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Merkerson, S. Epatha

S. Epatha Merkerson



S. Epatha Merkerson has made a name for herself playing Lt. Anita Van Buren on the long-running, Emmy award-winning police drama, Law & Order. For more than a decade, fans have tuned in to watch the show's ensemble cast portray gritty, often straight-from-the-headlines, New York crime stories. Merkerson is also an accomplished stage and screen actor, having performed on and off Broadway, in film, and on television. Her talents have earned her attention from the industry's most prestigious award granting organizations.

S. Epatha Merkerson was born on November 28, 1952, in Saginaw, Michigan, and raised by her mother, a divorced postal employee, in Detroit, Michigan, along with four siblings. At the age of 13 Merkerson's family moved to an all-white neighborhood and experienced racism that she remembers well. During the 1960s, Detroit erupted in racial riots that made relations between blacks and whites living there uneasy. "Each day my brother Zephry and I would guess how many new For Sale signs had gone up," she told People Weekly magazine. In Detroit, Merkerson also had a scary run-in with the police. While driving with her brother in 1967, Merkerson had a police officer point his gun at the back of her head while his partner inspected her brother's identification. The police were looking for a suspect driving a similar car. Although she and her brother were released, Merkerson remembered the encounter to People Weekly as "terrifying."

Merkerson did well in school and continued her education at Wayne State University in Detroit. While earning a bachelor of fine arts degree from the university, Merkerson experienced racial discrimination. As "the only black person" in Wayne State's drama program at the time, "I was actually told not to audition for things," she told People Weekly.

Upon graduation in 1975, Merkerson left Detroit for Albany, New York, to pursue her acting career. She soon joined a children's theater company. At the same time she met Toussaint L. Jones Jr. whom she would date for many years. The couple married in March of 1994.

In 1986 with a little bit of luck and a lot of hard work Merkerson entertained millions of children and adults as Reba the Mail Lady on the popular Pee-wee's Playhouse television show. As a spin-off of Pee-wee's Big Adventure, actor Paul Reuben's first feature film combined old educational film segments, puppets, marionettes, and human characters with fun and games, and an irreverent take on societal conventions. Racial, social, and sexual conventions were challenged, always in good humor. On one show Pee-wee marries a bowl of cereal; on another, a white female character goes on a date with an African-American cowboy. The cast used a hilarious mix of camp, surprise, and silliness to win six Emmy Awards during its first season. The show developed a cult following and soon became part of popular culture, spawning a second movie and Pee-wee's Playhouse Christmas Special in 1988. Dolls, toys, and Pee-wee's Playhouse themed paraphernalia found a brisk market until the craze came to an end when Reubens was arrested for indecent behavior in August 1991.

Merkerson's role on Pee-wee's Playhouse caught the attention of Dick Wolf, the executive producer of Law & Order. In 1993 Dick Wolf, the show's executive producer, was urged to "add a woman to the regular cast or the show would be cancelled," Merkerson said during an interview with National Public Radio. But Wolf admitted to People Weekly that he "fell in love with her" for her role on Pee-wee's Playhouse and cast her on Law & Order without an audition. Merkerson had landed a part on what would become the longest-running crime series and the second longest-running drama series in the history of television. On Law & Order, Merkerson plays Lt. Anita Van Buren, a tough, no-nonsense type who can hold her own against the male-dominated police department. Van Buren is also the mother of a child killed because of a gunman's inability to read. A series regular, she dispenses wisdom and supervision to New York City detectives. The cast earned an Emmy in 1997 and holds the record for the most consecutive Emmy nominations (11) for Outstanding Drama Series. Law & Order has spawned successful spin-offsLaw & Order: Special Victims Unit and Law & Order: Criminal Intent. A third show, Law & Order: Trial by Jury, premieres in 2005.

Despite her career success, Merkerson still finds she has to struggle at times to bring some rather obscure African-American realities to her roles. Merkerson told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that "I came into this business with no illusions, especially about television. It's very stereotyped." Citing a particular Law & Order episode involving a black man passing for white unbeknownst to his white wife, Merkerson felt the child playing their offspring in reality wouldn't have been dark-skinned. She lobbied vigorously for a more fair-skinned child but for the episode but was overruled. "We try to do shows that are correct," she explained to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "Not politically correct, not artistically correct, but correct in reality. It's the minutiae, those little things that present themselves in our culture that I've spent my career fighting for."

In addition to her television work, Merkerson has performed in a long list of theater productions and films. For her work in theater she earned an Obie Award in 1991 for I'm not Stupid and a Helen Hayes Award in 1999 for her work in The Old Settler. The Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Piano Lesson earned her both a Tony and Drama Desk nomination for Best Actress. She also appeared in such films as Prizzi's Honor, Postcards from the Edge, Jacob's Ladder, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, An Unexpected Life, and Radio. Merkerson is scheduled to complete production on the movie Lackawanna Blues in 2004, co-starring Jimmy Smits and Rosie Perez.

But acting is not Merkerson's only activity. Having lost one of her close friends to lung cancer, Merkerson decided in 1994 to quit smoking herself. She told the Los Angeles Daily News, "I woke up one morning and it just felt like an elephant was standing on my chest." A year later she lost another friend to the disease. Merkerson dedicates time to lung cancer prevention, working with kids to spread awareness about the dangers of smoking. She told the Los Angeles Daily News, "One thing I've realized is celebrity can be used for real important things. People seem to listen a little more acutely to those who are in front of the camera. If you're going to hear it from me because I'm Lt. Van Buren, then that's really cool." She is an active participant with the Campaign for Tobacco-free Kids and organizations such as Cancercare have honored Merkerson for her work.

At a Glance

Born Sharon Epatha Merkerson on November 28, 1952, in Saginaw, MI; married Toussaint L. Jones, 1994. Education: Wayne State University, BA, fine arts, 1975.

Career: Actor, 1975.

Awards: Obie Award, 1991, for I'm not Stupid ; Helen Hayes Award, for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Resident Play, 1999, for The Old Settler.

Addresses: Agent David Nesmith, PMK/HBH Public Relations, 650 5th Avenue, 33rd Floor, New York, NY 10019.

Selected works


Prizzi's Honor, 1985.

Navy Seals, 1990.

Jacob's Ladder, 1990.

Terminator II, 1991.

Radio, 2003.

Jersey Girl, 2004.

Lackawanna Blues, 2004.


The Piano Lesson, 1990.

I'm Not Stupid, 1991.

The Old Settler, 1998.

F**king A, 2003.


The Cosby Show, 1984.

Pee-wee's Playhouse, 1986.

Elysian Fields, 1989.

Equal Justice, 1990.

Here and Now, 1992.

Mann and Machine, 1992.

Law & Order, 1993.

A Place for Annie, 1994.

A Mother's Prayer, 1995.

Breaking Through, 1996.

An Unexpected Life, 1998.

It's a Girl Thing, 2001.



Daily News (Los Angeles), November 12, 2001, p. L7.

Essence, September 2003, p. 122.

Hollywood Reporter, October 21, 2002, p. 11.

People Weekly, August 13, 2001, p. 93.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 10, 1998, p. E8.


"S. Epatha Merkerson," NBC, (July 23, 2004).

"Pee-Wee's Playhouse," Nostalgia Central, (July 24, 2004).

"Audio Interview with S. Epatha Merkerson," National Public Radio, (July 25, 2004).

Sharon Melson Fletcher

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"Merkerson, S. Epatha." Contemporary Black Biography. . 12 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Merkerson, S. Epatha." Contemporary Black Biography. . (December 12, 2017).

"Merkerson, S. Epatha." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved December 12, 2017 from

Merkerson, S. Epatha 1952–

MERKERSON, S. Epatha 1952–

(Epatha Merkerson, Epatha Merkinson)


Full name, Sharon Epatha Merkerson; born November 28, 1952, in Saginaw, MI; daughter of Ann Merkerson (a postal worker); married Toussaint L. Jones (a social worker and therapist), March 1994. Education: Wayne State University, B.F.A., theatre, 1975.

Addresses: Manager—Blueprint Artist Management, 5670 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 2525, Los Angeles, CA 90036, or 1438 N. Gower St., Building 15, 2nd Floor, Box 17, Los Angeles, CA 90028. Publicist—PMK/HBH Public Relations, 650 5th Ave., 33rd Floor, New York, NY 10019.

Career: Actress. Worked in children's theater in Albany, NY; Arena Stage, Washington, DC, guest artist, 1983. Campaign for Tobacco–Free Kids, spokesperson. Sometimes credited as Epatha Merkerson.

Awards, Honors: Antoinette Perry Award nomination, best actress, Drama Desk Award nomination, and L.A. Theatre Critics Award nomination, 1990, all for The Piano Lesson; Helen Hayes Award nomination, 1990; Obie Award, 1992, for I'm Not Stupid; Helen Hayes Award, 1998, for The Old Settler; Image Award nominations, outstanding lead actress in a drama series, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, 1997, 1998, 1999, and 2001, Screen Actors Guild Award nominations (with others), outstanding performance by an ensemble in a drama series, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, and 2004, all for Law & Order; Lucille Lortel Award nomination, outstanding lead actress, 2003, for Fucking A.


Television Appearances; Series:

Reba the mail lady, Pee–Wee's Playhouse, CBS, 1986.

Captain Margaret Claghorn, Mann & Machine, NBC, 1992.

Ms. St. Marth, Here and Now, NBC, 1992–1993.

Lieutenant Anita Van Buren, Law & Order, NBC, 1993—.

Television Appearances; Miniseries:

Lani, coworker, "I'm OK, It's You I'm Not Sure About," A Girl Thing, Showtime, 2001.

Television Appearances; Movies:

Equal Justice, 1990.

Louise Waters, It's Nothing Personal (also known as Nothing Personal), NBC, 1993.

Alice, "A Place for Annie," Hallmark Hall of Fame, ABC, 1994.

Ruby, A Mother's Prayer, USA Network, 1995.

Barbara Caffrey, Breaking Through (also known as After the Silence), 1996.

Lieutenant Anita Van Buren, Exiled (also known as Exiled: A Law & Order Movie), NBC, 1998.

Beverly Hawkins, An Unexpected Life, USA Network, 1998.

Nanny, Lackawanna Blues, HBO, 2004.

Television Appearances; Pilots:

Jimmy, Elysian Fields (also known as The CBS Summer Playhouse), CBS, 1989.

Melba, Moe's mother, Moe's World, ABC, 1992.

Television Appearances; Specials:

Reba the mail lady, A Special Evening of Pee–Wee's Playhouse, CBS, 1987.

Reba the mail lady, Pee–Wee's Playhouse Christmas Special (also known as Christmas Special, Christmas at Pee Wee's Playhouse, and Pee–Wee Herman's Christmas Special), CBS, 1988.

Ruth Clayton, "Summer Stories: The Mall," ABC Afterschool Specials, ABC, 1992.

Voice of Eslanda Robeson, Paul Robeson: Here I Stand, PBS, 1999.

Host, Art in the Twenty–First Century (documentary), PBS, 2001.

Television Appearances; Episodic:

Book club member, "Bookworm," The Cosby Show, 1988.

Denise Winters, "Mushrooms," Law & Order, 1991.

Mama Bouchard, "I Witness," South Beach, 1993.

Herself, Larry King Live, CNN, 2000.

Dr. McCaskill, "Dark Side of the Moon," Frasier, NBC, 2000.

Lieutenant Anita Van Buren, "Badge," Law & Order: Criminal Intent, NBC, 2002.

TV Land Moguls, TV Land, 2004.

Film Appearances:

All That Jazz, Twentieth Century–Fox, 1979.

Prizzi's Honor, ABC Motion Pictures, 1985.

(As Epatha Merkinson) Dr. Jamison, She's Gotta Have It, 1986.

Postcards from the Edge, Columbia, 1990.

Elsa, Jacob's Ladder (also known as Dante's Inferno), TriStar, 1990.

Rachel, Loose Cannons, TriStar, 1990.

Jolena, Navy SEALS, Orion, 1990.

Tarissa Dyson, Terminator 2: Judgment Day (also known as T2, El Exterminator 2, T2—Terminator 2: Judgment Day, T2: Extreme Edition, T2: Ultimate Edition, and Terminator 2—Le jugement dernier), TriStar, 1991.

Nea, Random Hearts, Sony Pictures Releasing, 1999.

Lessie Watson, The Rising Place, 2001.

Maggie, Radio, Sony Pictures Releasing, 2003.

Doctor #1, Jersey Girl, Miramax, 2004.

Stage Appearances:

Second Thoughts, Black Theatre Festival U.S.A., Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre, New York City, 1979.

Understudy for female roles, Spell #7, Public Theatre, New York City, 1979.

Understudy, Tintypes, Theatre of St. Peter's Church, New York City, 1980, then John Golden Theatre, New York City, 1980–1981.

Pianist, Jazz Set, Henry Street Settlement's New Federal Theatre, New York City, 1982.

Woman #2, Home, Alley Theatre, Houston, TX, 1982.

Incandescent Tones, New Federal Theatre, 1983.

Understudy, Puppetplay, Theatre Four, New York City, 1983–1984.

Louise Cline, The Harvesting, Circle Repertory Theatre, New York City, 1984.

Rula, Every Goodbye Ain't Gone, Colonnades Theatre Lab, New York City, 1984.

Jenny, Hospice, Colonnades Theatre Lab, 1984.

Understudy, Balm in Gilead, Minetta Lane Theatre, New York City, 1984–1985.

Shepard Sets, Syracuse Stage, Syracuse, NY, 1985.

The Dream Team, Goodspeed Opera House, East Haddam, CT, 1985.

A Raisin in the Sun, Philadelphia Drama Guild, Philadelphia, PA, 1985.

Home, The Whole Theatre, Montclair, NJ, 1985–1986.

Billie Holiday, Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill, Westside Arts Theatre, New York City, 1987.

Adele, Moms, Hudson Guild Theatre, New York City, 1987.

Dawn, Three Ways Home, McCarter Theatre, Princeton, NJ, and Astor Place Theatre, New York City, both 1988.

Bernice, The Piano Lesson, Goodman Theatre, Chicago, IL, 1989, then Walter Kerr Theatre, New York City, 1990, later Center Theatre Group, Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles, 1990.

Janet, Secrets to Square Dancing, Playwrights Horizons, New York City, 1991.

Margaret Fletcher, I'm Not Stupid, Playwrights Horizon, 1991.

The Old Settler, Studio Theatre, Washington, DC, 1998.

Hester Smith, Fucking A, Joseph Papp Public Theatre/Anspacher Public Theatre, New York City, 2003.


Video Games:

Voice of Lieutenant Anita Van Buren, Law & Order: Dead on the Money, 2002.

Voice of Lieutenant Anita Van Buren, Law & Order II: Double or Nothing, 2003.



Essence, March, 1996, p. 60; September, 2003, p. 122.

People Weekly, August 13, 2001, p. 93.

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"Merkerson, S. Epatha 1952–." Contemporary Theatre, Film and Television. . 12 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Merkerson, S. Epatha 1952–." Contemporary Theatre, Film and Television. . (December 12, 2017).

"Merkerson, S. Epatha 1952–." Contemporary Theatre, Film and Television. . Retrieved December 12, 2017 from