Detroit native 'Law and Order' alum to star in 'Chicago Med'


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, now of New York City, who’ will star in NBC’s “Chicago Med,” debuting 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 New Jersey.; and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore.

“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. 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…” she recalled.

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 is 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.

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 sci-fi and crime.

This led to Merkerson returning to “L&O” in 1993 as a different character, her best known: 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, earning several awards and nominations, including the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama. Merkerson has the distinction of being the actor to appear in the most episodes of the “L&O” franchise, 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. “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. Van Buren was in charge of the homicide detectives played by many 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. 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.

“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 Nov. 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... 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,” 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 — 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, which she has to deal with on top of her reponsibilities 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.”

“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,” she said.

Merkerson currently has no plans to reprise her role as Van Buren – which 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 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 telefilm “Lackawanna Blues,” an adaptation of the 2001 play. Merkerson won six awards, including a Golden Globe, an Emmy Award, an NAACP Image Award, and a Screen Actors Guild Award.

“It 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.”