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.'
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