Law & Order
First gaining notice as Reba the Mail Lady on “Pee-wee's Playhouse” (1986), Golden Globe and Emmy Award winning African American actress S. Epatha Merkerson is familiar to television audiences for portraying supervisor, Anita Van Buren on the NBC critically acclaimed series “Law & Order” (1993- current). The role has brought her many nominations at the Image Awards (won one in 2006) and the Screen Actors Guild Awards. She reprised the role on the spin off shows “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” and “Law & Order: Trial by Jury” and in the TV film “Exiled: A Law & Order Movie” (1999). She has also acted in several TV films, but is best remembered as Rachel “Nanny” Crosby in the TV movie adaptation of Ruben Santiago-Hudson's play “Lackawanna Blues” (2005), from which she won her Golden Globe and Emmy Awards for her performance. The role also brought her a Screen Actors Guild Award, an Image Award and a Black Reel Award as well as an Independent Spirit nomination. Her film credits include “Loose Cannons” (1990), “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” (1991), “Random Hearts” (1999), “Radio” (2003, shared a Camie Award), “Black Snake Moan” (2006), “Slipstream” (2007), “The Six Wives of Henry Lefay” (2009) and “Mother and Child” (2009). Starting out on stage, Merkerson left Michigan in the late 1970s to begin her theater career in New York City. She earned Tony nominations for “The Piano Lesson” (1990) and “Come Back, Little Sheba” (2008), Obie awards for “I'm Not Stupid” (1992) and “Birdie Blue” (2006), and a Helen Hayes Award for “The Old Settler” (1999).
Merkerson currently resides in New York City. She was once married to Toussaint L. Jones Jr.
“I have a sister who is a lung cancer survivor.” S. Epatha Merkerson
Merkerson is a supporter of lung cancer research and awareness. In 2002, she was honored with the Regulus Award for her commitment to lung cancer education. Merkerson is also a vocal activist against smoking. A long time smoker herself, she stopped smoking and now works in campaigns to help people quit smoking.
Childhood and Family:
“My dad said he had a teacher named Epatha who was influential in keeping him in school, but my mother said it was an old girlfriend of his. So that's why she stuck in the Sharon Epatha. That's what the ‘S’ stands for. Everyone knows now because some numbskull I went to high school with decided to put it on the Internet.” S. Epatha Merkerson
Born Sharon Epatha Merkerson on November 28, 1952, in Saginaw, Michigan, S. Epatha Merkerson was raised the youngest of five children in Detroit, MI. Her mother, Ann Merkerson, was the only female in the vehicles operation unit of the Detroit post office at the time. Her father was a factory worker. Her parents divorced when she was five years old. Epatha graduated from Thomas M. Cooley High School in Detroit in 1970 and later received a BFA in theater from Wayne State University in 1976. At college, she originally studied dance but later transferred her major to drama.
Epatha was married to Toussaint L. Jones Jr. from March 1994 to February 14, 2006.
S. Epatha Merkerson relocated to New York City in 1978 to give acting a shot. Subsequently, she landed a featured role in the national tour of “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf...” She continued to perform in regional theater and in off-Broadway productions and made her Broadway debut as the understudy for Lynne Thigpen in the musical “Tintypes” in the early 1980s. In 1984, she had a role in a staging of the musical “The Dream Team” at the prestigious Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut.
Billed as Epatha Merkinson, the Michigan native made her big screen debut in 1986 when she was cast as Doctor Jamison in Spike Lee's “She's Gotta Have It.” It was also in that year that Merkinson was cast as Reba in her first television show, “Pee-wee's Playhouse,” a CBS children's program starring Paul Reubens. She followed it up with appearances in an episode of “The Cosby Show” called “Bookworm” in 1988 and the CBS Summer Playhouse “Elysian Field” in 1989. Meanwhile, on stage, she appeared in an off-Broadway production of “Moms” (1987) and played the role of Billie Holliday in an off-Broadway production of “Lady Day” (1987).
Merkerson's stage career gained an important boost in 1990 when she was cast in the original Broadway production of “The Piano Lesson,” a play by August Wilson. Under the direction of Lloyd Richard, she earned a 1990 Tony nomination for Best Actress, Featured Role-Play. The role also brought her a Drama Desk nomination for Best Actress, Lead Role-Play and a Helen Hayes nomination for Best Actress, Non-Resident Play. Also that year, she appeared with Dan Aykroyd and Gene Hackman in the action film “Loose Cannons,” which was directed by Bob Clark. She then appeared with Charlie Seen, Michael Biehn and Bill Paxton in Lewis Teague's “Navy Seals” and with Tim Robbins, Danny Aiello, Matt Craven and Jason Alexander in Adrian Lyne's thriller “Jacob's Ladder.” She also acted in two failed pilots titled “Moe's World” and “Equal Justice.”
Merkerson's first notable film role arrived the following year when she portrayed Joe Morton's panicked wife, Tarissa Dyson, in the blockbuster science fiction movie “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” which was directed by James Cameron and starred Arnold Schwarzenegger as The Terminator. She returned to the off-Broadway stage in 1992 in the Young Playwrights Festival's production of “I'm Not Stupid” and won an Obie award for her performance. On TV, Merkerson won the regular role of Captain Margaret Claghorn on the short lived series “Mann & Machine” (1992), opposite David Andrews and Yancy Butler. After the cancellation of the show, she joined the cast of the NBC comedy “Here and Now.” The show, however, only lasted from September 1992 to January 1993.
After making her TV movie debut in “It's Nothing Personal” (1993), Merkerson enjoyed a huge break when she began her role of Lieutenant Anita Van Buren on the fourth season of the popular Dick Wolf created dramatic series “Law & Order” (NBC, 1991-current). Making her debut performance on the episode “Sweeps,” which aired on September 15, 1993, she still remains on the show and is the longest running African American character in an American television series. She has been nominated for numerous NAACP Image Awards and won one in 2006 for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series. She also collected nine Screen Actors Guild nominations in the category of Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Drama Series.
Merkerson also costarred with Sissy Spacek and Mary-Louise Parker in the TV film “A Place for Annie” (1994), supported Lina Hamilton and Noah Fleiss in the US Network TV film “A Mother's Prayer” (1995) and played Barbara in the ABC film “Breaking Through” (1996), which starred JoBeth Williams and Kellie Martin. She also acted in the TV film “An Unexpected Life” (USA Network, 1998), opposite Stockard Channing, Stephen Collins and Christine Ebersole, and reprised her role of Anita Van Buren on the TV movie spin off “Exiled: A Law & Order Movie” (1998). Also in 1998, she landed a starring role in the John Henry Redwood play “The Old Settler” at the Studio Theater in Washington, D.C., where she won a 1999 Helen Hayes award in the category of Outstanding Lead Actress-Resident Play for her performance. She closed out the decade by having a small role in the big screen adaptation of “Random Hearts,” which was directed by Sydney Pollack and starred Harrison Ford and Kristin Scott Thomas.
Entering the new millennium, Merkerson made a guest appearance in the long running, but now defunct, sitcom “Frasier,” where she played Dr. McCaskill. She next appeared with Kate Capshaw, Stockard Channing, Rebecca De Mornay and Mia Farrow in the Showtime film “A Girl Thing” (2001), portrayed Lessie Watson in Tom Rice's movie version of “The Rising Place” (2001), which won the Grand Prize for Dramatic Feature at the 2000 Heartland Film Festival and the Best Feature Award at the 2002 Stony Brook Film Festival, and recreated her TV role of Lieutenant Anita Van Buren in an episode of “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” (2002). In 2003, she teamed up with Susan Blommaert, Bobby Cannavale, Mos Def, Peter Gerety, Jojo Gonzalez, Jesse Lenat, Chandler Parker, Daphne Rubin-Vega and Michole Briana White in a New York rendition of “F**king A,” a play by Suzan-Lori Parks. She was nominated for a Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Lead Actress and a Drama League Award for Distinguished Performance for her performance in the play. The same year, she played Mama Kennedy in the Mike Tollin helmed film “Radio,” based on the true story of a football couch and mentally challenged James Robert “Radio” Kennedy, portrayed by Ed Harris and Cuba Gooding Jr., respectively. She jointly nabbed a 2005 Camie for her work in the film.
Following a bit part in the Kevin Smith disappointing movie “Jersey Girl “ (2004), starring Ben Affleck, Merkerson starred as Rachel “Nanny” Crosby in the HBO film “Lackawanna Blues” (2005), based on the 2001 play of the same name by Ruben Santiago-Hudson. The story of Ruben Santiago, Jr. growing up in Lackawanna, New York, the drama collected a number of awards and nominations and Merkerson took home an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or a Movie, a Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actress in a Mini-Series or a Motion Picture Made for Television, a Black Reel for Best Actress - Television, an Image for Outstanding Actress in a TV Movie, Mini-Series or Dramatic Special, a Screen Actors Guild for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Television Movie or Miniseries, a Gracie for Outstanding Female Lead - Miniseries, a Prism for Best Performance in a TV Movie or Miniseries, an Independent Spirit nomination for Best Female Lead, a Vision nomination for Best Dramatic Performance, and a Satellite nomination for Outstanding Actress in a Miniseries or a Motion Picture Made for Television. The TV film was written by Santiago-Hudson and directed by George C. Wolfe, who also produced the stage version. Later that same year, she once again played Anita Van Buren on an episode of “Law & Order: Trial by Jury,” another spin off of “Law & Order.”
Merkerson next costarred with Samuel L. Jackson, Christina Ricci and Justin Timberlake in Craig Brewer's drama “Black Snake Moan” (2006), was cast in the film “Slipstream” (2007), which was written and directed by actor Anthony Hopkins, and offered a good portrayal of Ariel Winters in the Lifetime TV film “Girl, Positive” (2007), in which she received a 2008 Image nomination for Outstanding Actress in a Television Movie, Mini-Series or Dramatic Special for the performance. She also played the recurring role of Dr. Rebecca Dioli in three episodes of “The Closer” (2007) and was a narrator on “American Masters” (2008). On stage, Merkerson portrayed Birdie in Cheryl L. West's “Birdie Blue” at the Second Stage Theatre in New York in 2005. She won a 2006 Obie for Outstanding Performance and was nominated for a 2006 Lucille Lortel Award for Best Actress and a Drama League Award for Distinguished Performance. She revisited Broadway when she portrayed Lola in a 2008 revival of William Inge's “Come Back, Little Sheba” at the Biltmore Theater. She also reprised her role in its Los Angeles showing at the Kirk Douglas Theater. The role brought Merkerson a Tony nomination for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play and a NAACP Theatre nomination for Best Lead Female.
In 2009, Merkerson appeared in the comedy film “The Six Wives of Henry Lefay,” which was written and directed by Howard Michael Gould. She then teamed up with Naomi Watts, Samuel L. Jackson, David Morse, Brittany Robertson, Annette Bening, Kerry Washington, Carla Gallo, Amy Brenneman, Marc Blucas, Tatyana Ali and Jimmy Smits in the Rodrigo García drama “Mother and Child.” Premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 14, 2009, “Mother and Child” was shown at the Sundance Film Festival on January 23, 2010, and is scheduled to be released theatrically in the U.S. on May 7, 2010.
Black Reel: Best Actress - Television, “Lackawanna Blues,” 2006
Golden Globe: Best Performance by an Actress in a Mini-Series or a Motion Picture Made for Television, “Lackawanna Blues,” 2006
Gracie Allen: Gracie, Outstanding Female Lead - Miniseries, “Lackawanna Blues,” 2006
Image: Outstanding Actress in a TV Movie, Mini-Series or Dramatic Special, “Lackawanna Blues,” 2006
Image: Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series, “Law & Order,” 2006
Obie: Outstanding Performance, “Birdie Blue,” 2006
Prism: Best Performance in a TV-Movie or Miniseries, “Lackawanna Blues,” 2006
Screen Actors Guild: Actor, Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Television Movie or Miniseries, “Lackawanna Blues,” 2006
Emmy: Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or a Movie, “Lackawanna Blues,” 2005
Character and Morality in Entertainment: Camie, “Radio,” 2005
Helen Hayes: Outstanding Lead Actress-Resident Play, “The Old Settler,” 1999
Obie: Outstanding Performance, “I'm Not Stupid,” 1992