Waterston Performs With Actor-Son

Friday, June 16th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP) — Life has been good to Sam Waterston. He's an award-winning actor with a hit television series. He has traveled the world. He's financially secure. He has a close, caring family.

Even with all that, though, the easygoing Waterston confides he wanted more. One simple treasure he truly coveted was the chance to work alongside his eldest son, James, in a play.

Appropriately, Sam and James will spend this Father's Day playing father and son on stage.

``I was worried that it might not happen,'' Waterston said during a break in rehearsals of Eugene O'Neill's classic, ``Long Day's Journey Into Night,'' at Syracuse Stage.

``There are lots of stage families that don't get to work together. We almost missed this,'' said Waterston, the star of NBC-TV's ``Law & Order.''

James, 31, said he and his father had often discussed performing together, and the Syracuse production proved a perfect fit. ``It's a luxury that we have that we get to play father and son ... so we wanted to choose our moment wisely and spend that privilege wisely.''

It was a convergence of timing, luck and desire that brought the Waterstons together in Syracuse, where O'Neill's story of the tormented Tyrone family runs through July 2.

Sam is on a summertime hiatus from shooting ``Law & Order.'' James, a professional actor who lives in Los Angeles and does regional theater around the country, had taken time off to prepare for his wedding in late July.

``Jamie suggested we could squeeze it in. I didn't think there was time to do it,'' said Sam. Especially since most theaters had completed their seasons and the Waterstons were striking out trying to find a stage on which to perform on such short notice.

That's when luck stepped in.

``We were standing around after one of our last performances just exchanging theater gossip when our lighting director asked if anyone had heard about Sam Waterston going around New York trying to peddle this play with his son. My ears perked up,'' said Robert Moss, Syracuse Stage's artistic director.

So Moss made a blind call to Waterston and offered his playhouse.

``I could hear the delight in his voice when he said, `You will?''' recalled Moss. Moss then called his longtime friend, actress Elizabeth Franz, who agreed to join the cast. Franz won the 1999 Tony Award for best supporting actress for her portrayal of Linda Loman in ``Death of a Salesman.''

While father and son have long had the ambition to work together, the idea of doing O'Neill's introspective masterpiece came after Sam saw James play Edmund Tyrone at the Pittsburgh Public Theater in 1999.

``There's a scene in the fourth act. It's just Edmund and his father, James,'' said the younger Waterston. ``I don't know when it happened, but sometime during that, I was thinking what a scene to have with Dad. It's an extraordinary scene that's at the end of a very rough day. They are both kind of drunk and letting it all out.''

O'Neill, who won the Nobel and Pulitzer prizes, drew on his own life to write his searing, unsparing portrait of the Tyrones. Patriarch James Tyrone was modeled on O'Neill's father, James, one of the most prominent stage actors of the late 19th century. Edmund, the son, was based on O'Neill himself.

In the play, O'Neill revealed his family's self-absorption, cruelty, fury and outrageous thirst for alcohol for all the world to see. It was a soulful examination of what reviewers called the American tragedy: loss of faith.

It also was O'Neill's way of confronting the ghost of his father. Although father and son loved each other, they utterly failed to communicate that devotion until the very end of James O'Neill's life when reconciliation and understanding finally came.

The roles are challenging, even for the talented Waterstons, who say they have enjoyed a much different relationship.

``It hasn't been a conventional life. But we've always been close,'' said the elder Waterston, who first attained acclaim as a Shakespearean actor and later starred in ``The Great Gatsby'' and received an Oscar nomination for best actor in ``The Killing Fields'' before turning to television.

Despite his success, Sam Waterston has eschewed the glitter of Hollywood and instead raised his four children at his farmhouse home in Connecticut. Still, life was different for the Waterston children, James said.

There were no family vacations per se. Instead, Sam found opportunities to take his children on location when doing a film.

It was one of those trips that provided the Waterstons with their only other experience working together as actors. It was a BBC film made for public television on atomic bomb builder J. Robert Oppenheimer.

``I was 10 years old. I remember we moved over to London for three months for the shooting of it. They needed a kid, and I was available. I had no lines. I was a glorified extra,'' said James, whose biggest professional role was a part in ``Dead Poets Society.''

``I remember there was a scene where he came in and had a very dramatic moment ... and I just kept laughing,'' James recalled.

``Hopefully, those days are gone,'' said Sam, trying to manufacture a stern look for his son, then chuckling.

During rehearsals, there was little evidence of the Waterstons' relationship, beyond their strong physical resemblance and an occasional ``family'' joke. The cast was strictly professional as it worked to capture the powerful emotions of O'Neill's play and learn nearly four hours of dialogue, said Moss.

Afterward, at dinner or over coffee or beer, is when father and son talk. They have been in Syracuse rehearsing since early May, living in separate apartments in the same building.

``I have distinct memories of calling Dad from sets or after rehearsals and asking, `This is what's going on in this scene. This is what I don't understand. This is ...' Now we are talking about the same play. He is in the rehearsal hall with me all day and I'm there with him. Now the conversations are more frequent and more intense,'' James said.

``I think we talk more freely as father and son than if we were just two actors beginning to get to know each other through this play. It's made it a lot more fun,'' added Sam.

After this, there is another experience Sam and son hope to share — one that's far from any stage. They want to take a long canoe trip.