King Lear: Sam Waterston's Shakespearean Everest

Special Features   King Lear: Sam Waterston's Shakespearean Everest
The tireless Sam Waterston reaches the summit of King Lear, returning to a familiar mountain range — The Public Theater.

Sam Waterston
Sam Waterston Photo by Joan Marcus


Like most actors (at least, the ambitious and striving ones), Sam Waterston has hit his year of Lear — that great gray bear of a mountain that looms darkly in the distance of an acting career as a test of mettle. His favorite workplace, the Public Theater, has provided him the chance to sally forth, now through Nov. 20, majestic as all get-out, as Shakespeare's confused, crumbling, daughter-divided King Lear.

"I don't know if all actors feel compelled to climb that mountain, but it has been on my mind for a long time, certainly," he admitted. "As the years advance and you can't play Hamlet anymore, it becomes the obvious object of attraction."

Forget Hamlet. Nowadays the silver-haired-and-70 Waterston works from a post-Polonius perspective. In fact, he mentioned, "Are you aware that, in the past 40 years, I was in every single production of Hamlet that has been presented in the park?" — from playing Laertes for Stacy Keach's Hamlet in 1971 to his own melancholy Dane in 1975 to Polonius for Michael Stuhlbarg's Hamlet in 2008.

And now, there's Lear — and he has jumped in with both feet. "We're in the trenches right now," he said during a rehearsal break. "That's where the joy and tears are. It's an absolutely gigantic play. Whatever you've got to give, it's got a use for. "I can't even tell you what the original motive was [for wanting to do this] apart from the fact it's there, like Everest. When you begin to work on it, you realize it is an astonishing piece of dramatic poetry and you're in the hands of a master who is right at the very peak of his powers and has such large things to say."

Sam Waterston and Kristen Connolly
photo by Joan Marcus

It's a sentimental journey, returning to the Public and the Bard simultaneously. "We rehearse in the same hall where I rehearsed so many Shakespeares in the past." Like: Measure for Measure (as the Duke), Cymbeline (Cloten), Henry IV Part I and Part II (Prince Hal) and As You Like It (Silvius). "I did Much Ado About Nothing twice in the park. In the last one, I actually played the father [Leonato] of my own daughter, Elisabeth, and in the first one, I met by chance my daughter's mother while I was rehearsing to play Benedict. She denies it, but I've always thought Benedict gave me a leg up with her."

Both of his actress daughters, Elisabeth and Katherine, would come in very handy these days as Lear litter, but, unfortunately, they're toiling in The Cherry Orchard at Classic Stage Company, and son James is doing a Holocaust play. So director James Macdonald outfitted the family with Kelli O'Hara (Regan), Enid Graham (Goneril) and Kristen Connolly (Cordelia).

On the men's side of the court are Bill Irwin (The Fool), Frank Wood (Cornwall), John Douglas Thompson (Kent), Richard Topol (Albany), Michael McKean (Gloucester) and Arian Moayed (Edgar).

New York (if not Waterston) has seen lots of Lears of late — the Royal Shakespeare Company's Greg Hicks and Ian McKellen, the Donmar Warehouse's Derek Jacobi, Canada's Christopher Plummer. "Of course, I was hugely tempted to see them because I knew I was going to be doing this," said Waterston. "Then I remembered what Rosemary Harris said: 'You want to go to drama school as early as possible so you have time to forget everything you learned.' If there were time to forget everything I learned from their Lears, they would have been invaluable to see, but there wasn't. I was afraid I wouldn't digest them all."

Waterston on "Law & Order"

Such serious, soul-searching work in Shakespeare probably surprises most people, who know Waterston as District Attorney Jack McCoy of TV's "Law & Order," even-handedly manipulating the scales of justice in prosecuting culprits in the "Law" part of the program. For 20 years, "New York actor" was defined and validated via guest shots on "Law & Order." "I used to call it the Café de la Paix of show business," he remembers. "They used to say about the Café de la Paix [that] if you sat there long enough, the whole world would pass by, and that's the way I felt working on that show. So many wonderful, wonderful, wonderful actors dropped by and did astonishing things."

For 16 years, his Jack McCoy was one of the anchoring pillars around whom they danced — the second-longest tenured character on the series (after S. Epatha Merkerson's Lt. Anita Van Buren) — and his streak of 333 uninterrupted appearances is the longest run of a character appearing in consecutive episodes.

Turns out there is life after Lear, and it's "More As This Story Develops," a new HBO series created by Aaron Sorkin ("The West Wing," "The Social Network") and co-starring Jeff Daniels and Emily Mortimer. "I play the head of the news division of a cable network. Aaron has written a complicated, loopy, high-minded, funny, terrific character." Just think of it as Lear in a business suit, pushing buttons.


Read the recent feature about American clown Bill Irwin, who plays King Lear's Fool at The Public Theater

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