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Jesse L. Martin
Jesse stars as "Detective Ed Green" on NBC's "Law & Order". “The great challenge in playing a character like Eddie Green is that he is really complex,” says Martin. “He’s passionate about his work and his life, but he is not without faults.” Martin is proof that talent and popularity are not mutually exclusive. When the award-winning stage actor joined the cast of NBC's Law and Order in its tenth season, the program's already high ratings increased by 40 percent. Martin's debut episode drew the largest audience in Law and Order's history and positive press attracted more viewers throughout the season. The once starving artist is now both a critic's darling and one of T.V. Guide's "Sexiest People on Television," confirming that he is an actor with genuinely wide appeal. Martin was born Jesse Lamont Watkins on January 18, 1969, in Rocky Mountain, VA. He is the youngest of five sons. Martin's parents, truck driver Jesse Reed Watkins and college counselor Virginia Price, divorced when he was a child. Ms. Price eventually remarried and the boys adopted their stepfather's surname. When Martin was in grade school, the family relocated to Buffalo, NY, and the move was not an immediate success: Martin hated to speak because of his thick Southern accent and was often overcome with shyness. A concerned teacher influenced him to join an after-school drama program and cast him as the pastor in The Golden Goose. Being from Virginia, the young Martin played the character the only way he knew how: as an inspired Southern Baptist preacher. The act was a hit, and Martin emerged from his shell. The actor attended high school at Buffalo School for the Performing Arts, where he was voted "Most Talented" in his senior class. He later enrolled in New York University's prestigious Tisch School of the Arts Theater Program. After graduation, Martin toured the states with John Houseman's Acting Company. He appeared in Shakespeare's Rock-in-Roles at the Actors Theater of Louisville and The Butcher's Daughter at the Cleveland Playhouse, and returned to Manhattan to perform in local theater, soap operas, and commercials. Finding that auditions, regional theater, and bit parts were no way to support oneself, Martin waited tables at several restaurants around the city. He was literally serving a pizza when his appearance on CBS's Guiding Light aired in the same eatery.
Martin made his Broadway debut in Timon of Athens, and then performed in The Government Inspector with Lainie Kazan. While employed at the Moondance Diner, he met the late playwright Jonathan Larson, who also worked on the restaurant's staff. In 1996, Larson's musical Rent took the theater world by storm -- with Martin in the part of gay computer geek Tom Collins. The '90s update of Puccini's La Bohème earned six Drama Desk Awards, five Obie Awards, four Tony Awards, and the Pulitzer Prize. Martin soon landed roles on Fox's short-lived 413 Hope Street and Eric Bross' independent film Restaurant (1998). Ally McBeal's creator, David E. Kelly, attended Rent's Broadway premiere and remembered Martin when the show needed a new boyfriend for Calista Flockhart's Ally. The actor's performance as Dr. Greg Butters on Ally McBeal caught David Duchovny's eye, who then cast Martin as a baseball-playing alien in a 1999 episode of The X-Files that he wrote and directed. While still shooting Ally McBeal, Martin heard rumors that actor Benjamin Bratt planned to leave the cast of Law and Order. Martin tried out for the show years before and won the minor role of a car-radio thief named Earl the Hamster, but decided to wait for a bigger part. With the opportunity presenting itself, Martin begged Law and Order producer Dick Wolf for Bratt's role. Wolf hoped to cast him, and upon hearing that CBS and Fox both offered Martin development deals, he gave the actor the part without an audition. During his first year on Law and Order, Martin co-produced the one-man show Fully Committed, about the amusing experiences of a waiter at an upscale restaurant. A skilled vocalist -- he sang in Rent, on Ally McBeal, and The X-Files -- Martin later appeared in the Rocky Horror Picture Show anniversary special and hopes to star in a big-screen biography of his mother's favorite singer, Marvin Gaye.
Jesse Martin: Channeling Theatre
Center stage this month is Jesse L. Martin, who's starting his fifth season as Det. Eddie Green on TV's "Law & Order." A classically trained actor who gained attention as an original cast member of Rent, Martin spent part of his summer vacation exploring the other side of the law, portraying Mack the Knife in the Williamstown Theatre Festival production of The Threepenny Opera.
How did he like playing Macheath? Says Jesse L. Martin, "I rather enjoyed it. I think the time period that you have in Williamstown, which apparently is typical, isn't enough time to really get into it—especially a piece like that, which was three hours long. But I did enjoy it, and right near the end of the run [June 25-July 6], I was starting to really get into it. Where most shows would [still] be in previews, I'm just starting to get the feel for it, and it's over. But that's summer stock."
Martin's "Law & Order" partner, Jerry Orbach, made his New York stage debut when he took over as the Streetsinger in Threepenny's legendary 1954 Off-Broadway production, in which he eventually played Macheath. "He talked a lot about how much fun it was," recalls Martin. (Paul Lucas, the publicist for the WTF, e-mailed me backstage photographs taken of Martin with Orbach and Sam Waterston when the "Law & Order" co-stars journeyed to Massachusetts to see their colleague in the Kurt Weill-Bertolt Brecht musical.)
The best part of the experience, notes Martin, was working with a great cast, which included Betty Buckley, Melissa Errico, Karen Ziemba, and Randy Graff. Martin and Randy Graff "became really tight. She's probably the greatest lady ever. She's become a real friend of mine. I just love her to death." William Duell re-created the same two roles, Filch and Queen Victoria's Messenger, that he played for six years in the 1954 edition. "He's amazing," states Martin. "I called him the 'baby' of the cast. He had the most energy, and stayed up the latest. I can't believe that guy is a real person. I don't know where he gets [the stamina]; he's phenomenal! I'd say, 'Bill, you're the man!'"
Threepenny marked Martin's first time onstage since his breakthrough performance as Tom Collins in Rent. While his series affords him the financial security to do theatre, his schedule doesn't permit it. "There's no time to do anything other than work and sleep. It's a beast to contend with. But it does turn out to be worth it, as far as I'm concerned. I'm young, I can handle it. And who am I to complain, when I got Jerry, who's older, right next to me and handling it even more gracefully? And I don't have to go to Los Angeles. As far as I'm concerned, it's the best job you're ever going to get on television." It's also steady. Still ranking high in the ratings, the show's starting its 14th season, and is contracted for a 15th. Series creator Dick Wolf is committed to breaking the "Gunsmoke" record of 20 seasons.
Martin previously worked for Dick Wolf when he made two appearances on "New York Undercover": in 1995, as a gun dealer; in 1998, playing a civic leader involved in extortion. He turned down a "Law & Order" role as a car radio thief. Looking back, he admits, "I don't know what possessed me. I was nobody at the time, just another actor trying to get on [the series]. I auditioned so many times, then I finally got a role, which was very tiny, about three lines. I thought there's gotta be something better than that. I don't know where I got that from; I should've just taken it and shut up. But I didn't. I decided I was going to wait. It took a little while, but I did get Eddie Green. [Laughs]." He took over for the departing Benjamin Bratt (as Det. Rey Curtis) at the start of the 1999-2000 season.
The middle of five sons, the actor was born Jesse Lamont Watkins in Rocky Mountain, Virginia. After his parents separated, his mother remarried. His stepfather adopted the five boys, hence the name Martin, and the family relocated to Buffalo, New York. Martin's mother is happy to have witnessed his success. "She's reaped the benefits. It's what every son lives for," he observes.
In the fourth grade, Jesse joined an after-school drama program. "It was my first time speaking in front of people. I didn't know what I was getting into. I had a really thick Southern accent, and the teacher thought it would be helpful for me, that it would take me out of my shell. She talked me into it. Of course, I was terrified. I thought the kids would laugh at me. I played a Southern Baptist preacher [in The Golden Goose]. The kids loved it. I got a lot of pats on the back after that."
He credits that teacher as the first person "besides immediate family to reach out to me and open up a world that I would have never known existed. It literally changed my life. You remember what you go through as a kid, what's going to make you listen, what's going to make you respond. I held onto that. People who treated me like that when I was younger got every bit of respect and attention I could give them, because I knew that they were coming at me from almost an equal level.
"Teaching is a truly noble profession. It's sad the amount of responsibility that teachers have today. They're not only teaching kids, they're raising kids, policing kids—and they don't make a lot of money. If I get the chance to be philanthropic, I want to help kids and teachers." If Martin were not an actor, he "would have loved to teach."
After graduating from the Buffalo School for Performing Arts, he attended NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, and then toured "almost a year" as a member of John Houseman's Acting Company. He later worked regionally at Hartford Stage, Arena Stage, Cleveland Playhouse and the Actors Theatre of Louisville. Ten years ago, Martin made his Broadway debut in Tony Randall's National Actors Company production of Timon of Athens. Playing the roles of Alcibiades' officer and the Second Masseur, he also understudied Michael Cumpsty as Alcibiades. "I was really excited to be in a show on Broadway. It was a huge show. Brian Bedford [in the title role] was absolutely amazing to watch each night, and there was an actor named John Franklyn-Robbins [as Apemantus, a cynic] who was just phenomenal. It was a nice learning experience, and I actually got paid."
With the same company the following year, he played Abdulin, a merchant, in The Government Inspector. Off-Broadway credits include Ring of Men, with the Ensemble Studio Theatre. At the Manhattan Theatre Club he did The Prince and the Pauper and Arabian Nights. Of the latter, Martin recalls, "I absolutely loved it! Besides Rent, it's probably the most creative I've ever been allowed to be onstage."
Between plays and trying to get work on soaps and commercials, Martin spent seven years waiting tables on and off. During a week that he worked at the Moondance Diner, he met a waiter named Jonathan Larson. "The place was open 24 hours, and Jonathan trained me when I had to work overnight. He told me he was a composer. By the end of the week, I quit; I got a job on 'New York Undercover.'
"The next time I saw Jonathan was at the auditions for Rent. It was several months later, and at first we couldn't figure out how we knew each other." Martin was cast as Tom Collins, a character who's HIV positive. It's well known that, following the invited dress rehearsal of Rent, Larson died of an aortic aneurysm.
It was decided to not have an opening night, but to do a sit-down sing-through, without make-up or costumes, for family and friends. "It was the hardest thing I think I've ever done," recounts Martin. "I remember singing and having what felt like an Oreo stuck in my throat. That lasted about four weeks. The cast and the crew felt that we really owed it to Jonathan to tell the story the best way we could. We were aware that we weren't done; it was supposed to be a workshop. It turned out really well because it had to. We stuck together, we galvanized, we became very tight with Jonathan's parents."
In the whirlwind during which the show received the Pulitzer Prize, transferred to Broadway, and won a Tony Award as Best Musical, Martin recalls, "We always said, 'Six years from now, I'm gonna be able to sit down and say, "Wow, that was amazing!"' But at the time, it was hard to do that. First of all, it was a lot of work. Secondly, you were so wrapped up in what you needed to do, in order to propel this story into the universe. We didn't have a chance to enjoy it while we were doing it. We were on a mission. It wasn't until many years later that I could actually appreciate what it was that we did." Martin has remained friendly "with almost everyone" in the cast.
He and Rent's Adam Pascal were two of the four producers of the Off-Broadway success Fully Committed. In "The Restaurant," a 1998 feature about waiters in an upscale Hoboken establishment, one of Martin's co-stars was Adrien Brody. "He was always getting something big. You knew that, at some point, Adrien was going to bust a move. I had no idea that it was going to be something as amazing as 'The Pianist.' He totally deserved the Oscar."
From playing Tom Collins in Rent, Martin went to playing AIDS counselor Antonio Collins in the 1997 TV series "413 Hope Street." Of the two Collins characters, he comments, "How weird is that? I think they did that on purpose. I had a ball doing that show. It didn't last long. I'll never forget when that show was canceled. It was Halloween. They said there was no need to finish shooting the scene we were doing.
"I walked out of the studio, which was in Canoga Park, and the hills were on fire. I thought, 'This is probably a good time to get out of Los Angeles.' I came back [to New York] the next day." He enjoyed working on a 1998 TV-movie, "Deep in My Heart," co-starring Gloria Reuben and Anne Bancroft. "Gloria was amazing, and Anne Bancroft is an absolute dream to just be around—let alone work with. She's extremely funny, almost as funny as her husband [a man named Brooks]. I couldn't believe that I was lucky enough to be in the same space with her."
For ten episodes of "Ally McBeal," Martin played Dr. Greg Butters, one of Calista Flockhart's boyfriends. "Apparently, [the relationship] was controversial. I still don't know why," he claims. "Probably because she's so thin," I suggest. Martin laughs. "People made a big deal about it being an interracial couple. Hadn't they seen Lucy and Desi? I thought we were over that, but apparently we weren't." The part brought Martin a lot of recognition. "That put me out there as a face that you might know."
It led to an episode of "X-Files," written and directed by series star David Duchovny. In "The Unnatural" (4/25/99), Martin portrayed a baseball playing extraterrestrial. "It was one of the best television experiences I've ever had. David is a talent to be reckoned with; he can do almost anything. He's extremely smart, and I've never seen anybody so relaxed."
Other TV work includes "Rocky Horror 25: Anniversary Special," a 2000 show that Martin insists he "got talked into doing," and hosting a six-part 2003 cable series, "Art Crimes and Mysteries," on which he worked during weekends. He was announced for a feature, "Chance Encounter," which was never made, and has a role in a not-yet-released film, "Season of Youth," which he hasn't seen.
Martin's dream role is to play Marvin Gaye in a biography of the singer (1939-84). "I've been working on it for eight years. There have been several screenplays. The hardest part is securing the rights to the music, and you can't do the story without the music. It's a phenomenal story. Hopefully, one day, if I keep plugging away, I'll get to do it."
I ask him to name three highlights in his career, thus far. "First would definitely be the first time I was ever onstage, way back in the fourth grade. The second would be the moment I figured out that I could make a living doing it, which is when I was in the Acting Company.
"My biggest break wasn't Rent, it was the first job that ever paid me. I couldn't believe that they were paying me all that money to go around the country and do Shakespeare. I would have done it for free. So far, the third would have to be Rent. As far as theatrical experiences go, it doesn't get better than that. I don't think it can ever be topped!" After relaxing "in my mom's pool," Jesse L. Martin reports back to "Law & Order" duty at the beginning of August.
Five Questions With Jesse L. Martin
Jesse L. Martin is all New Yorker now, right down to his mostly black wardrobe and the rapid-fire words that come shooting out of his mouth.
But as a kid in Rocky Mountain, Va., "I was a straight-up hillbilly," he says, complete with heavy-duty Southern accent.
The 33-year-old, who plays New York police detective Ed Green on NBC's "Law & Order," lost the accent in fourth grade after his family moved to Buffalo, N.Y. But Martin says he could see playing Green with a southern twang.
"The people in New York are from all over the world. It wouldn't be crazy to have a guy from the Blue Ridge Mountains come in and become a detective."
Martin first came to the city to study acting at New York University, but he quit one semester shy of earning a degree. Besides being broke, he says, he had been offered his first professional job, in a touring Shakespeare company, and he jumped at it.
That led to other roles, including one in the original cast of the Broadway musical "Rent," and a recurring role as one of Ally's boyfriends on "Ally McBeal (news - Y! TV)." He also was named to the board of directors of The Acting Company, a classical repertory theater founded by John Houseman.
Martin has been on "Law & Order," TV's longest-running current drama, for the past three years, and so far he's not getting itchy to follow former cast members Benjamin Bratt, Chris Noth and Angie Harmon, among others, through the series' well-known revolving door.
"I'm having a great time. I work with some of the coolest people in the world. ... It's the best film crew I've ever seen. It works like this really well-oiled machine and all I have to do is get on and go along for the ride."
"Not to mention," he adds, "I'm in New York City and I don't ever have to leave."
1. How did you get the job on "Law & Order"?
Martin: I was in L.A., wrapping up `Ally McBeal' and I went to see (series creator) Dick Wolf and basically asked him if I could have the job. ... I said, `Look, all I want to do is your show. I want to go back to New York and work on your show with Jerry Orbach (who plays Detective Lennie Briscoe), and if you can find a way to allow me to do that, I'd be eternally grateful.'
2. Do you ever think about going back to school?
Martin: I do, but not specifically for a degree. I imagine going to school just to learn things I don't know. ... I'm really interested in history and I want to learn more about history, and I'm kind of getting into architecture and the idea of building homes. I don't really have any time to do this stuff now, I just have a little time to fantasize about it.
3. What's your apartment like?
Martin: There's a lot of wood. I'm a big fan of antiques. ... When I was a kid, seeing an antique was seeing junk; it was old. Now it's valuable and beautiful somehow.
4. Any prized possessions?
Martin: I have this crazy-looking cookie jar. I don't make cookies and if I buy them, they're not around long enough for me to put them in a cookie jar, but I have this cookie jar that James Earl Jones gave me with `Cat on a Hot Tin Roof' on it. ... It's a little country kitsch sitting in the middle of my kitchen that has almost nothing else in it. But I'm like, `James Earl Jones gave me this, and I'm never getting rid of it!'
5. What has been the most difficult thing to adapt to since becoming a recognizable face?
Martin: Being stopped on the streets by strangers is one of the oddest things I've come across so far. People in New York will say anything to you without any qualms whatsoever. Usually people are pretty respectful, but it's hysterical to me that people think they know you so well. They say stuff like, `Look, I want you to meet my daughter because I think she'd make the perfect wife for you.'
Jesse Martin: Next TV Star
Three decades after Bill Cosby became the first serious black male television star in I SPY, three dynamic brothers - Chi McBride of Boston Public, Steve Harris of The Practice and Jesse L. Martin of Law & Order - have assumed roles that add much-needed depth to the nation’s understanding of Black Men.
For the moment, they are just three striking black men strolling down Third Avenue in New York City on a clear spring day, joking, laughing and sparkling in the afternoon sun. Boston Public's Chi McBride, The Practice's Steve Harris and Law & Order's Jesse L. Martin are members of a tiny African-American fraternity - leading actors on enormously popular network television dramas - and it's obvious that they share an easy comfort with each other. They receive curious glances from pedestrians and a few prolonged stares from people passing in cars, but the trio is mostly oblivious to the attention - until they walk by two black women. The women, who before spotting the celebrities had been deep in conversation, quickly go into star shock, immediately wearing stunned and giddy expressions.
"Hello Ladies, "Harris says in his deep rumble, giving them a nod and a smile. He gets a gasp in return "Is there a movie premiere going on or something...?" one of the women asks, her voice trailing off as the guys keep moving.
These three actors represent a remarkable emergence of black manhood on prime-time television. Though they all bristle at the suggestion that they are sex symbols, there's no denying that their intense, layered character portrayals have added to the nation's understanding of the professional black man. For several seasons now, McBride, Harris and Martin - along with Eriq LaSalle, formerly of the top-rated NBC Drama ER, Michael Beach of Third Watch and a few others - have consistently shown that strength, competency, sensitivity and sexiness can come in a black male package.
One thing is clear: These brothers are actors - not comedians clowning over a laugh track or rappers scowling their way to the bank. They're pros, studying and refining their craft, and breathing true African-American life into their words. McBride, 42, whose off screen personality is about as naturally hilarious as fellow Chicagoan Bernie Mac (Harris also hails from that city), is among the few black male lead actors in a dramatic network series. He portrays Steven Harper, the gruff but sensitive high school principal, on Fox's BOSTON PUBLIC. Harris, 36, the most intense of the three, has hypnotized viewers of ABC's The Practice for almost seven years with some of the most compelling and electrically charged scenes on television as the principled-to-a-fault defense attorney Eugene Young. And Martin, 33, imbues NBC's Law & Order detective Ed Green with a cultural sensitivity, even on a show that is perhaps network television's most rigidly structured and valuable series, the Microsoft of prime time.
David E. Kelly, the prolific executive producer, has been instrumental in the careers of all three men, and they aren't shy about giving him his props. They say Kelly offers black actors much lead way in shaping their characters' cultural identity. In code: He lets them decide how black they want to be. "David writes for humans," Martin says. "He doesn't necessarily write for black people or white people or Asians."
"Everything doesn't come down to race with me and everything doesn't come down to race with David," McBride adds. "He's about doing things without addressing [race]. For example, Kelley cast Jesse as Ally McBeal's love interest and never addressed the fact that he was black. Give him credit for it. If you're going to make a lot of racket and carry a bunch of signs and placards when things don't happen, I think it's just as important to acknowledge when things are happening."
On the flip side, some observers still comment that not even these characters have been able to crack the last bastions for black TV characters: being in love or having a family "Surely an African American male's sexuality could be presented as one component in a fully developed personality," writes author and processor Donald Bogle in PRIME-TIME BLUES: AFRICAN AMERICANS ON NETWORK TELEVISION (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux). "A black man could be intelligent, sensitive, emotional and sexual."
Still the characters represented by McBride, Harris and Martin mark significant steps in the evolution of the black male TV personality, which began 37 years ago when I SPY first offered viewers an intelligent black man, played by Bill Cosby, in a role equal to his white counterpart. Venise Berry, associate professor at the school of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Iowa at Iowa City, says what she likes most about these three actors is that they have made their characters grounded in their culture. "They are a part of American society," says Berry, "But who they are is dictated in each of their roles by where they came from."
Law and Order's hot cop Jesse L. Martin
Law and Order’s hot cop Jesse L. Martin spends his time busting bad guys. But don’t be fooled by his rough-and-tumble day job. Deep down, he's a softie who still showers one lucky lady with loads of loot.
He was Ally McBeal's beau Dr. Greg Butters, but like most romances on the Fox dramedy, the sparks fizzled. And as far as the 32-year-old Jesse L. Martin is concerned, that was fine. "I'm not an LA. person," he says of his work on the left-coast Ally set. "I wanted to come back to New York. "Come back he did.. .and with a vengeance: When Benjamin Bratt left Law and Order, Martin snagged the coveted role. Now he can't walk down the street without people stopping to tell him how much they love his character (detective Eddie Green)... or that he's so terrific on ER. Martin laughs: "And then I say 'Thank vou, but I'm not Eriq La Salle.'"
Martin can afford to laugh. He's come a long way from where he was bom: a tiny town in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. When he was very young, his mother decided to relocate her family to Buffalo, where Jesse was exposed to theater and dance in a program for gifted children. All these years later, we thank his mom for opening the door that made our Wednesday-night fantasies possible.
1) You studied acting at NYU but left before graduation. Why?
We were dirt-poor. When I was accepted, my mother cried because she knew we couldn't afford it. But I worked four or five jobs at a time to stay there. Then I had to leave because school was interfering with work—and I couldn't afford not to work.
2) What was your craziest job?
Spritzing women with perfume at Macy's. Man, some of them would get so nasty!
3) Your first major part was in the musical Rent. Were you surprised it became such a hit?
Definitely. When I was sent the script, I literally had never heard of the play.
4) How did you get the role on Ally McBeal?
I heard that Michelle Pfeifer (wife of Ally creator David E. Kelley) brought my name up to David. How cool is that?
5) Did you realize that you'd be labeled a heartthrob?
Get outta here. I've always been a straight-up nerd—a bookworm and then a drama nerd. My stepfather wasn't the kindest person and had a propensity for violence, so I tried not to be seen. There was a girl I was infatuated with in high school, and it took me two vears to talk to her. Ironically, she became my high school sweetheart.
6) Are you in a relationship?
I recently split with a girl. I'll just say that there were some trust issues, on her part.
7) What attracts you to women?
There are women I've been with because they could sing their asses off, and I'm a sucker for that. Some, because they're smart. Others, I'll admit, simply because they were drop-dead gorgeous.
8) One of the great things about your relationship with Ally was that even though you're black and she's white, it wasn’t an interracial love story.
Tell that to the ugly bigots who sent mail saying 'What the hell is that Black Sambo doing with America's sweetheart?' But you're right...Calista and I loved that our characters never discussed race.
9) We don't know a lot about your Law and Order character except that he's a serious guy.
Yeah, Eddie's a little elusive. But that's one of the things I like, that the show is story- driven, not character-driven.
10) Is it fun to play a detective?
I love that I get to run down the street with a gun in my hand, acting crazy. That's exactly what I did when I played as a kid.
11) Now that you’re rich and famous, what do you splurge on?
We never had money, and I still act like I don’t. But I spend a lot on my family—my mom more than anybody. This past Christmas, I went home and she was driving this old Caddy in the snow, and I said, ’We are so getting you a new car.’ That was one of the biggest pleasures of my life.
Jesse Martin Lays Down The Law
Jesse L Martin knows how to melt hearts, and he's had plenty of practice. He did it as Dr. Greg Butters on Ally McBeal, when he courted Ally with a birthday serenade. He did it as Tom Collins in the Broadway production of "Rent," when he sang passionately to his lover, who had just died of AIDS.
But Martin hardly minds toughening up his image—not if it means a regular role on a series he has always respected. "For New York actors, it's been the show to watch. If you got to guest-star, you were the bee's knees," Martin says. The minute he heard a rumor that Benjamin Bratt wanted to leave the show, "I was gunning for it," he says. Wolf claims Martin was always "on a very short list of one" due to his rare combination of "credibility and likability" and his "immense appeal" for both men and women. "That may be true," says Martin, "but he made me sweat it just a little bit." Wolf, who heard that other networks were offering Martin development deals, offered him the job without an audition.
The gamble paid off: This season the ratings are up almost 40 percent. "I don't think you can credit it to any one cast member," says Wolf. "But there's clearly no sense of disappointment in the switch." Wolf adds that when a character is replaced, he's usually deluged with letters saying, “I’ll never watch the show again." No one, he says, has objected to Martin's arrival. Except maybe viewers who wanted Ally to become Mrs. McBeal-Butters. "I don't know if there was any plan to keep me as a regular character, and I couldn't even see how it would work," Martin says. "If you know anything about Ally, it's that she can never keep a man." Also, Martin refuses to put down roots in Los Angeles; when he has worked there, he's stayed with a college buddy, Shawn Michael Howard (now a voice on The PJs).
He may be a dedicated New Yorker today, but Martin, 30, still has traces of the accent he picked up in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains, where he was born to Virginia Price, now a retired college career counselor, and Jesse Reed Watkins, a truck driver. His parents divorced when he was young, and his mother moved the family to Buffalo, New York. (Martin—whose family calls him by his middle name, Lamont—and his four brothers took the surname of their mother's second husband, who passed away two years ago.)
The move wasn't easy. On top of being the shy new kid, Martin was part of a forced busing program that brought students from his neighborhood into another district. "It was terrifying. A lot of people were very, very opposed to it," he recalls. "There were protesters and signs with unmentionable words blazoned across." It wasn't until a fourth-grade teacher cast him as a pastor in a play that he felt accepted.
"It was the first time I felt any kind of overwhelming love, and I was like, 'Wow!' "he recalls.
After high school, Martin worked his way through New York university mostly at restaurants. Then came the starving-artist years with small roles on soap operas and commercials. He finally achieved some measure of stability in the mid-'90s, with his breakthrough role in "Rent" and a part on Fox's short-lived 413 Hope St. Producer David E. Kelley spotted him onstage and hired him for the role on Ally McBeal.
Martin's romantic life has been less of a success story—"I'm actually trying to see somebody now, but it's proving to be impossible," he says—due to his busy schedule. All he'll say is that the object of his affection is a New York actress Howard recently introduced him to.
So for now, both on-screen and off-, Martin is channeling his passion into his career. While Martin says he has made "real good pals" with costar Jerry Orbach, their characters, Detectives Green and Briscoe, will soon "get into it."
What seems clear is that Martin's gift for empathizing won't go to waste on the beat. "You just have to pick and choose when you can infuse these stories with emotion," he says. "I mean, I'm not the kind of actor that goes without it, you know what I mean?"
That's for sure: As he takes leave to walk the few blocks home to his apartment, Martin initiates another full-body hug. That's the kind of guy he is. Eat your heart out, ladies.
Jesse Martin: The Young Gun Behind L&O’s Loose Cannon
JESSE L MARTIN IS STROLLING past a bowling Alley on Manhattan’s midtown West Side when two young men look at him, do an In synch double take, and one begins to shout excitedly, “Hey, you’re my man! My Ally McBeal man! My Law & Order man!”.
“Hey man”, says the other fellow, pulling out a scrap of paper out of his pocket, “I know you have a life, I’m sorry to interrupt you, but you gotta sign an autograph for my girlfriend”. Martin, pulling out a pen, smiles and signs, “Thanks for noticing: Jesse L. Martin”.
A lot of people are noticing Martin these days. The 10th-season premiere of Law & Order was it’s highest rated ever, so millions were introduced to Martin’s “Ed Green is not a predictable guy” says Martin. “There’s not a lot about him that I know, and as (L&O creator/producer) Dick Wolf says, you only get eyedroppers-ful of these peoples lives as the series proceeds”. Wolf himself observes of Martin’s character, “this guy is something of a hothead. . . and he doesn’t perceive himself as having a gambling problem, but that might be open to debate.
Before scoring his new L&O gig, Martin had auditioned for the show numerous times. “It’s like the New York actor thing to do-this is the show everyone wants to guest on. The only time I got offered a role was as a car-radio thief named the Hamster. I needed the money and the job, but I turned down the role because it was so small and I wanted to hold out for something bigger-which didn’t come along for awhile”.
Though Martin couldn’t get arrested on L&O, he was wanted elsewhere. He costarred in the original cast of Rent and landed a recurring role on Ally McBeal as Dr. Greg Butters, the string bean lawyer’s melt able love interest. “Then I heard through the grapevine that Ben Bratt was leaving. I called my agent, got an interview with Dick Wolf, and basically begged him for the role, and I’d read with anyone, do anything”.
Martin was based in L.A. at the time. While earning his keep on Ally, he also appeared last season in a memorable episode of The X-Files - written and directed by David Duchovny - in which he starred as an alien-turned-Negro Baseball League star. “I’d just received development - deal offers from two networks - CBS and Fox - and they would have left me sitting around in L.A., which I don’t really enjoy as a place to live. Those offers helped, though, because they spurred Dick to make up mind about me more quickly”.
Born in Rocky Mountain, VA - “nestled deep in the Blue Ridge Mountains, I was a country boy who had to lose his accent to make it on the New York stage” - the 30 year old Martin is the son of a truck-driver father and a retired college career counselor mother. His parents divorced when he was young, and Martin moved with his mother to Buffalo where “I was subjected to forced busing. In the fourth grade, I had a teacher who asked me to be in a play, The Golden Goose. I was the pastor, which I associated with a brimstone and fire, Southern Baptist sort of preacher, so that’s the way I played it. None of the white kids there had ever seen anything like that, and everyone was impressed, though it was very funny. I got so much positive feedback, I knew I was on my way to being a performer”.
Martin says his “dream project” is to star in “a feature-film biography of Marvin Gaye”, and the instant he tells you that, you realize he’s got more than a passing resemblance to the Motown soul singer. What’s going on now, thought, is learning “how to cuff a suspect in the most efficient way” and clicking with costar cop-partner Jerry Orbach because their shared experience as musical-theater veterans. “Jerry knows every Broadway tune-we do a lot of singing between takes”.
Hmm-Martin sang in Rent, he sang on Ally, he even sang on The X-Files. So when will he and Orbach belt out a duet on Law & Order? You know, kind of a Cop Rock Thing? Martins laughs. “Believe me, Dick Wolf has already told me: That ain’t.
Ultimate TV’s Who’s Hot: Jesse L. Martin of “Law and Order”
After only three weeks on the set of “Law & Order”, Jesse L. Martin concludes, “This is probably the best job I’ve ever had!” Coming from the 30-year-old actor who’s landed plum parts on “Ally McBeal”, “The X-Files”, and critically acclaimed starring roles in 413 Hope St. and Broadway’s Tony Award-winning musical, “Rent”, one could only suspect that the easygoing Virginia native has found some sort of actor’s nirvana. Or, more simply, the job he’s been waiting on for over five years.
“I got a role on the show one time, but it was really small”, says Martin of an earlier L&O casting. “It was a radio thief named Earl the Hamster. But I figured if I took that role, I wouldn’t get cast in any other on the show, so I didn’t take it, even though I needed the money so bad and I wanted to play the part. But I thought if I waited it might pay off”. Did it ever. While still working on the “Ally” set in Los Angeles, “I heard through the grapevine that Ben Bratt was leaving Law & Order”, says Martin during a conversation this summer at Pasadena’s posh Twin Palms restaurant. “I didn’t know anything about what they were going to do casting wise, but I wanted it. I wanted it so bad”. So I called my manager and he called Dick Wolf’s office and before you knew it, I was in Dick Wolf’s office asking for the job.
“I get back to New York, and I hadn’t been back in New York for more than a day, and there’s a million messages on the machine saying “Jesse, you have to call your agent!” I called my agent and she tells me that a couple development deals have come through at other networks and they were going to make Dick Wolf aware so that we could get some kind of deal for Law & Order. Apparently Dick Wolf said “I really like him so I’m gonna make an offer. I didn’t need to hear more than that, so I said I want that job. So here I am”
It’s a Hollywood fairytale, and in the end, this Cinderfella has found his perfect fitting glass slipper. Don’t expect, though, that Martin will be trying to fill Benjamin Bratt’s shoes. Unlike Bratt’s cool and collected copper, Martin’s hotheaded detective Eddie Green is a complex character. When it comes to his work, he wants to be effective, but graceful. Like aggressive graceful says Martin. “He knows how to get down to people’s levels-or up to people’s levels. But he’s a flawed human, and one of his biggest flaws may be that he sort of has a gambling problem. He doesn’t see that as a flaw at this point. It’ll be interesting to see how this whole thing plays out”.
Martin’s own “back story” is also interesting. After his parent’s divorced, Martin’s mother moved he and two of his four brothers to Buffalo New York, where the “really little kid with a thick hillbilly accent”, found his niche on the stage of a fourth grade play. “Suddenly I was this popular person”, he remembers. “People became very interested in me”. The sense of dejavu must be overwhelming for Martin as he walks through a crowd of reporters and photographers screaming his name as the blue-suited chocolate hunk glides into the trendy Southern California restaurant. It’s obvious that people are still interested in him, especially industry bigwigs.
“The funny thing is that I can never even come close to saying that I’ve been picking or choosing my roles”, he says. “It’s more about literally what’s come my way. Ally was handed to me by David Kelley. He and Michelle Pfeiffer came to the opening night of “Rent” on Broadway and they knew me from that and David Kelley, literally, offered me the role. “Then David Duchovny saw me on Ally McBeal and decided that I was the guy for this role on The X-Files, which was, to me, like this huge, huge thing! I was overwhelmed by that whole thing. I thought I was going to cry-and I don’t cry that easily. It has been absolutely amazing to me. It’s hard enough to get a job, but to be offered things is phenomenal to me.”
Having gained fame on the stage and small screen, Martin will take a starring urn on the big screen this fall in the independent film Restaurant with Hughley’s star Elise Neal, and will be seen in the upcoming telefilm Deep in My Heart with Anne Bancroft and ER’s Gloria Reuben [ed. note: this was already aired on February 14, 1999] Meanwhile, Martin, back on the set in Manhattan, is receiving shouts from passersby. “It’s like everybody knows I’m going to be on this show and they say congratulations to me on the street. It’s like I’ve got all New Yorkers as my friends, who sort of pat me on the back as I walk along the streets which is very, very cool”. Very cool indeed.