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Waterston Held Lincoln in His Hand

By Edward Epstein

Washington, D.C.

Tuesday, March 12, 2024


As he prepared to exit from his long-running role as tough prosecutor Jack McCoy on NBC TV's perennially popular series Law and Order, 83-year-old Sam Waterston recalled the time he got to hold some of the most precious Abraham Lincoln artifacts in his hands.


Back in the late 1980s, Waterston was cast to play Lincoln in a TV mini-series based on Gore Vidal's historical novel Lincoln. He dove into researching the role and came to Washington, where among his stops was a visit to the Library of Congress, home to a trove of Lincoln material. After several hours of research, a curator took the actor deep into the bowels of the vast library complex to a secure room.


Waterston recalled that the librarian told him to cup his hands in front of him and then placed some materials in his hands. Waterston was holding some of the items that Lincoln carried in his pockets on the evening of Friday, April 14, 1865, when he was mortally wounded while attending a performance at Ford's Theater.



"It made me completely connected to the past," Waterston told CNN's Chris Wallace in an interview not long ago, marking his retirement from Law and Order. Waterston recalled holding an ebony watch fob embossed with a golden "L" (pictured to the left), a pair of fold-up reading glasses, and a wallet that contained an article from a southern newspaper highly critical of the 16th president.


Over the years, Waterston has often portrayed Lincoln. He was the voice of the 16th president in Ken Burns' documentary TV series The Civil War," played Lincoln in a New York revival of the play Abe Lincoln in Illinois and has appeared at events to deliver some of Lincoln's best-known speeches, including his 1861 inaugural address and his 1860 anti-slavery Cooper Union speech, which Waterston delivered at the same spot in New York City. Waterston recited Lincoln's first inaugural address at the Lincoln Group's commemoration of that event in 2011.


Among his many honors was receiving the Lincoln Forum's Richard Nelson Current Award of Achievement in 2003.


Law and Order premiered in September 1990 and was an NBC mainstay until it left the air in 2011. After an 11-year hiatus, it returned in February 2022. Waterson started on the show in its fifth season as McCoy, who was then a Manhattan executive assistant district attorney. He exited in late February of this year as the district attorney. He will be replaced by actor Tony Goldwyn, the grandson of legendary movie producer Samuel Goldwyn.


The complete inventory of the stuff in Lincoln's pockets when he was shot: two pairs of spectacles and a lens polisher, a pocketknife, the watch fob, a linen handkerchief, a brown leather wallet containing a five-dollar Confederate note, and eight newspaper clippings, including the one Waterston recalled. The items were left to Lincoln's son, Robert. and stayed in the Lincoln family for decades until they were given to the Library of Congress.


In another recent interview, Waterston said that on his last day of shooting as McCoy, he was honored on the set. He responded by reciting, from memory, Lincoln's farewell address to his Springfield, Illinois, neighbors on February 11, 1861, as he left by train to take up the presidency in Washington.


Lincoln said, "My friends, no one, not in my situation, can appreciate my feeling of sadness at this parting. To this place, and the kindness of these people, I owe everything."


Waterston said it was time to wrap up his time as McCoy and that he would continue his acting career.


Image from the Library of Congress



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