NEW YORK—When he plays King Lear, Sam Waterston doesn't have to worry about being influenced by any other actor.
That's because he has yet to catch a single production of the play. "I've never seen `Lear.' I haven't ever," the actor says before a recent preview performance at The Public Theater.
That's a somewhat remarkable admission for an actor who adores Shakespeare and has played plenty of the Bard's roles, including Hamlet, Polonius, Laertes, Prospero, Leonato, Prince Hal, Silvius, Cloten and Benedict.
Waterston, who turns 71 this month, has been itching to play Shakespeare's crazed dictator since he did Hamlet three decades ago. "I thought, `Well, you've got to get old, there's no way to avoid that, but at least there's Lear to look forward to.'"
The seven-time Emmy Award nominee is clearly jazzed about the role, one of Shakespeare's meatiest. It calls for the actor to make a total transformation from impetuous and arrogant at the beginning to total despair and quite mad at the end.
"This is big," says Waterston, whose salt-and-pepper hair is now long but whose eyebrows are still bushy. "You can't have any idea how cool it's going to be until you do it. This is idiotic to be saying this, but it's a great, great play. It's like saying `War and Peace' is a great book."
Oskar Eustis, artistic director of The Public Theater, says Waterston's Lear is made somewhat more complicated by the actor himself, who from 1994-2010 played prosecutor Jack McCoy on "Law & Order" and whose reassuring image has been used for television advertisements for
"One of the most disconcerting things for me about watching it is he carries with him that trustworthiness that we associated with Sam Waterston," says Eustis. "That makes for a very complicated relationship to this intemperate king."
Almost every great classical actor of a certain age has tackled Lear and just in the past year there have been two productions in New York: Derek Jacobi brought his version to Brooklyn this spring; and The Royal Shakespeare Company stopped by this summer with their take, starring Greg Hicks as Lear.
"There was a long period when people didn't do `Lear' at all because they thought it was too grim, too harsh, too awful," says Waterston. "And now, in the 21st century, we've been getting an advanced education in just how awful things can be, it's become one of the most popular and done plays of his."
Waterston has for years tried in vain to catch a production of "Lear," but purposely missed the most recent versions. "This year, I deliberately didn't go because I thought it was too close. So therefore it was too late to steal and I'd be too influenced."
One thing he also won't be checking out is "Anonymous," the new film by Roland Emmerich that contends Shakespeare was a simpleton, a fraud and perhaps a murderer. "I sort of know what it's about, so God bless them, but I'm not interested," he says.
The fact that his Lear will be at the Public -- it runs through Nov. 20 and also stars Kelli O'Hara, Bill Irwin, Frank Wood and Michael McKean -- is fitting since Waterston credits it with launching his career.
"My career would be unrecognizable if it wasn't for the Public Theater. It wouldn't be anything like what it is now. Nothing," he says. "They brought me to public attention and then they've given me the opportunity to do so many great parts."
Born in Cambridge, Mass., to parents who were teachers and amateur actors, Waterston graduated from Yale University, where he majored in drama, and attended the Sorbonne in Paris. The breath of his intellect is impressive: In the space of a few minutes, he quotes Zen author D.T.
Eustis says that Waterston arrived incredibly well-prepared and thoroughly researched, typical for an actor with incredible focus and intensity. "One of the joys of working with him has been just how much intelligence he brings to bear on almost every single word of the text," he says.
Waterston's acting breakthrough came in 1972, playing Benedict in the Public's New York Shakespeare Festival production of "Much Ado About Nothing." The show was such a big hit that it was filmed for broadcast on
That led to Waterston playing Nick Carraway in "The Great Gatsby" opposite Robert Redford and the role of Tom Wingfield in a television production of Tennessee Williams' "The Glass Menagerie," starring Katharine Hepburn, for which he got his first Emmy nod. "Would Katharine Hepburn have been interested in me if I hadn't been doing Benedict? I don't know," he says. "Would she even have heard about me?"
Waterston's notable movie credits include: the Woody Allen films "Interiors," "Hannah and Her Sisters" and "Crimes and Misdemeanors," and John Waters' "Serial Mom." He earned a best actor Oscar nomination for his performance in "The Killing Fields." He also portrayed Abraham Lincoln opposite Mary Tyler Moore in Gore Vidal's miniseries "Lincoln." But it hasn't been all serious: One of his most memorable roles was endorsing robot insurance for the elderly on "Saturday Night Live."
Waterston's enthusiasm for acting clearly has rubbed off: All four of his children are in the business -- James, Elisabeth and Katherine are actors and Graham is a writer and director. "It's sort of awful that they picked this business because it's such an awful business but I think they're awesome," he says.
In a strange twist, Waterston will have some stage competition this winter from two of his daughters: Elisabeth and Katherine are both appearing in a Classic Stage Company production of "The Cherry Orchard" starring John Turturro and Dianne Wiest.
"Well, New York can deal with more than one play at time," he says, smiling.
Looking back on "Law & Order," which ended its 20-year-run last year, Waterston is nothing but grateful. Even though it took time away from other projects, he was able to work around the filming schedule and stay in New York.
"It's something that came along. I didn't expect it to last that long. If it lasted that long, I never expected to stay with it that long," he says. "But the balance of benefits to debits? The credit side is way high."
As for the endless reruns on multiple channels, Waterston is sanguine. "I've helped a lot of people with insomnia," he says. "I'm not watching at 2 o'clock in the morning but I'm glad someone is."