An authority on 'Law & Order' Television: On the popular police drama, Lt. Anita Van Buren is a commanding presence. In person, actress S. Epatha Merkerson is no less a force to be reckoned with.

March 30, 1997|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

NEW YORK -- S. Epatha Merkerson is standing tall, and that's not good.

It's not good, because she's standing over me, and my questions are getting wimpier and wimpier and her answers shorter and shorter.

It's my fault. I came here to the north sound stage at Chelsea Piers, where NBC's "Law & Order" is filmed, to talk with Merkerson, who plays Lt. Anita Van Buren on the series. There is a lot to talk about, ranging from the personal (the very un-Hollywood life she leads at home in Prince George's County) to the cultural (why so many prime-time police lieutenants are African-American).

So, I suggested we grab a couple of chairs in the pea-soup-green squad room and get right to it. But the chair I grabbed happened to be that of Detective Lennie Briscoe (played by Jerry Orbach), and, before you know it, I'm hunched over the messy desk like Briscoe, and she's leaning over me looking just like Van Buren: wig, hip-holstered .38 and plain, boxy, pants-blouse-and-vest.

At this point, there's no question who's in charge of the conversation. The question is: Who am I looking up at? Merkerson or Van Buren?

With the good actors, you never really know where the person ends and the character begins. But it's a territory worth exploring, especially with Merkerson, whose character forces 30 million viewers each week to consider such matters as gender, race, law, order and the workplace.

Van Buren was one of the first and is still one of the few female African-American characters in network television to hold a position of power -- standing over the desks of white professional men telling them how to do their jobs.

According to Merkerson, 44, the most important thing to know about her is that she's first and last an actor. Each time a question seems to get anywhere near her self-concept, the answer that invariably comes back is, "I'm an actor. This is who I am. For 20 years now I have made a living as an actor, and that's what makes me proud. I'm not a personality, I'm an actor."

So, let's start with the actor's journey.

After graduating in 1976 with a degree in acting from Wayne State University in her hometown of Detroit, Merkerson landed a job with a children's theater in Albany, N.Y. A year later, she came to Manhattan looking to hit the big time.

She managed to pay the rent with her acting, but it took almost a decade before she started to break through to television, film and Broadway. Merkerson says her first really good job in television came in 1986 when she was hired to play Reba, the Mail Lady, on "Pee-Wee's Playhouse," with Paul Reubens. Since then, she has appeared in television series like "Equal Justice" and such feature films as Arnold Schwarzenegger's "Terminator II."

Tony nomination

Her big break came in 1990 with a role in August Wilson's "Piano Lesson." Merkerson played Berneice in the Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway production that included Baltimore's Charles (Roc) Dutton, and she was nominated for a Tony Award as best actress. In 1992, she won an Obie Award for her work in the play "I'm Not Stupid." The following year, she joined the cast of "Law & Order."

From the start, Dick Wolf, the creator of "Law & Order," had a "good idea of what he wanted Van Buren to be," Merkerson says. And, to her relief, it did not involve any stereotypes as far as she could see.

"I think that's a reflection of Dick Wolf's integrity," she says of her boss, who also produces the Fox Broadcasting cop drama "New York Undercover," the highest-rated prime-time series among black viewers.

Wolf and his producers gave Merkerson some room to interpret Van Buren, and her first decision was to wear a wig -- a matronly, slightly teased bubble of straightened hair. This was a big decision, and Merkerson still seems to have mixed feelings about it. For one thing, the wig makes Van Buren look older and far more tightly wrapped than Merkerson does in her natural hair (which she describes as "just twisted").

But it goes deeper than that. Hair is closely connected with a sense of identity -- ask the guys lining up for Rogaine. It can further take on an ethnic dimension when it involves straight hair vs. natural.

"Some casting directors can't see past my natural hair," Merkerson says, explaining that hairdo can limit the kind of parts she is offered.

Authority figure

As for Van Buren's wig, she says, "It was an actor's choice -- aimed at giving Van Buren more authority in terms of all the gender and race business going on between her and the detectives in that office each week."

Merkerson says she tried for every edge she could get to make viewers believe in Van Buren's authority -- from the wig to dropping her voice almost an octave -- so that viewers would see Van Buren, not the white men, as the authority.

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