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S. Epatha Merkerson Biography - Selected works

pee wee law playhouse

1952—

Actor

Merkerson, S. Epatha, photograph. © Michael Kim/Corbis.

S. Epatha Merkerson has made a name for herself playing Lt. Anita Van Buren on the long-running, Emmy award-winning police drama, Law & Order. For more than a decade, fans have tuned in to watch the show's ensemble cast portray gritty, often straight-from-the-headlines, New York crime stories. Merkerson is also an accomplished stage and screen actor, having performed on and off Broadway, in film, and on television. Her talents have earned her attention from the industry's most prestigious award granting organizations.

S. Epatha Merkerson was born on November 28, 1952, in Saginaw, Michigan, and raised by her mother, a divorced postal employee, in Detroit, Michigan, along with four siblings. At the age of 13 Merkerson's family moved to an all-white neighborhood and experienced racism that she remembers well. During the 1960s, Detroit erupted in racial riots that made relations between blacks and whites living there uneasy. "Each day my brother Zephry and I would guess how many new For Sale signs had gone up," she told People Weekly magazine. In Detroit, Merkerson also had a scary run-in with the police. While driving with her brother in 1967, Merkerson had a police officer point his gun at the back of her head while his partner inspected her brother's identification. The police were looking for a suspect driving a similar car. Although she and her brother were released, Merkerson remembered the encounter to People Weekly as "terrifying."

Merkerson did well in school and continued her education at Wayne State University in Detroit. While earning a bachelor of fine arts degree from the university, Merkerson experienced racial discrimination. As "the only black person" in Wayne State's drama program at the time, "I was actually told not to audition for things," she told People Weekly.

Upon graduation in 1975, Merkerson left Detroit for Albany, New York, to pursue her acting career. She soon joined a children's theater company. At the same time she met Toussaint L. Jones Jr. whom she would date for many years. The couple married in March of 1994.

In 1986 with a little bit of luck and a lot of hard work Merkerson entertained millions of children and adults as Reba the Mail Lady on the popular Pee-wee's Playhouse television show. As a spin-off of Pee-wee's Big Adventure, actor Paul Reuben's first feature film combined old educational film segments, puppets, marionettes, and human characters with fun and games, and an irreverent take on societal conventions. Racial, social, and sexual conventions were challenged, always in good humor. On one show Pee-wee marries a bowl of cereal; on another, a white female character goes on a date with an African-American cowboy. The cast used a hilarious mix of camp, surprise, and silliness to win six Emmy Awards during its first season. The show developed a cult following and soon became part of popular culture, spawning a second movie and Pee-wee's Playhouse Christmas Special in 1988. Dolls, toys, and Pee-wee's Playhouse themed paraphernalia found a brisk market until the craze came to an end when Reubens was arrested for indecent behavior in August 1991.

Merkerson's role on Pee-wee's Playhouse caught the attention of Dick Wolf, the executive producer of Law & Order. In 1993 Dick Wolf, the show's executive producer, was urged to "add a woman to the regular cast or the show would be cancelled," Merkerson said during an interview with National Public Radio. But Wolf admitted to People Weekly that he "fell in love with her" for her role on Pee-wee's Playhouse and cast her on Law & Order without an audition. Merkerson had landed a part on what would become the longest-running crime series and the second longest-running drama series in the history of television. On Law & Order, Merkerson plays Lt. Anita Van Buren, a tough, no-nonsense type who can hold her own against the male-dominated police department. Van Buren is also the mother of a child killed because of a gunman's inability to read. A series regular, she dispenses wisdom and supervision to New York City detectives. The cast earned an Emmy in 1997 and holds the record for the most consecutive Emmy nominations (11) for Outstanding Drama Series. Law & Order has spawned successful spin-offs—Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and Law & Order: Criminal Intent. A third show, Law & Order: Trial by Jury, premieres in 2005.

Despite her career success, Merkerson still finds she has to struggle at times to bring some rather obscure African-American realities to her roles. Merkerson told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that "I came into this business with no illusions, especially about television. It's very stereotyped." Citing a particular Law & Order episode involving a black man passing for white unbeknownst to his white wife, Merkerson felt the child playing their offspring in reality wouldn't have been dark-skinned. She lobbied vigorously for a more fair-skinned child but for the episode but was overruled. "We try to do shows that are correct," she explained to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "Not politically correct, not artistically correct, but correct in reality. It's the minutiae, those little things that present themselves in our culture that I've spent my career fighting for."

In addition to her television work, Merkerson has performed in a long list of theater productions and films. For her work in theater she earned an Obie Award in 1991 for I'm not Stupid and a Helen Hayes Award in 1999 for her work in The Old Settler. The Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Piano Lesson earned her both a Tony and Drama Desk nomination for Best Actress. She also appeared in such films as Prizzi's Honor, Postcards from the Edge, Jacob's Ladder, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, An Unexpected Life, and Radio. Merkerson is scheduled to complete production on the movie Lackawanna Blues in 2004, co-starring Jimmy Smits and Rosie Perez.

But acting is not Merkerson's only activity. Having lost one of her close friends to lung cancer, Merkerson decided in 1994 to quit smoking herself. She told the Los Angeles Daily News, "I woke up one morning and it just felt like an elephant was standing on my chest." A year later she lost another friend to the disease. Merkerson dedicates time to lung cancer prevention, working with kids to spread awareness about the dangers of smoking. She told the Los Angeles Daily News, "One thing I've realized is celebrity can be used for real important things. People seem to listen a little more acutely to those who are in front of the camera. If you're going to hear it from me because I'm Lt. Van Buren, then that's really cool." She is an active participant with the Campaign for Tobacco-free Kids and organizations such as Cancercare have honored Merkerson for her work.

At a Glance …

Born Sharon Epatha Merkerson on November 28, 1952, in Saginaw, MI; married Toussaint L. Jones, 1994. Education: Wayne State University, BA, fine arts, 1975.

Career: Actor, 1975–.

Awards: Obie Award, 1991, for I'm not Stupid; Helen Hayes Award, for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Resident Play, 1999, for The Old Settler.

Addresses: Agent—David Nesmith, PMK/HBH Public Relations, 650 5th Avenue, 33rd Floor, New York, NY 10019.

Selected works

Films

Prizzi's Honor, 1985.

Navy Seals, 1990.

Jacob's Ladder, 1990.

Terminator II, 1991.

Radio, 2003.

Jersey Girl, 2004.

Lackawanna Blues, 2004.

Plays

The Piano Lesson, 1990.

I'm Not Stupid, 1991.

The Old Settler, 1998.

F**king A, 2003.

Television

The Cosby Show, 1984.

Pee-wee's Playhouse, 1986.

Elysian Fields, 1989.

Equal Justice, 1990.

Here and Now, 1992.

Mann and Machine, 1992.

Law & Order, 1993—.

A Place for Annie, 1994.

A Mother's Prayer, 1995.

Breaking Through, 1996.

An Unexpected Life, 1998.

It's a Girl Thing, 2001.

Sources

Periodicals

Daily News (Los Angeles), November 12, 2001, p. L7.

Essence, September 2003, p. 122.

Hollywood Reporter, October 21, 2002, p. 11.

People Weekly, August 13, 2001, p. 93.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 10, 1998, p. E8.

On-line

"S. Epatha Merkerson," NBC, www.nbc.com (July 23, 2004).

"Pee-Wee's Playhouse," Nostalgia Central, www.nostalgiacentral.com/tv/kids/pee.htm (July 24, 2004).

"Audio Interview with S. Epatha Merkerson," National Public Radio, www.npr.org/features/feature.php?wfId=1069210 (July 25, 2004).

—Sharon Melson Fletcher

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