The Real McCoy

Sam Waterston is sitting inside downtown Manhattan's City Hall restaurant, shooting a scene for what will become his 317th performance as tenacious prosecutor Jack McCoy in NBC's unsinkable crime drama "Law & Order." Today, his thespian pas de deux is with Jayne Atkinson; they're filming a type of scene that's among the show's staffs of life—the negotiation of a cozy deal in a cozy restaurant booth. For Waterston, 67, this has to be like tying a pair of shoes. Actually, like fastening a pair of Velcro shoes. But on this oppressively gray morning, Waterston is peppy, punchy even, as he and Atkinson, who's playing a politician, run lines from the script. "Have you ever heard of New Yorkers for Good Government?" she says. "No." "They want you to run for a full term in the next election." "They do?" "They admire you because you're not a politician." "So they want me to become one." "Ironic, isn't it?"

Ironic indeed. The scene is clearly a wink at Fred Thompson, who left his role on "Law & Order" (as District Attorney Arthur Branch) to mount a presidential campaign. It's also ironic because Waterston, who this season is taking over Thompson's D.A. chair, is himself circling politics, though from a safer distance. He's become the spokesman—he prefers "cheerleader"—for Unity08, a reform movement that aims to put a bipartisan ticket on the presidential ballot in all 50 states. But because cruel irony is the most excellent kind, the best part is that while Thompson is the "Law & Order" actor who is running for president, Waterston is the "Law & Order" actor who arguably cuts the best shadow of a president.

Have a look at this pedigree: he was born in Massachusetts to a semanticist father and a Mayflower-descendant mother; he graduated from Yale and spent a year studying abroad at the Sorbonne; he's deeply absorbed in his Episcopal faith; he's got two vertical inches over Bush 43; he's devoted a large chunk of his professional life to putting away special-guest bad guys while modeling fine suits. In fact, many of his roles suggest a fascination with morality, justice and human suffering. He earned an Oscar nomination in 1984 for his work as journalist Sydney Schanberg in "The Killing Fields." His first notable TV role came on the short-lived drama "I'll Fly Away," which was rooted in the social tumult of the 1950s. But lest you think he's humorless, he also appeared in a faux commercial on "Saturday Night Live" endorsing insurance for the elderly against robots who "eat old people's medicine for fuel." He has a folksy demeanor, not as genteel as you'd expect, but close. His natural speech is the stuff politicos practice—it's just eloquent enough that it doesn't sound calculated.

Waterston laughs at the notion that he has a presidential air about himself, but he concedes there may be some truth at its core. "I've played presidents, so there must be something there," he says. "But maybe I got it from them." He's played presidents six times, to be precise: Abraham Lincoln four times (twice on television, twice onstage) and two fictional presidents. And while he maintains a genuine who me? humility that suggests he's surprised he was invited to the party, when he starts talking about whom he's been reading for pleasure lately—the 18th-century French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville—you almost hate to break it to the guy. He lends the roles their presidential auras, not the other way around.

But Waterston, who relaxes in his trailer in a wool sweater and blue jeans, is clear about the fact that he has no interest in occupying the real Oval Office. When he appeared before the National Press Club in April to stump for Unity, his opening line was: "Hello, I'm Sam Waterston, and I'm not running for president." Although he got a big laugh, he was serious about communicating his intractability on the subject. "I absolutely want to remind people that I have no interest in running for office," he says. "And I also want to remind people that [Unity08] is not something an actor thought of."

It isn't that Waterston thinks famous people can't come up with good ideas. In fact, he takes umbrage at the notion that celebrities shouldn't involve themselves in the process. He bristles upon hearing that Whoopi Goldberg said on "The View" that Oprah Winfrey was "interfering" by campaigning for Barack Obama. "Unbelievable. What do you even say to that?" Waterston says. "I mean, who is Whoopi? She's a talk-show host talking politics." At the same time, Waterston grasps that there is a potential for his celebrity to taint the ideas. After all, the celebrity-as-political-dilettante has become a go-to punch line. On an episode of NBC's sitcom "30 Rock," Liz (Tina Fey) gives her vapid actress friend Jenna (Jane Krakowski) a pep talk before her appearance on "Hardball." "I'm just afraid I'm going to sound like I don't know what I'm talking about," Jenna says. "Would Sharon Stone worry about that?" says Liz. "Would Richard Gere? Then you go out there and you voice your opinions like a star." When Waterston appeared on "Hardball" in late July, he more than held his own. The performance had less to do with his authoritative bearing than the fact that his cause simply feels like straight talk. It doesn't require him to memorize statistics about what happens every seven seconds in a developing nation. He simply addresses a nagging question: in a country where we're bombarded by choice, why are we forced to step inside the voting booth every fourth year and choose between french fries and onion rings?

Waterston was recruited for Unity08 by one of the group's cofounders, Gerald Rafshoon, who served as Jimmy Carter's communications director. The two met when Waterston played the lead in 1989's "The Nightmare Years," a mini-series Rafshoon produced. Unity's efforts to get a party-neutral ticket fit with Waterston's outlook, as he's maintained centrist views for longer than he can remember. He's not registered with any party, though he recalls being a Democrat "many, many years ago." But like many, he became disenchanted by partisan scare tactics. "I found myself doing things like voting for Barry Goldwater in New York because I was so appalled by the 'Be afraid, be very afraid' Johnson ad," he says. "I was trying to send a message, but of course that got lost. Then I started voting independent because I was under the impression that if you left the parties, they would miss you. They don't miss you."

Waterston's itinerant political instincts are clearly in opposition to his professional ones. His longevity on "Law & Order" is particularly impressive considering the show's bias toward narrative over backstory. Its policy of making characters cleave to the story, rather than vice versa, enables it to absorb cast shake-ups easily. But Waterston has planted deep roots in the show in a way that no other actor has, with the possible exception of the late Jerry Orbach. Waterston is so integral that the district-attorney role, which in the past was limited to brief, intermittent appearances, has been expanded to give him more screen time—but he'll still be seen less than he was in his old role. "Sam has never been an expendable part of the show," says creator and executive producer Dick Wolf. "After all these years, I've never once seen him phone in a performance."

With his newfound free time, he'll do more of his favorite kind of acting: stage roles. Waterston doesn't mention Jack McCoy as his career highlight; he talks up his many Shakespeare roles, as well as his debut at the age of 6 in a production of Jean Anouilh's "Antigone," directed by his father. (His role: The Page. The entirety of his dialogue: "5 o'clock, sir. Cabinet meeting, sir.") He'll spend more time at the place he and his wife, Lynn, have called home for going on 30 years, a northwestern Connecticut farm complete with cows, sheep and goats. There he's neither a name actor nor a political messenger, he's jes' folk. "If anybody comes looking for me, people in town don't say where I live," he says. "They know exactly where I live, but they say, 'Oh, he moved'." A likely story for a guy so good at staying put.