at the world and puts it on screen,” praised Merkerson. “For me, (‘Chicago Med’) was exactly what I expected from Dick: engaging, heartfelt, funny. When you sit down to watch, what I love most about Dick and his creations is… by the end of the hour… you’ve learned something. It’s the best of what television can do: It can entertain and educate at same time. It’s what I appreciate about a Wolf production.”

On “Chicago Med,” Merkerson plays Sharon Goodwin, the head of Chicago Med. It occurs in an urban hospital dealing with all the problems found in that environment: health care issues, psychiatric treatment, drugs, violence. Her husband Bert (Carl Lumbly) is recovering from a stroke. She has to deal with him on top of her responsibilities of running a hospital.

“You’ll see her with her husband, her relationship with the doctors in the hospital. Right now, we’re building (the show). It’s really very early. As head of the hospital, you’ll see the things she has to deal with in terms of what the doctors are doing, what the residents are doing, what the med students are doing… There’s eight (main characters). We have to get the show on its feet before we (have arcs) for the characters,” said Merkerson. “The three ‘Chicago’ shows have extraordinary actors and – I think most importantly – decent people. You can have great scripts but if the people don’t click, it’s not fun. For most of us, it’s a home away from home. To be able to go to work with comfort, that always starts at the top. I give a lot of credit and I have a lot of respect for Dick and for what he’s created here as well.”

“Chicago Med” and “L&O” may exist in the same universe, but Merkerson stated Sharon won’t meet Van Buren.

“That would be impossible without some kind of camera trick. I couldn’t see that happening. There’s no need for that,” she said.

Merkerson has no plans at the moment on reprising her role as Van Buren at this time – something fans ask her a lot.

“It remains to be seen. Listen, it was 17 years of my life and it was an incredible experience. Who knew it’d last that long? It took me eight years to put something in my dressing room because I kept thinking, ‘This too shall pass.’ Who knew? If I look back on my life and at the opportunities I’ve had, ‘L&O’ would be in the Top 5,” she explained. “It was a grand opportunity to work at home, work
with people I admired, do work with new writers and new directors. It was an extraordinary experience and to know that we’re part of television history is really quite a compliment. I appreciate having been a part of that.” 

While best known as Van Buren, one of Merkerson’s favorite roles was Nanny in the 2005 tele-film “Lackawanna Blues,” an adaptation of the 2001 play of the same name. Merkerson won six awards, including a Golden Globe, an Emmy Award, an NAACP Image Award, and a Screen Actors Guild Award.

“It certainly was an opportunity that I never had before to lead a film. I certainly enjoyed working with (director) George C. Wolfe, whom I’d known for many years. It had wonderful people. It’s one of my fondest memories,” recalled Merkerson. “It was really quite an extraordinary time for me. Who knew? It was lovely to have my work acknowledged in such a way. It was one thing to win an Emmy, but a SAG, NAACP Image Award, and Golden Globe? It was really quite an extraordinary time. I was 53 when we did ‘Lackawanna Blues.’ When you work a long time and your work is acknowledged in such a way, the appreciation for is a lot deeper because I’ve been working consistently since I decided I was moving to New York (in 1978) to make my living as an actor. To have it acknowledged at that time in my life, I deeply appreciated that acknowledgement.”

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