'Pure fun' for CT actor Sam Waterston as ageless Netflix hit heads for 6th season

Actor and Connecticut resident Sam Waterston is an American icon, known for an impressive breadth of award-winning work. His resume ranges from stage, in Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” to an Academy Award-nominated film role in “The Killing Fields” to well-known television characters like Jack McCoy on the NBC series “Law & Order.” Now the 78-year-old Waterston is again relishing success, this time as a co-star on the Netflix series “Grace and Frankie,” a comedy about two women brought together when their respective husbands fall in love and marry each other. The Emmy-nominated series features Waterston with Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda and Martin Sheen. Waterston, married for 43 years to Lynn Woodruff, reflects on his role on the series, just renewed for a sixth season, his life in Connecticut and the benefits of “old age.”

Q: So here you are in the midst of yet another successful chapter of your life. Can you describe your experience on “Grace and Frankie” in five words?

A: I can do it in one, no two. Pure fun!

Q: The story line for the show was a bit out of the ordinary. Did you ever have second thoughts about the show, and are you surprised at its success with a cast that is, shall we say, more mature?

A: Acting is acting and I don’t think any of us knew what to expect when we started filming “Grace and Frankie.” I guess we all sort of hoped that people our own age would find this something they wanted to watch. The really spectacular, surprising thing is the range of people who do watch. Younger people, people who might be considered stuffy or too private to watch a show about things like gay marriage and the family dynamics that stem from that. They are the ones that have turned into huge fans. I mean, me, Jane, Martin, Lily, we are at a stage when most people are packing up their tool kits. Instead we get to do this.

Q: There seems to be a nice rhythm between you and your co-stars. Was it immediate or is it experience, or chemistry?

A: Some of us have known each other for a very long time or worked with each other at one time or another, so we were all familiar with each other and each other’s work. I also think, by this time in your work life, you are either thoroughly fed up with your job or love it and we all love it. And then it’s just a beautifully conceived and written show. And everyone involved is having a good time or they are doing a good job of faking it.

Q: Any twinges because, well, the show is about getting old?

A: You know, I met a young person who is a fan and asked “why do you watch this?” The kid said, “I’m going to get old someday, too.” I have been a fan of irony all my life. If you want to have fun getting old you have to have a sense of humor. Humor, comedy is the only mode for getting through age. The brave thing about this show is it spits in the eye of old age and death.

Q: Most people know you are one of our own Connecticut celebrities. Is Connecticut home?

A: Yes. By now it is really where our roots are mostly deeply set. We bought the house in 1978, and it and the surroundings have grown on us. It is the place we have fixed up, built a teahouse, planted trees and have tinkered around for 41 years. We put on the gloves and had a big hand in making it our home. We enjoy it and try not to make any concessions to age. We farm there now, Birdseye and Tanner Brooks Farm. We raise grass-fed cows and sheep, no antibiotics, no hormones and sell the meat. It has become partly a mission.

Q: You also have another Connecticut connection. You starred with Connecticut’s own Katharine Hepburn in the film adaption of “The Glass Menagerie.” Good memories?

A: Nothing but good memories. I think the short answer is to say that what you see is what you got when it came to working with her. She was what she appeared to be, energy, commitment, enthusiasm, love of fun. She loved the “two shots,” two people’s head in the frame, and loved acting with people.

Q: You have played so many memorable characters on stage and screen and television, including Sydney Schanberg, Jack McCoy, of course, Charles Skinner and, my personal favorite, Nick Carraway in “The Great Gatsby.” Which was your favorite?

A: I guess on a lot of levels, the part I will be most grateful for getting the role as Benedick in “Much Ado About Nothing.” It changed my life but it also saved my life because I was down and out, broke and had just broken up with my first wife. Then this part came along and it really was a turning point and all that good stuff started. I always thought that Lynn thought I must have been an OK guy because she saw me playing Benedick and it sold her on marrying me.

Q: I know you are involved in some special personal causes and immigration is one of them. Given the politics of today, what are your feelings about the immigration debate here in the U.S.?

A: I think it a shameful debate we are having and one that has been drummed into an insane shouting match. As a country we are acting ineptly and cruelly. It is plain to common sense, having borders and border controls. But we need to start behaving humanly and responding to what is the beginning of a very long period of what we are going to be dealing with when it comes to climate change. We are going to be looking at people moving because they have to, all across the planet. How are we going to handle it? This ‘either you have a border or you don’t have a country’ is a stupid over-simplification. There is a way to do a better job on this issue.

Q: What is the nicest compliment you ever received?

A: A friend of mine was sharing a cab with Edith Oliver, a well-known theater critic from the New Yorker. She asked him where he was going, and he said to see a performance of Shakespeare’s, “The Tempest.” He suggested that she should see the show and she replied, “Oh, no, I have already seen ‘The Tempest.’ I saw Sam Waterston do it.”

Mary Ellen Fillo is a freelance writer.