Sam Waterston

Why Do People Love Sam Waterston?

Sam Waterston is a beloved actor best known for his roles in TV shows like “Law & Order” and films like “The Killing Fields.” But what exactly makes him so popular and admired by audiences? This article explores the qualities and talents that have earned Sam Waterston a dedicated fanbase over his decades-long career.

What TV And Movie Roles Is Sam Waterston Known For?

Sam Waterston is most closely associated with his role as Jack McCoy on “Law & Order.” He played the role of the passionate, justice-seeking prosecutor for 16 seasons from 1994-2010. This was his longest running and most iconic part.

As McCoy, Sam became a fixture of TV screens across America each week. Audiences loved his witty banter, his clever legal maneuvers in the courtroom, and his enduring quest to lock up criminals.

The Killing Fields

One of Sam’s most acclaimed roles was as journalist Sydney Schanberg in 1984’s “The Killing Fields.” The film documents Schanberg’s experience reporting on the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia and the terror it unleashed.

Sam’s emotional, grounded performance earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. The movie cemented his ability to captivate moviegoers while bringing nuance and humanity to real-world tragedy.

Other Notable Roles

Sam has delivered many other memorable performances over the years as well:

  • James T. Kirk’s Father – Sam had a brief but seminal role as George Kirk, father to the legendary Captain Kirk, in J.J. Abrams 2009 “Star Trek” reboot. Though he was only on screen for a few minutes, Sam helped ground the epic space adventure in genuine human emotion.
  • Abraham Lincoln – In the 1988 mini-series “Lincoln,” Sam depicted the famous president over 12 episodes spanning his early years through the Civil War. It showcased Sam’s ability to capture Lincoln’s gravitas and intellect.
  • Miles Drentell – Sam played the shadowy, controlling entertainment executive Miles Drentell on “Murder One” and “Murder Two” in the mid-90s. He was sufficiently sinister in showing Drentell’s efforts to cover up crimes and bend the legal system to his whims.

So whether portraying stalwart heroes or more enigmatic characters, Sam has always brought authenticity and depth to the screen. This helps explain why his roles are so beloved.

What Personal Qualities Make Sam Waterston So Appealing?

Beyond his acting skills and accomplishments, who Sam is as a person also draws admiration and fondness. Certain qualities have enhanced his fan appeal over the years.

Principled Activism

Sam is known for championing causes he believes in and using his celebrity influence to promote positive change. He has been a tireless advocate for human rights, acting as a long-time goodwill ambassador for the UN refugee agency UNHCR.

Sam has also focused efforts on environmental protection. Whether marching in protests or lobbying elected officials, his activism demonstrates integrity and idealism.

Humility and Humanism

Despite Sam’s acting pedigree and accolades – which include 16 Emmy nominations and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame – he maintains a grounded, humble demeanor in public. He keeps the focus on the issues rather than himself.

Sam also radiates warmth and compassion. His tendency to see the humanity in everyone comes across in interviews and interactions with fans. This accessibility enhances his appeal.

Intelligence and Wit

Sam is clearly a perceptive, thoughtful person in interviews and discussions. He can hold forth knowledgeably on history, philosophy, global affairs and more. Sam also has an incisive, playful wit which he employs judiciously.

Fans appreciate the combination of smarts and humor. It makes Sam seem like both an eminent figure and fun friend.


There is a consistency and authenticity to Sam’s public image across the decades. The principles and personal traits he embodied on shows like “Law & Order” align seamlessly with his off-screen persona.

He practices what he portrays. Sam projects comfort in his own skin, making him feel genuine and approachable rather than a manufactured celebrity facade.

These personality dimensions allow fans to connect to the real Sam Waterston behind the actor.

What Roles Has Sam Waterston Played On Stage?

While Sam is best known as a screen actor, theater has been a cornerstone of his career as well. He studied acting at Yale Drama School in the 1960s then performed for years with the Shakespeare Theatre Company in New York City and DC. Major stages roles have allowed Sam to showcase his talent and versatility as a live performer.


Among Sam’s most critically lauded theater performances was his portrayal of the conflicted Danish prince in the Shakespeare tragedy “Hamlet” in both New York and Los Angeles. As the doomed royal contemplating mortality and vengeance, Sam mesmerized fans with his mastery of the complex, psychological role .

Henry Drummond in Inherit the Wind

At the Arena Stage theater in Washington DC, Sam starred as lawyer Henry Drummond in the drama “Inherit the Wind.” It fictionalizes the famous “Scopes Monkey Trial” over teaching evolution in 1920s Tennessee. As Drummond, Sam squarely took on fundamentalist antagonists in the courtroom in defense of reason and discourse.

Prospero in The Tempest

Sam assumed the role of the exiled magical royal Prospero in Shakespeare’s fantasy “The Tempest” at the La Jolla Playhouse in California. As this complicated, morally ambiguous protagonist wielding immense power yet thirsty for vengeance, Sam compelled audiences while bringing nuance to an otherworldly work.

James Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey Into Night

Displaying immense emotional range, Sam played tortured addict James Tyrone in Eugene O’Neill’s autobiographical drama “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” at the Goodman Theater in Chicago. Sam descended masterfully into Tyrone’s despair, cruelty and flickering hopes. The heartbreaking role earned Sam his first of three Tony award nominations.

On stage, Sam continues to showcase the dramatic chops and magnetism that have made him an acting legend. Theater allows him to connect intimately with audiences and demonstrate his versatility beyond TV and film. For those lucky enough to see him live, it leaves an indelible mark cementing Sam’s greatness.

Why Have So Many Of Sam Waterston’s Co-Stars Loved Working With Him?

Over his long career, Sam Waterston has shared many on-screen collaborations that stretched across years or even decades. Notably, a recurring sentiment from Sam’s co-stars has been what an exceptional team player he is and how much they’ve loved acting with him. Where does this goodwill come from?

Treats All Cast & Crew As Equals

Whether acting opposite A-list celebrities or behind-the-scenes production assistants, Sam gives everyone equal respect and consideration. He appreciates each person’s integral role in delivering an optimal final product. Sam builds community rather than hierarchies among cast and crew. This has particularly enabled long-running TV shows to cohere.

Creates Safe Space For Other Actors

Sam isn’t a scene-stealer trying to grab attention and outshine others. He intently listens and responds in scenes to allow organic chemistry to unfold. Sam also prepared thoroughly for each day, knowing dialogue and motivations, so fellow cast members feel safe, nurtured and set up for success rather than anxiety.


While Sam takes the craft seriously and immerses wholly while cameras roll, he happily sheds intensity during breaks. Ever-humorous and self-deprecating in his witty banter, Sam’s levity keeps spirits and energy high on set across shooting days.

Mentors Younger Actors

Early in careers or first big breaks, fledgling actors have praised Sam’s generosity as a guiding light. He selflessly imparts practical advice and moral support. Sam helped acclimate them to new experiences without overshadowing their performances. This welcoming presence put them at ease.

The camaraderie Sam stokes explains the many co-stars who have relished sharing scenes with him. His grace and positivity rub off on entire sets driving great final output. Sam earns admiration for encouraging top-notch work from everyone around him.

How Has Sam Waterston Maintained Such An Extensive Career Over So Many Decades?

Sam landed his first major feature film role in 1965’s “The Plastic Dome of Norma Jean” while television work quickly followed through the late 60s and 70s. Now in his 80s, Sam maintains an active acting schedule with his return to NBC’s “Law & Order” franchise in 2022. Sustaining this workload and passion over nearly 60 years is astonishing in such a fickle profession.

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