Sam Waterston Discusses Life and Craft at Fordham Law ForumContact: Patrick Verel
Photo by Salem Krieger
The exploits of fictional New York City assistant district attorney Jack McCoy were front and center on Nov. 19, as actor Sam Waterston sat down to discuss his portrayal of one of television’s most famous lawyers.
The actor drew a packed house to the Time Warner Center, where two overflow rooms accommodated those eager to hear the thoughts of the star, a staple on Law & Order
for much of its 19 seasons.
The appearance, “Atticus Finch in the Flesh: A Conversation with Law & Order’s
Sam Waterston,” was presented by Fordham Law School’s Forum on Law, Culture and Society.
As McCoy, Waterston appears in gripping courtroom scenes that sometimes show him victorious in his prosecutions, but not always. That uncertainty is part of what makes the show successful, he told Thane Rosenbaum, director of the forum and John Whelan Distinguished Lecturer in Law at Fordham.
“Maybe people just think the question of what’s fair is endlessly fascinating, whether it turns out that a particular episode seems to have come to a fair conclusion or not,” Waterston said. “Either way, the appetite is still the same.”
Rosenbaum noted that stories of fairness have been a staple of history, including the Old Testament story of Job. Waterston, a Yale University graduate who was nominated for an Oscar for his role in the movie The Killing Fields
, embraced the comparison.
“Job is sort of a Law & Order
, because the question of how to define justice remains unanswered. Isn’t God’s statement to Job, ‘Shut up, I’m God?’” he said to laughs from the audience.
“Job’s response to the way he’s experiencing life is what we hope to evoke in the audience, which is ‘This is not right; surely it could be run better!’” Waterston said. "We’re doing a public service, because if it whets people’s appetite for real fairness, then it’s doing a good service.”
The conversation was interspersed with clips of some of the most powerful courtroom scenes of Jack McCoy, including ones of him going after a reckless gun manufacturer and a pedophile. His character’s prosecution of the latter leans dangerously close to being too zealous, prompting Rosenbaum to ask whether Waterston ever disagreed with a decision his character made.
“I made a whimsical decision early on, which was to unquestionably embrace whatever position the writers thought Jack McCoy ought to have, and to only argue about whether the way it played out was credible or whether there was a more interesting way to go about it,” Waterston said.
The most poignant part of the evening came when an audience member asked Waterston about Jerry Orbach, who played Det. Lenny Briscoe on the show for 12 years. Although Orbach died of cancer in 2004, Waterston said he was still very much alive in his heart.
“I only know one joke, and it’s because he taught me one that stuck. It’s extremely simple. A horse walks into a bar and the bartender asks, ‘Why the long face?’ It’s perfect for me because it’s so little to remember,” he said.
“Montaigne said that illness and pain makes us all small,” he continued. “We can all be brave in the face of death, but being incapacitated and in pain, we all become shrimps. Except for Jerry, he didn’t. He was just a fabulous guy.”
Founded in 1841, Fordham is the Jesuit University of New York, offering exceptional education distinguished by the Jesuit tradition to approximately 14,700 students in its four undergraduate colleges and its six graduate and professional schools. It has residential campuses in the Bronx and Manhattan, a campus in Westchester, and the Louis Calder Center Biological Field Station in Armonk, N.Y.