Emmy vets find the right roles

Actors: TV careers unexpected

Although the 1999-2000 TV season found veteran actors Sam Waterston and Tyne Daly in top form in primetime, neither ever imagined choosing the life of a TV actor.

Waterston continues his run as prosecutor Jack McCoy on NBC’s “Law & Order” and Daly, as the mother of Judge Amy Madison Gray, gives CBS’ “Judging Amy” a weekly dose of tough mom love.

To an outsider, this kind of success might seem like an actor’s dream come true, but when they started their careers, neither imagined ever choosing the life of a television actor.

“I never thought I’d have anything to do with series television, really,” says Waterston, who has been nominated twice for a dra-matic actor Emmy for his work on “Law & Order.” “I came to show business via the stage.”

Waterston spoke to Daily Variety from Syracuse, where he is appearing in Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” A man who takes deep pride in his stage work, Waterston has seen a sea change in the way series work is perceived by his fellow thesps.

“I might just be saying this because my point of view has changed, but my impression is that it’s much more socially acceptable,” notes Waterston, who also received much praise for his portrayal of a single father during the Civil Rights era in the series “I’ll Fly Away.” “It’s so obvious now that people come out of it and go into it, that there really are not three separate institutional businesses.”

Daly, whose career has included a Broadway run in Gypsy, agrees, saying, “I think some of the lines have been blurred between ‘we are of the theater and we don’t deal with that stuff,’ and movie actors, who are all coming to television because of the kinds of stories they can tell.”

Daly says she surrendered any qualms about doing series TV a long time ago.

“The hardest thing is doing it in the first place,” she says. “It’s kind of like people who get married multiply. The first divorce is hard, but it gets progressively easier for people that do multiple marriages. I think the hardest thing for me was the first marriage to television, which was the decision to do ‘Cagney and Lacey.’ I tried to stave off doing a series for as long as possible.”

Daly, who took home the Emmy four times for “Cagney & Lacey” and a supporting Emmy for the family drama “Christy,” had not wanted to get stuck and typed in a role, but relented because she saw a lot of room for growth in the character of Mary Beth Lacey on “Cagney & Lacey.”

“I feel the same way about Maxine,” she says. “I think Maxine Gray has a lot of possibilities.”

Waterston was on two series before “Law & Order,” but neither “Q.E.D.” nor “I’ll Fly Away” had a long run. Starring in a hit series is a new experience for him.

“It’s a great life if you don’t weaken,” he says. “It enables you do to things like (“Long Day’s Journey”) as long as you still have the energy.”

He credits the buzz of “Law & Order” with making it possible to quickly set up the play at Syracuse Stage, with a cast of top New York stage actors including Elizabeth Franz, John Slattery and Waterston’s son James.

But the thesps do rue the pace of television.

“There’s still not enough money and not enough time. Even though there’s buckets more money and we have a full day more to make ‘Judging Amy’ than we did to make ‘Cagney & Lacey,'” Daly says. “Everybody’s still overworked, they’re still exhausted, and there’s still not enough time to put them together.”

“They constantly remind us that we have one of the more luxurious schedules in hour-long drama, and I don’t feel like we have any time,” Waterston says with a laugh.

Make no mistake, though. Now that he is in it, Waterston enjoys the job.

“The only thing that I would wish for is to have a slightly shorter season,” he says. “There’s probably no better job on the planet for an actor than this if it didn’t take up quite so much time every year. And that’s the only bad thing. It’s a great job.”

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