S. Epatha Merkerson biography
Born on November 28, 1952 in Detroit, Michigan, S. Epatha Merkerson went on to act in stage productions such as The Piano Lesson and I’m Not Stupid. She eventually landed the role of Lt. Anita Van Buren on the TV crime show Law & Order, on which she would star for 17 years. In 2005, she was lead actress in the HBO film Lackawanna Blues, for which she earned an Emmy and Golden Globe.
Actress S. Epatha Merkerson was born Sharon Epatha Merkerson on November 28, 1952, in Saginaw, Michigan. Merkerson was raised in Detroit, where her father worked in a factory and her mother was a post office administrator. She initially majored in dance at Wayne State University in Detroit, but when a shy friend begged Merkerson to accompany her to a drama class, she discovered her true passion. She graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, and in 1978 moved to New York City to pursue an acting career.
The fledgling actress first worked on the stage, appearing in several Broadway and off-Broadway productions. Her portrayal of Berniece in August Wilson's The Piano Lesson earned her a Tony Award nomination for best actress and many other accolades, including the Drama Desk Award and the Helen Hayes Award.
Television and Big Screen Roles
Merkerson's first major television role came in 1986, when she played Reba the Mail Lady on the now-infamous Pee Wee's Playhouse. She stayed with the show until 1991, and still keeps in touch with its delightfully preposterous host, Paul Reubens. Merkerson also made the move to the big screen during this time, appearing as Doctor Robinson in the Spike Lee joint She's Gotta Have It, and as Elsa in the critically acclaimed psycho-thriller Jacob's Ladder (1990) with Tim Robbins.
Things did not slow down for Merkerson in 1990: That year, she appeared in the TV movie Equal Justice, the comedy Loose Cannons with Dan Aykroyd and Gene Hackman, the action-adventure film Navy Seals, and as a guest on NBC's Law & Order. On Law & Order, she portrayed a grief-stricken mother in the episode "Mushrooms," in which a botched drug-related crime claims the life of her baby and leaves her son paralyzed. In 1993, the producers of Law & Order offered Merkerson a permanent role, slating her to play the tough but wise Lieutenant Anita Van Buren.
'Law & Order'
Merkerson's role as Lt. Anita Van Buren has brought the actress many personal and professional challenges during her six-year-and-running stay on Law & Order. The program raises many important, though delicate, issues about an extremely competent black woman working among a white male majority. On several occasions, the show's writers had her character make unlikely mistakes, but Merkerson has always fought to maintain Van Buren's integrity as a highly competent lieutenant. This tension finally culminated on-screen when Merkerson's character filed a discrimination lawsuit against her department. Because 95 percent of the show's scripts are based on current news stories, many of the plot lines hit uncomfortably close to home for Merkerson, but the actress has said that the cast's constant goofing around on the set has helped to leaven the weighty subject matter.
Roles Outside Law & Order
Merkerson has supplemented her work on Law & Order with myriad acting jobs, appearing on TV in Hallmark's A Place for Annie with Sissy Spacek and in the NBC series Mann and Machine, created by Law & Order executive producer Dick Wolf. She appeared in ABC's Breaking Free alongside JoBeth Williams, USA's A Mother's Prayer with Linda Hamilton, and An Unexpected Life with Stockard Channing and RuPaul. She has also returned to the stage, winning an Obie Award in 1992 for her work in I'm Not Stupid, as well as the Helen Hayes Award in 1998 for best lead actress in the Studio Theatre production of The Old Settler in Washington, D.C. Her most recent film credit was a smallish part in 1999's Random Hearts, a poorly received Harrison Ford vehicle.
Merkerson and her husband, Toussaint L. Jones, split their time between a New York City apartment and a house in Maryland.