STAGE TO SCREENS: A Chat with Jesse L. Martin

STAGE TO SCREENS: A Chat with Jesse L. Martin Center stage this month is Jesse L. Martin, who's starting his fifth season as Det. Eddie Green on TV's "Law & Order."
Jerry Orbach (L) and Jesse L. Martin.
Jerry Orbach (L) and Jesse L. Martin.

A classically trained actor who gained attention as an original cast member of Rent, Martin spent part of his summer vacation exploring the other side of the law, portraying Mack the Knife in the Williamstown Theatre Festival production of The Threepenny Opera.

How did he like playing Macheath? Says Jesse L. Martin, "I rather enjoyed it. I think the time period that you have in Williamstown, which apparently is typical, isn't enough time to really get into it—especially a piece like that, which was three hours long. But I did enjoy it, and right near the end of the run [June 25-July 6], I was starting to really get into it. Where most shows would [still] be in previews, I'm just starting to get the feel for it, and it's over. But that's summer stock."

Martin's "Law & Order" partner, Jerry Orbach, made his New York stage debut when he took over as the Streetsinger in Threepenny's legendary 1954 Off-Broadway production, in which he eventually played Macheath. "He talked a lot about how much fun it was," recalls Martin. (Paul Lucas, the publicist for the WTF, e-mailed me backstage photographs taken of Martin with Orbach and Sam Waterston when the "Law & Order" co-stars journeyed to Massachusetts to see their colleague in the Kurt Weill-Bertolt Brecht musical.)

The best part of the experience, notes Martin, was working with a great cast, which included Betty Buckley, Melissa Errico, Karen Ziemba, and Randy Graff. Martin and Randy Graff "became really tight. She's probably the greatest lady ever. She's become a real friend of mine. I just love her to death." William Duell re-created the same two roles, Filch and Queen Victoria's Messenger, that he played for six years in the 1954 edition. "He's amazing," states Martin. "I called him the 'baby' of the cast. He had the most energy, and stayed up the latest. I can't believe that guy is a real person. I don't know where he gets [the stamina]; he's phenomenal! I'd say, 'Bill, you're the man!'"

Threepenny marked Martin's first time onstage since his breakthrough performance as Tom Collins in Rent. While his series affords him the financial security to do theatre, his schedule doesn't permit it. "There's no time to do anything other than work and sleep. It's a beast to contend with. But it does turn out to be worth it, as far as I'm concerned. I'm young, I can handle it. And who am I to complain, when I got Jerry, who's older, right next to me and handling it even more gracefully? And I don't have to go to Los Angeles. As far as I'm concerned, it's the best job you're ever going to get on television." It's also steady. Still ranking high in the ratings, the show's starting its 14th season, and is contracted for a 15th. Series creator Dick Wolf is committed to breaking the "Gunsmoke" record of 20 seasons. Martin previously worked for Dick Wolf when he made two appearances on "New York Undercover": in 1995, as a gun dealer; in 1998, playing a civic leader involved in extortion. He turned down a "Law & Order" role as a car radio thief. Looking back, he admits, "I don't know what possessed me. I was nobody at the time, just another actor trying to get on [the series]. I auditioned so many times, then I finally got a role, which was very tiny, about three lines. I thought there's gotta be something better than that. I don't know where I got that from; I should've just taken it and shut up. But I didn't. I decided I was going to wait. It took a little while, but I did get Eddie Green. [Laughs]." He took over for the departing Benjamin Bratt (as Det. Rey Curtis) at the start of the 1999-2000 season.

***

The middle of five sons, the actor was born Jesse Lamont Watkins in Rocky Mountain, Virginia. After his parents separated, his mother remarried. His stepfather adopted the five boys, hence the name Martin, and the family relocated to Buffalo, New York. Martin's mother is happy to have witnessed his success. "She's reaped the benefits. It's what every son lives for," he observes.

In the fourth grade, Jesse joined an after-school drama program. "It was my first time speaking in front of people. I didn't know what I was getting into. I had a really thick Southern accent, and the teacher thought it would be helpful for me, that it would take me out of my shell. She talked me into it. Of course, I was terrified. I thought the kids would laugh at me. I played a Southern Baptist preacher [in The Golden Goose]. The kids loved it. I got a lot of pats on the back after that."

He credits that teacher as the first person "besides immediate family to reach out to me and open up a world that I would have never known existed. It literally changed my life. You remember what you go through as a kid, what's going to make you listen, what's going to make you respond. I held onto that. People who treated me like that when I was younger got every bit of respect and attention I could give them, because I knew that they were coming at me from almost an equal level.

"Teaching is a truly noble profession. It's sad the amount of responsibility that teachers have today. They're not only teaching kids, they're raising kids, policing kids—and they don't make a lot of money. If I get the chance to be philanthropic, I want to help kids and teachers." If Martin were not an actor, he "would have loved to teach."

After graduating from the Buffalo School for Performing Arts, he attended NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, and then toured "almost a year" as a member of John Houseman's Acting Company. He later worked regionally at Hartford Stage, Arena Stage, Cleveland Playhouse and the Actors Theatre of Louisville. Ten years ago, Martin made his Broadway debut in Tony Randall's National Actors Company production of Timon of Athens. Playing the roles of Alcibiades' officer and the Second Masseur, he also understudied Michael Cumpsty as Alcibiades. "I was really excited to be in a show on Broadway. It was a huge show. Brian Bedford [in the title role] was absolutely amazing to watch each night, and there was an actor named John Franklyn-Robbins [as Apemantus, a cynic] who was just phenomenal. It was a nice learning experience, and I actually got paid."

With the same company the following year, he played Abdulin, a merchant, in The Government Inspector. Off-Broadway credits include Ring of Men, with the Ensemble Studio Theatre. At the Manhattan Theatre Club he did The Prince and the Pauper and Arabian Nights. Of the latter, Martin recalls, "I absolutely loved it! Besides Rent, it's probably the most creative I've ever been allowed to be onstage."

Between plays and trying to get work on soaps and commercials, Martin spent seven years waiting tables on and off. During a week that he worked at the Moondance Diner, he met a waiter named Jonathan Larson. "The place was open 24 hours, and Jonathan trained me when I had to work overnight. He told me he was a composer. By the end of the week, I quit; I got a job on 'New York Undercover.'

"The next time I saw Jonathan was at the auditions for Rent. It was several months later, and at first we couldn't figure out how we knew each other." Martin was cast as Tom Collins, a character who's HIV positive. It's well known that, following the invited dress rehearsal of Rent, Larson died of an aortic aneurysm.

It was decided to not have an opening night, but to do a sit-down sing-through, without make-up or costumes, for family and friends. "It was the hardest thing I think I've ever done," recounts Martin. "I remember singing and having what felt like an Oreo stuck in my throat. That lasted about four weeks. The cast and the crew felt that we really owed it to Jonathan to tell the story the best way we could. We were aware that we weren't done; it was supposed to be a workshop. It turned out really well because it had to. We stuck together, we galvanized, we became very tight with Jonathan's parents."

In the whirlwind during which the show received the Pulitzer Prize, transferred to Broadway, and won a Tony Award as Best Musical, Martin recalls, "We always said, 'Six years from now, I'm gonna be able to sit down and say, "Wow, that was amazing!"' But at the time, it was hard to do that. First of all, it was a lot of work. Secondly, you were so wrapped up in what you needed to do, in order to propel this story into the universe. We didn't have a chance to enjoy it while we were doing it. We were on a mission. It wasn't until many years later that I could actually appreciate what it was that we did." Martin has remained friendly "with almost everyone" in the cast.

He and Rent's Adam Pascal were two of the four producers of the Off-Broadway success Fully Committed. In "The Restaurant," a 1998 feature about waiters in an upscale Hoboken establishment, one of Martin's co-stars was Adrien Brody. "He was always getting something big. You knew that, at some point, Adrien was going to bust a move. I had no idea that it was going to be something as amazing as 'The Pianist.' He totally deserved the Oscar."

From playing Tom Collins in Rent, Martin went to playing AIDS counselor Antonio Collins in the 1997 TV series "413 Hope Street." Of the two Collins characters, he comments, "How weird is that? I think they did that on purpose. I had a ball doing that show. It didn't last long. I'll never forget when that show was canceled. It was Halloween. They said there was no need to finish shooting the scene we were doing.

"I walked out of the studio, which was in Canoga Park, and the hills were on fire. I thought, 'This is probably a good time to get out of Los Angeles.' I came back [to New York] the next day." He enjoyed working on a 1998 TV-movie, "Deep in My Heart," co-starring Gloria Reuben and Anne Bancroft. "Gloria was amazing, and Anne Bancroft is an absolute dream to just be around—let alone work with. She's extremely funny, almost as funny as her husband [a man named Brooks]. I couldn't believe that I was lucky enough to be in the same space with her." For ten episodes of "Ally McBeal," Martin played Dr. Greg Butters, one of Calista Flockhart's boyfriends. "Apparently, [the relationship] was controversial. I still don't know why," he claims. "Probably because she's so thin," I suggest. Martin laughs. "People made a big deal about it being an interracial couple. Hadn't they seen Lucy and Desi? I thought we were over that, but apparently we weren't." The part brought Martin a lot of recognition. "That put me out there as a face that you might know."

It led to an episode of "X-Files," written and directed by series star David Duchovny. In "The Unnatural" (4/25/99), Martin portrayed a baseball playing extraterrestrial. "It was one of the best television experiences I've ever had. David is a talent to be reckoned with; he can do almost anything. He's extremely smart, and I've never seen anybody so relaxed."

Other TV work includes "Rocky Horror 25: Anniversary Special," a 2000 show that Martin insists he "got talked into doing," and hosting a six-part 2003 cable series, "Art Crimes and Mysteries," on which he worked during weekends. He was announced for a feature, "Chance Encounter," which was never made, and has a role in a not-yet-released film, "Season of Youth," which he hasn't seen.

Martin's dream role is to play Marvin Gaye in a biography of the singer (1939-84). "I've been working on it for eight years. There have been several screenplays. The hardest part is securing the rights to the music, and you can't do the story without the music. It's a phenomenal story. Hopefully, one day, if I keep plugging away, I'll get to do it."

I ask him to name three highlights in his career, thus far. "First would definitely be the first time I was ever onstage, way back in the fourth grade. The second would be the moment I figured out that I could make a living doing it, which is when I was in the Acting Company.

"My biggest break wasn't Rent, it was the first job that ever paid me. I couldn't believe that they were paying me all that money to go around the country and do Shakespeare. I would have done it for free. So far, the third would have to be Rent. As far as theatrical experiences go, it doesn't get better than that. I don't think it can ever be topped!" After relaxing "in my mom's pool," Jesse L. Martin reports back to "Law & Order" duty at the beginning of August.

***

Be sure to catch Martin's "Law & Order" partner, Jerry Orbach, on the PBS Pledge special, "Broadway's Lost Treasures." Seen with the ensemble from the original 42nd Street, Orbach does a superb "Lullaby of Broadway," and he's also one of the show's co-hosts. Check local listings for the date and time; in the Metropolitan area, the show's on Aug. 10 at 8 PM ET.

***

END QUIZ: Which "Law & Order" partner is Jesse L. Martin's Det. Green for Jerry Orbach's Det. Briscoe: a) second; b) third; c) fourth? (Answer: Next column, August 31)

The July 6 question was: Which of the following two-time Tony winners appeared with Harriet Harris in "The Five Mrs. Buchanans": a) Swoosie Kurtz; b) Judith Ivey; c) Christine Baranski? The answer is b).

—Michael Buckley also writes for TheaterMania.com and The Sondheim Review.

Jesse L. Martin (L) with a bearded Sam Waterston.
Jesse L. Martin (L) with a bearded Sam Waterston.