S. Epatha Merkerson Biography

Film Actress, Theater Actress, Actress, Film Actor/Film Actress, Television Actress (1952–)
S. Epatha Merkerson is an Emmy-Award-winning actress who starred on the television drama 'Law & Order' for 17 years.


Born on November 28, 1952 in Saginaw, Michigan, S. Epatha Merkerson began her acting career with appearances in stage productions of The Piano Lesson and I’m Not Stupid. She eventually landed the role of Lieutenant 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 a Golden Globe. She has since appeared in the 2012 film Lincoln and returned to full-time TV work with Chicago Med.

Early Career

Actress S. Epatha Merkerson was born Sharon Epatha Merkerson on November 28, 1952, in Saginaw, Michigan. Merkerson was one of five children and she and her siblings grew up in an ethnically diverse neighborhood of Detroit. Her parents migrated north seeking jobs and her father found work in a sugar beet factory and her mother became a post office administrator. Her parents separated when she was about five years old. Her mother was adventurous and inspired her daughter. She was one of the first women to drive an 18-wheeler truck for the vehicles operations department of the post office. 

Merkerson acted a little in junior high and high school and initially majored in dance at Eastern Michigan University. She then moved to Indiana and attended Indiana University. While there, a shy friend begged Merkerson to accompany her to a drama class and she discovered her true passion. She moved schools again and graduated from Wayne State University with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. In 1978, Merkerson moved to Albany, New York to work at a theater company. From there, she 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.

Early Roles

Merkerson's first major television role came in 1986, when she landed the role of Reba the Mail Lady on Pee Wee's Playhouse. She enjoyed the cast and 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 Lieutenant Van Buren brought the actress many personal and professional challenges during her long run on Law & Order. The program raised 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 always fought to maintain Van Buren's integrity as a highly competent professional. 

After 17 years, Merkerson's time on Law & Order ended with the cancelation of the show in 2010. Her character was strongly tied in to the show's conclusion, as Lieutenant Van Buren's struggles with cancer are highlighted throughout the final season.

Because a huge percentage of the show's scripts were 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 set helped to leaven the weighty subject matter.

Additional Roles and Personal

Along with her prominent role on the legal drama, Merkerson shined on the stage during the 1990s. She won 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.

Additional TV work from that period includes Hallmark's A Place for Annie (1994) with Sissy Spacek, and the NBC series Mann and Machine, created by Law & Order executive producer Dick Wolf. She appeared in USA's A Mother's Prayer (1995) with Linda Hamilton, ABC's Breaking Free (1996) alongside JoBeth Williams and An Unexpected Life (1998) with Stockard Channing and RuPaul. 

Her film credits include a smallish part in 1999's Random Hearts, a poorly received Harrison Ford vehicle, before roles in such mainstream fare as Radio (2003) and Jersey Girl (2004). Returning to television, she starred in HBO's adaptation of Lackawanna Blues (2005), earning a slew of awards that included an Emmy and a Grammy. More recently she played Lydia Smith in the 2012 film Lincoln

The actress remained busy with parts in the TV movies Boomerang (2013) and The Gabby Douglas Story (2014), as well as on such programs as Peeples, Deception, The Good Wife and Drop Dead Diva. She then reunited with Wolf for a starring role in the medical drama series Chicago Med, which premiered in November 2015.

Merkerson married Toussaint L. Jones in 1994, but the couple parted ways in 2006.

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