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S Epatha Merkerson

S Epatha Merkerson

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Also Known As: Epatha Merkerson, Sharon Epatha Merkerson Died:
Born: November 28, 1952 Cause of Death:
Birth Place: Saginaw, Michigan, USA Profession: actor, singer

Biography CLOSE THE FULL BIOGRAPHY

As an acclaimed performer with gritty but approachable style, actress S. Epatha Merkerson began her career on the stage both on and off-Broadway before moving to television, where she played the longest-running character on the seemingly eternal "Law & Order" (NBC, 1990-2010). Prior to her run on the procedural, Merkerson was perhaps best known for her small, but memorable role as a screaming wife in "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" (1991) while continuing her onstage success with an OBIE Award for her performance in "I'm Not Stupid" (1992). But in 1993, Merkerson went from virtual unknown to household regular who, over the next 17 years, was seen portraying the tough, but determined Lt. Anita Van Buren on "Law & Order," a role she reprised in episodes of the spin-off series and a made-for-television movie. She had arguably her greatest critical success with her leading performance as the spirited "Nanny" Crosby in the acclaimed television movie "Lackawanna Blues" (HBO, 2005), a role that won the actress both a Golden Globe and Emmy Award. Because of her longevity on "Law & Order" and the praise received for "Lackawanna Blues," Merkerson emerged as a highly desirable character actress capable of...

As an acclaimed performer with gritty but approachable style, actress S. Epatha Merkerson began her career on the stage both on and off-Broadway before moving to television, where she played the longest-running character on the seemingly eternal "Law & Order" (NBC, 1990-2010). Prior to her run on the procedural, Merkerson was perhaps best known for her small, but memorable role as a screaming wife in "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" (1991) while continuing her onstage success with an OBIE Award for her performance in "I'm Not Stupid" (1992). But in 1993, Merkerson went from virtual unknown to household regular who, over the next 17 years, was seen portraying the tough, but determined Lt. Anita Van Buren on "Law & Order," a role she reprised in episodes of the spin-off series and a made-for-television movie. She had arguably her greatest critical success with her leading performance as the spirited "Nanny" Crosby in the acclaimed television movie "Lackawanna Blues" (HBO, 2005), a role that won the actress both a Golden Globe and Emmy Award. Because of her longevity on "Law & Order" and the praise received for "Lackawanna Blues," Merkerson emerged as a highly desirable character actress capable of delivering consistent quality performances.

Born on Nov. 28, 1952 in Saginaw, MI, Merkerson was initially raised by her father, a factory worker, and her mother, Ann, a postal worker until her parents split when she was around five years old. Growing up in Detroit, she graduated Thomas M. Cooley High School before earning a bachelor of fine arts in theater from Wayne State University. Merkerson moved to New York City and gradually found a niche in off-Broadway productions and regional theater. A breakthrough came her way via the small screen with her charmingly relaxed and ordinary Reba the Mail Lady on the critically acclaimed children's show, "Pee-wee's Playhouse" (CBS, 1986-1990). Theater roles both musical and dramatic began to pick up as well, reaching a climax with her powerful work as Bernice in the Broadway production of August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, "The Piano Lesson" (1990-91), with Merkerson as one of a family of Depression-era African-Americans disputing the fate of a family heirloom. Her many nominations for the play included a Tony, a Drama Desk Award and the L.A. Theater Critics Award.

Merkerson began landing roles - albeit small ones - in major features, making her film debut in the comedy "Loose Cannons" (1989), before moving on to the psychological thriller "Jacob's Ladder" (1990) and essaying the screaming wife of Joe Morton in the blockbuster, "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" (1991). Back on the stage, Merkerson won an OBIE Award for a later New York stage appearance in "I'm Not Stupid" (1992), which helped open the door to her career-defining role on television. In 1993, Merkerson landed the role of Lieutenant Anita Van Buren on the mother of all procedurals, "Law & Order" (NBC, 1990-2010), a tough-minded homicide detective capable of salvaging investigations while paying a price for her hard-edged tactics. With numerous actors coming and going throughout the years, Merkerson remained a constant over the course of the show's nearly unprecedented 20-season run, with her character ultimately appearing in more episodes - 390 all told - than any other performer. Because of her raised profile, Merkerson landed more substantial parts on other projects, including the television movie "A Place for Annie" (1994), starring Sissy Spacek.

While continuing to guest star on television series, including episodes of "South Beach" (NBC, 1993) and "Fraiser" (NBC, 1993-2004), Merkerson maintained a steady presence in feature films and movies-of-the-week. After playing a caustic, but compassionate nurse caring for an HIV-positive mother and widow (Linda Hamilton) in "A Mother's Prayer" (USA, 1995), she appeared in "Breaking Through" (ABC, 1996), a heart-rending drama about an abused deaf girl (Kellie Martin) given a new lease on life, thanks to a dedicated abuse counselor (JoBeth Williams). In the drama "An Unexpected Life" (USA, 1998), the sequel to "An Unexpected Family" (USA, 1996), Merkerson added zest as a school principal from Harlem to an otherwise underwhelming film. That same year, she once reprised Lt. Van Buren for "Exiled: A Law and Order Movie" (NBC, 1996) before going back to features for a brief appearance in the psychological drama "Random Hearts" (1999), about two Washington, D.C. insiders (Harrison Ford and Kristen Scott Thomas) who discover after their spouses perished in a plane crash, that their late loves were having an affair.

In between reprising Lt. Van Buren on episodes of "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" (NBC, 2001- ) and "Law & Order: Trial By Jury" (NBC, 2005), Merkerson played the loving mother of a mentally disabled man (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) who is brought out of his loner existence by a small town football coach (Ed Harris) in the sentimental drama, "Radio" (2003). After playing a doctor in Kevin Smith's "Jersey Girl" (2004), Merkerson had arguably the biggest role of her career, playing Nanny, a vibrant woman who runs a lively boarding house in "Lackawanna Blues" (HBO, 2005). Nanny becomes the primary caregiver of a young boy, Rueben Jr. (Marcus Carl Franklin), who was left at the boarding house by his working mother. In her role, Merkerson emanated joy despite the hardships suffered by her character, giving the young boy hope that good will can come from misfortune. For her widely praised performance, Merkerson earned a Golden Globe and Emmy Award for Best Actress in a Miniseries or Television Movie. In her Emmy acceptance speech, Merkerson had the biggest laugh of an otherwise dull evening when she lost her list of people to thank down the front of her dress, where she put it for safe keeping.

Merkerson moved on to co-star in the controversial Tennessee-set "Black Snake Moan" (2007), a character-driven drama about Lazarus Woods (Samuel L. Jackson), a God-fearing ex-blues singer who tries to right a young sexually promiscuous girl (Christina Ricci) after finding her unconscious in a ditch. Following an episode of "The Closer" (TNT, 2005- ), Merkerson had a supporting role in the made-for-television drama "Girl, Positive" (Lifetime, 2007), which focused on a 17-year-old girl (Andrea Bowen) dealing with the potential of being HIV-positive after learning that her late boyfriend was infected. Meanwhile, she returned to the stage as the aging, disillusioned Lola of William Inge's "Come Back, Little Sheba" (2007), which earned Merkerson a Tony nomination for Best Actress in a Play. She next had a small part in the little-seen Tim Allen comedy "The Six Wives of Henry Lefay" (2008), before appearing in "Mother and Child" (2010), an ensemble drama about three women - a 50-year-old (Annette Bening), her 35-year-old daughter (Naomi Watts) she gave up for adoption at birth, and an young woman (Kerry Washington) longing for motherhood - whose lives are inexorably entwined.

VIEW THE FULL BIOGRAPHY

Filmographyclose complete filmography

CAST: (feature film)

1.
 Lincoln (2012)
2.
 Mother and Child (2009)
3.
 Black Snake Moan (2007)
4.
 Girl, Positive (2007)
5.
 Slipstream (2007)
6.
 Lackawanna Blues (2005) Cast
7.
 Jersey Girl (2004) Doctor #1
8.
 Radio (2003) Maggie
9.
10.
 Random Hearts (1999) Nea
VIEW THE FULL FILMOGRAPHY

Milestones close milestones

:
Raised in Detroit, Michigan
:
Worked in children's theater in Albany, New York after graduating from college
1976:
Moved to NYC to pursue acting career
1978:
Had featured role in the national tour of "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf..."
1984:
Appeared at the famed Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam (Connecticut) to play a prominent role in a staging of the musical, "The Dream Team"
1986:
Cast in first TV role, as Reba, "the mail lady" on the children's comedy and variety series, "Pee-wee's Playhouse"
1987:
Replaced Lonette McKee in the role of Billie Holliday in the Off-Broadway biographical musical drama, "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill"
1987:
Acted Off-Off-Broadway at the Hudson Guild Theater in the play, "Moms"
:
Reprised the role of Reba from "Pee-wee's Playhouse" on several primetime CBS specials
1989:
Made feature film debut in a small role in "Loose Cannons"
1990:
Acted the leading role of Berniece in out-of-town tryouts, on tour and on Broadway in director Lloyd Richards's staging of August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, "The Piano Lesson"; nominated for a Tony Award
1992:
Returned to the Off-Broadway stage in "I'm Not Stupid"
1993:
First TV-movie, "It's Nothing Personal"
1993:
Made debut as a series regular on NBC's police and courtroom drama, "Law & Order" as Lt. Anita Van Buren; left the series at the end of the 2009-2010 season
2005:
Won an Emmy for her role as Nanny, the owner of a boarding house in Lackawanna, New York in the HBO original movie "Lackawanna Blues"; also earned an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best Actress
2007:
Cast opposite Samuel L. Jackson in "Black Snake Moan"
2007:
Returned to the stage as the aging, disillusioned Lola of William Inge's "Come Back, Little Sheba"; earned a Tony award nomination for Best Actress in a Play
VIEW ALL MILESTONES

Education

Thomas M. Cooley High School: Detroit , Michigan - 1970
Wayne State University: Detroit , Michigan - 1976

Notes

The actress will not reveal what the "S" in her name stands for. Her middle name is pronounced e-PAY-tha.

"I'm s-o-o-o-o not Van Buren. I like to argue. I have respect for Van Buren. She reminds me of my mother. These are women who choose a profession that is basically white-male oriented but keep a sense of who they are and always demand and get respect." --S. Epatha Merkerson quoted in Parade Magazine, July 16, 2000.

Companions close complete companion listing

husband:
Toussaint L Jones. Social worker, therapist. Met in Albany, New York in the late 1970s; married in 1994.

Family close complete family listing

mother:
Ann Merkerson. Postal employee, seamstress. Separated from Merkerson's father c. 1957; was only female in the vehicles operation unit of the Detroit post office at the time.

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