'Law & Order' actor Sam Waterston is glad to be working into his 80s Waterston joined the cast of the original NBC series in 1994 on a one-year contract. He wound up staying 16 years, until the series wrapped in 2010. Now the show's back — and so is he.

Sam Waterston returns to 'Law & Order,' glad to be working into his 80s

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week.

The original NBC series "Law & Order," which ran for 20 seasons before ending in 2010, is back, and with it, our guest, Sam Waterston, who returns to the role of District Attorney Jack McCoy. Waterston has appeared in more than a hundred movies, TV shows and theater productions. And at 81, he's still busy. He co-stars in the Netflix series "Grace And Frankie" as one of two men who leave their wives to pursue their love for each other. The series' final season wraps up this spring. And Waterston plays former Secretary of State George Shultz in the new Hulu series "The Dropout," about Elizabeth Holmes, whose blood-testing company Theranos collapsed in fraud charges. Among Waterston's other memorable performances are as a network news executive in the HBO series "The Newsroom" and as a war correspondent in "The Killing Fields," which earned him an Oscar nomination for best actor.

Well, Sam Waterston, it is great to have you. Welcome to FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: So you're back on "Law & Order." Going back onto the set - was it like putting on an old glove? I mean, you did the show for 16 seasons before.

WATERSTON: It was extraordinary and strange. It felt really weird to step back onto what looked exactly like the same old sets - the same furniture, same books, the same linoleum on the floor. I wondered whether to do it or not do it for a while when the possibility came up. And - but the minute I was back there, I thought, what a fool I would have been to have missed this. It's been fabulous.

But I have to say also, before we get into any of this, that it feels kind of weird to be talking about personal concerns in my career at a time like this. While we were getting ready to have this conversation, I was listening to a FRESH AIR program about an expert on Russian-American relations. And the whole vast subject of our dependence on fossil fuels and what it's doing to our climate and what it's doing to our international relations is so big now. And it's being expressed in horrible violence in Ukraine. And it just seems really weird to - much as it matters to me and much as I love it - to be talking about, you know, my latest TV show.

DAVIES: Well, I will tell you - I mean, at FRESH AIR, we have those conversations practically daily as we consider what kind of shows to present to our listeners. And we're very much aware that what's unfolding in Ukraine is on everyone's mind and trying to hit some kind of a balance. But, yeah.

WATERSTON: Sure. Life does have to go on. And we need to rejoice in the living of it. And we need to be thankful for being alive at all and all of that wonderful stuff. But, I think, even if we're going to talk almost exclusively about my career, you know, part of my life calling is to be on the board of Oceana advocating for the oceans. And fossil fuels, which are - the effect of which are being felt in Ukraine heavily right now are being felt heavily in the oceans, too. And plastic is choking us. And so it feels to me like, since it's inescapable in my own life, that it's not wrong if a little bit of it bleeds over into a conversation that's about other things.

DAVIES: Sure. Well, I will tell you that you being the chair of the board of Oceana was on my list of things I was going to bring up with you. You know...

WATERSTON: Oh, good.

DAVIES: ...Celebrities are, you know, often invited to join in important policy issues because, you know, celebrities bring attention, and they help with fundraising. Chairing the board of an organization like that is a little different. And you - do you - you must really get into policy and, I assume, senior staff positions, like, that kind of thing, yeah?

WATERSTON: Yeah. I mean my feeling about being semi-famous, which is where I classify myself, is that - not that you can change minds, not that you can do anything material necessarily, but that you can point. And so the kinds of things that I did with Jane Fonda, the protests that I did at the Harvard-Yale game a few years ago, where we protested Harvard and Yale's investments in fossil fuels - all of that stuff, I feel, is in the category of being able to point. But then, you know, there's getting something done. And the great blessing of, really, Oceana having found me, for me, is that week in, week out, day after day, Oceana is making changes around the world - some of them small, some of them dramatic, but steadily. Oceana is on the case all the time. It's on the case while I'm doing "Law & Order." It's on the case when I'm here at home, you know, so that you can feel that you're connected to results in a way that just pointing doesn't let you do.

DAVIES: Well, it's good you're doing the work. So let's take a few minutes and talk about this remarkable acting career of yours. I thought we'd begin with a clip from the new "Law & Order." And like a lot of the "Law & Order" plots, the first episode is based loosely on some real-life events which people will recognize. In this case, a very prominent Black celebrity has been accused by many women of sexual assault and convicted in one case. And in the episode, he's been released from prison after a court ruling. It departs from the real-life story in the "Law & Order" episode in that the celebrity is then found shot to death. And the prime suspect is one of his alleged rape victims. And when she is interrogated by police detectives, they lie to her, which is permitted under Supreme Court rulings, to get a confession - to get the confession.

And in the scene we're going to hear, the prosecutor in the case, played by Hugh Dancy, is in your office trying to convince you that the prosecution ought to not use the confession at trial, just go on other evidence. And so that's the discussion. You, as District Attorney Jack McCoy, speaks first. Let's listen.


WATERSTON: (As Jack McCoy) But it's a legal confession, Nolan. Cops are allowed to lie.

HUGH DANCY: (As Nolan Price) They are. But it makes the confession less reliable, less ethical.

WATERSTON: (As Jack McCoy) No. If it's legal, it's ethical. So where do we draw the line, Nolan - one lie, two lies? Or do we analyze the severity of the lie? Do white lies count? Do we examine how charming a detective is? What about embellishments? Do they count? What if a cop says we have five witnesses instead of four, do we throw it out?

DANCY: (As Nolan Price) I think we need to analyze it on a case-by-case basis. But to be clear, in this case, it wasn't one little lie or embellishment. Cosgrove spun the suspect upside down. He practically promised her immunity, told her that no one in the DA's office would even consider prosecuting her, exploited the fact that she was a rape victim, that she shot the man who assaulted her. Why let the defense tear him apart on cross, shift the focus away from the evidence and onto her sympathetic client and the big, bad police department?

WATERSTON: (As Jack McCoy) Like it or not, Nolan, the big, bad police department is our partner. And in case you haven't been paying attention, they're under attack. Every decision, every arrest is scrutinized. There are people trying to defund them, for God's sake. And here you are, asking me to castrate them.

DANCY: (As Nolan Price) That is not my intent. I just want to do what is best for this case.

WATERSTON: (As Jack McCoy) Can you win this trial without a confession?

DANCY: (As Nolan Price) Yes.

WATERSTON: (As Jack McCoy) Your call, as long as you're willing to live with the consequences.

DANCY: (As Nolan Price) I am.

DAVIES: And that is our guest, Sam Waterston, with Hugh Dancy in a new episode of "Law & Order," which is back on the air. You know, when you got into this series - and I don't know that you - you probably didn't think you were going to be on it for 16 seasons.

WATERSTON: I definitely didn't. I signed up for one year at a time.

DAVIES: What was the appeal of staying so long? I mean...

WATERSTON: I think "Law & Order" is a show to be proud of being in, and the other things that I might have done were not as exciting. And it also permitted me and even enabled me to do other things like Shakespeare plays and "Long Day's Journey Into Night" on the spur of the moment with my son playing my son. These things were made possible by what we were talking about earlier, the celebrity that came with doing "Law & Order." It made it possible, on short notice, to fill up the theater. Of course, the fact that John Slattery and Elizabeth Franz were also in the company helped a little bit, too. But "Law & Order" was definitely a big factor. And it kept me out of trouble, which is - you know, I might have wound up doing other things that I wasn't as glad to be in.

DAVIES: Trouble meaning dumb roles or...

WATERSTON: Dumb roles or dumb projects. And, you know, let's not leave out the fact that Lynn and I have four kids who needed to go to school and go to college, and "Law & Order" paid for it.

DAVIES: Right. So a regular income and a...

WATERSTON: And show business does not provide regular jobs.

DAVIES: People don't realize that. I mean, that even an established actor - I mean, there's no guarantee, two years from now, that the phone's going to be ringing, right? It's (laughter) - you're reinventing yourself all the time.

WATERSTON: I have very dear friends who sort of suddenly found themselves in free fall, stepped off the edge of the world. And in the old days, I used to compare it to stringing beads, you know? And the thing that you really dreaded was coming to the end of a thread, and then what?

DAVIES: You know, the series - one of the things that the series is known for is this terrific kind of cast - ensemble cast that rotates - and all these guest appearances by terrific actors. I assume maybe we'll be seeing some familiar faces and probably getting to know some new up-and-comers.

WATERSTON: Both. Yes, definitely. And there are a lot of TV shows being shot in New York now. But when "Law & Order" started, it was basically the only show in town. And you couldn't go to the theater in New York without - and read the program without running into - you know, most of the actors had been on "Law & Order," too. And it was one of the things that made it possible for actors to continue to pursue the theater in New York. I've been and I will remain an advocate for Dick Wolf getting a Tony Award for this because I think he made a material difference to the theater in New York. And then New York theater paid him back by having really fabulous guest stars on "Law & Order." It was like a parade.

DAVIES: Yeah. I picture, you know, at casting calls for Broadway shows, people talking to each other about "Law & Order." What were you, a suspect or a witness, right (laughter)?

WATERSTON: Yeah, that's what I figure, too. And, I mean, Elaine Stritch was on "Law & Order," you know?


DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We're speaking with veteran actor Sam Waterston. We will continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Sam Waterston. He appears in the revival of the NBC series "Law & Order," which is back on the air - also in the Netflix series "Grace And Frankie," which is wrapping up its final season this spring. He's also in the new Hulu series "The Dropout," about Elizabeth Holmes.

So let's talk a bit about "Grace and Frankie," the series on Netflix, where you star with Martin Sheen and Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin - what a cast. And I thought we would hear a scene from the very first episode, which sets up the premise of the series. Your character, Sol, and Martin Sheen's character, Robert, are good friends and law partners. And you've asked your wives, Grace and Frankie, who are played by Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, to dinner. You're all old friends. And you two, the men, have some very big and not happy news for the wives, which you, as Sol, awkwardly try to present. The scene opens with Martin Sheen as Robert.


MARTIN SHEEN: (As Robert) Actually, we do want to talk to you two about something. Right, Sol?

WATERSTON: (As Sol) OK. Well, as you know, we're getting better with age, and this can be a very exciting chapter we're about to open in the Book of Life. It feels alive with possibility and change. And Frankie herself says change is always good, especially when starting this new chapter of our lives.

JANE FONDA: (As Grace) This new chapter of our lives is going to be over if you don't get to the point.

SHEEN: (As Robert) I'll do it.


SHEEN: (As Robert) It's OK.

WATERSTON: (As Sol) Robert.

SHEEN: (As Robert) Please, Sol. What Sol is trying to say is I'm leaving you, and he's leaving you.

WATERSTON: (As Sol) For this next chapter of our lives.

FONDA: (As Grace) You're leaving me?

SHEEN: (As Robert) Yes.

FONDA: (As Grace) Who is she?

SHEEN: (As Robert) Oh, it's not what you think. It's a he.

FONDA: (As Grace) Excuse me?

SHEEN: (As Robert) And it's Sol. I'm in love with Sol. Sol and I are in love.

LILY TOMLIN: (As Frankie Bergstein) My Sol?

FONDA: (As Grace Hanson) (Laughter).

WATERSTON: (As Sol Bergstein) Your Sol.

TOMLIN: (As Frankie Bergstein) You mean, you're gay? And this is who you're gay with?

WATERSTON: (As Sol Bergstein) This is who I'm in love with.

FONDA: (As Grace Hanson) My God.

TOMLIN: (As Frankie Bergstein) No, this makes no sense. You're business partners - you're not lovers - friends. How long has this been going on?

WATERSTON: (As Sol Bergstein) Well, it's been - I don't know, exactly.

SHEEN: (As Robert Hanson) Twenty years.

FONDA: (As Grace Hanson) Oh.

TOMLIN: (As Frankie Bergstein) You don't think there was a better time to tell us this like, say, any time over the last two decades?

FONDA: (As Grace Hanson) I'm going to throw up.

WATERSTON: (As Sol Bergstein) I'm so sorry.

TOMLIN: (As Frankie Bergstein) But why now?

WATERSTON: (As Sol Bergstein) We want to get married.

TOMLIN: (As Frankie Bergstein) Oh.

FONDA: (As Grace Hanson) Married?

SHEEN: (As Robert Hanson) 'Cause we can do that now.

TOMLIN: (As Frankie Bergstein) I know. I hosted that fundraiser.

DAVIES: (Laughter) Lily Tomlin with...

WATERSTON: (Laughter).

DAVIES: ...Punching the end of that. Boy, what a dinner, huh?

WATERSTON: (Laughter).

DAVIES: You know, I wondered what it's like to kind of be in a series like this where the core actors, the four of you, are all, you know, seasoned actors, mature, you know, of a certain age who have a lot of experience and are well-established. And I'm just wondering how that's different from, you know, many of the dozens of other projects you've done where, you know, a lot of the actors are young and are kind of trying to find their voice and have their ambitions and trying to make their careers. Is it a whole different feel with these three other actors?

WATERSTON: It is because we all sense that we're lucky to be working, and we all love to work. You know, the old joke is if you want to hear an actor complain, give them a job.

DAVIES: (Laughter).

WATERSTON: But in this case, we were just very pleased to be working. And then to be working with each other - I mean, (laughter) I knew Jane, and I knew Martin a little bit. I didn't know Lily Tomlin. I knew she was very funny. I didn't know that she was funny just standing there. I didn't know that somebody could be - you know, that their whole body could be made out of funny bones. But we were glad to be there. And I think that helped that the whole feeling on the set immeasurably. I think it was infectious.

DAVIES: Yeah. You know, I was surprised to read that Jane Fonda, who I think is terrific in the role, actually got an acting coach for the role. I would think, but what is there left to learn at this point in your career? But I guess not necessarily?

WATERSTON: She is the most eagerly curious and engaged person. Well, I don't know if she is the most, but she is one of the most curious and engaged people I have ever met. And she's not satisfied until she's given it her all. And I think that was just an example of her giving it her all. It wasn't like she needed the instruction.

DAVIES: You started acting early - right? - I think, in prep school - and then when you were at Yale. When did it feel like something that would be a career to you?

WATERSTON: You know, I had always been attracted to doing plays from the age of 6. So my father, who was a teacher at a boarding school in Massachusetts, put me in a play. And I got to stay up late. And I was one of four children, and here I was with my father late at night with all the cool guys at school. And my father was interested in the theater, and my mother was a painter. So I was interested in the arts from a very early age. But I had other ideas about what I was going to become.

And then I started acting while I was at Yale. And then I was in a production of "Waiting For Godot," and I had an onstage experience that was so exciting that I thought, I better watch out, or I'm going to wind up in this very unstable and insecure business. So I tried to swear off the theater for a year, and that lasted for a couple of months. I spent my junior year abroad in France, and before I knew it, I was doing plays there.

And then I was in a - I fell into a - with a group of actors and a really wonderful teacher, John Berry, who was a huge influence in my life just as a personality. He was - I was a little bit of a - I was pretty shy, and I was from the Northeast and pretty reserved, let's say. And he just called me out. And by the time I came back for my senior year at Yale, I pretty well knew that acting was what I wanted to do.

DAVIES: We need to take another break here. Let me reintroduce you. We're speaking with Sam Waterston. He appears in the revival of the NBC series "Law And Order," and he's also in the Netflix series "Grace And Frankie," which is wrapping up its final season this spring. He also appears in the new Hulu series "The Dropout" about Elizabeth Holmes, playing former Secretary of State George Shultz. We'll be back to talk more after this short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. Our guest is actor Sam Waterston, who plays District Attorney Jack McCoy in the revival of the NBC series "Law & Order." He's also in the Netflix series "Grace And Frankie," which wraps up its final season this spring, and in the new Hulu series "The Dropout," in which he plays former Secretary of State George Schultz.

You got a Tony Award, I think, for playing "Abe Lincoln In Illinois" on Broadway. And you've played Lincoln and done his voice in several projects. And, you know, it's hard not to see a resemblance, I think, in your faces a bit. And I read that - somewhere that when you were going to play, I think, Gore Vidal's "Lincoln," a TV series, you went to the Library of Congress to ask what they had. What did you find? What happened?

WATERSTON: (Laughter) What a fool. I was in Washington, D.C., for another reason. I had the afternoon to myself. I went to the Library of Congress. The card files used to be in a big domed room, I think, off to the right as you came in. And I was standing there. There were vast - I didn't even know where to begin to look. And I was standing there bewildered. And this young woman in a library uniform came up to me and asked me if she could help. And I said, yeah, I was wondering if - (laughter) I'm so stupid. I was wondering if you had anything here about Lincoln. And she just - she was just aghast. And after she recovered herself, she said, well, we are the Lincoln Library. And I said, oh, good. And she said, may I ask why you're interested? And I said, well, I'm going to play him. And then she did the most magnificent thing. She ran off and got, I don't know, four or five other people, all with different areas of expertise about Lincoln. And they tried to stuff me with Lincoln intelligence and experience, you know, in a very, very short period of time. They showed me letters that were - and I held them in my own hands, the letters that he had written. And I had the cast of his hand that they showed me. And, I mean, it was just wonderful.

Anyway, all of that was winding up, and I said, I have to go. And one of these really nice people who had been trying to help me out said, wait a minute, wait a minute. Just one more thing. And we went down these giant stairs, all the way down into the basement of the library, walked all the way down this long, dark hall. It was, you know, 4:30, quarter of 5. People were packing up and getting - and leaving or had left. And the guy I was with said, did you close it up yet? And the guy working at the table said, no, but I'm about to. And he said, wait, wait, don't do it. Don't do it. I got somebody here. I want him to see this stuff. I don't know. I don't know if this is right. I'm not sure I'm allowed. No, no, no, it's on me. I promise you, it's OK. And the guy I was with said, hold out your hands. And I held out my hands, and he poured, you know, half a dozen objects into my hands and said, the contents of Lincoln's pockets on the night he was assassinated.

DAVIES: Wow. Wow.

WATERSTON: Like a window into the guy. It was just amazing what they did.

DAVIES: What was there? What did it make you feel?

WATERSTON: Well, it feels like an electric current is being shot through your body. It's absolutely galvanizing. And what was there was a little wallet. And in the wallet was a little - if I remember correctly, it was, like, an octagonal coin purse or something, you know, that opened up, made out of leather. And I believe it was in it that there was an editorial from a Southern paper - I think it was from Richmond - very critical of Lincoln. There was, like, a watch fob with a golden L - it was onyx or black anyway, and it had a golden L on it. And there were some fold-up reading glasses with a little dedication on one of the arms that were a gift from Billy Herndon, his old law partner. And now it's all sealed up somewhere in a display case.

DAVIES: So can you say what the experience did for your performance?

WATERSTON: I think it just rooted it. I think it just made it feel deeply connected to - real. I don't know if it made it any better, but it certainly made me feel connected.

DAVIES: Yeah. Yeah. You often play men of integrity and wisdom and experience. And in the new Hulu series "The Dropout," which is about Elizabeth Holmes, whose, you know, blood testing company, Theranos, collapsed in fraud charges, you play former Secretary of State George Shultz, who was somebody who Elizabeth Holmes convinced to support her. And he did so to some effect, I guess. That was interesting. That's a case of someone with a lot of wisdom kind of being taken in. I'm wondering how you approached that character, that performance.

WATERSTON: Well, thanks for the compliment about the parts that I've played.

DAVIES: (Laughter).

WATERSTON: You know, let's take George Schultz as a cautionary tale about how one should take those kinds of compliments. Because - or even just how one should think about oneself, because we are all - you know, what fools we mortals be applies to each and every one of us. And, you know, we're really in terrible danger when we forget it. And I think that's what happened to George Schultz. I don't think he was any less capable, competent or wise, but he was taken in about the Theranos investment. But we're all terribly vulnerable. We need to take ourselves with major grains of salt.

DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you again. We are speaking with Sam Waterston. We will continue our conversation in just a moment. We will be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And our guest today is Sam Waterston. He appears in the revival of the NBC series "Law & Order" and in the Netflix series "Grace And Frankie," which wraps up its final season this spring. He's also in the new Hulu series "The Dropout" about Elizabeth Holmes. He plays former Secretary of State George Shultz.

You know, I have to talk to you about "The Killing Fields," the film that you starred in in 1984 and for which you were nominated for a best actor Academy Award. It's a really powerful film, and it's about the war in Cambodia in the 1970s. I might just need to give a bit of a history lesson because there's a whole generation of listeners who don't remember any of this. But in the 1970s, near the end of the Vietnam War, as the fighting spilled over the border into Cambodia, there was very heavy American bombing in eastern Cambodia. And this insurgent movement called the Khmer Rouge gained power in 1975 as the Americans left. And they overthrew the government and began a radical purge of anybody associated with the West, with Western influences or against - and also targeted intellectuals. People were driven from cities into forced labor camps, and there are estimates of between 1 and 3 million Cambodians who may have died from starvation or execution.

In this film, "The Killing Fields," you played New York Times correspondent Sydney Schanberg, and the film is about the events at the end of the war when the Americans were about to leave, the Khmer Rouge was about to take over. And it's about Schanberg's relationship with his Cambodian friend and interpreter Dith Pran, who was left behind when the takeover occurred. It's a very powerful film. I have to imagine this had to be one of your more memorable experiences as an actor.

WATERSTON: Yeah. It was life changing. Thank you for talking about. I don't - it doesn't get talked about and Cambodia doesn't get talked about very much these days. Yeah. It led me to be involved with Refugees International for 25 years, a quarter of a century. It changed my life in very big ways.

DAVIES: You know, there's a moral question at the heart of the story about how this journalist who you play treated his Cambodian partner when the Cambodian government was collapsing, the American troops were going to be leaving, the American embassy was packing up. And it was clear these insurgents and the Khmer Rouge were about to take over. You want to explain what happened and why it created a moral dilemma for Sydney Schanberg?

WATERSTON: Sydney Schanberg, as a journalist, wanted to be there to report on what the takeover was like. That was risky business. Everybody knew it. Journalists had gone out to report on the Khmer Rouge when they were outside the city and had not come back or come back dead. But Sydney wanted to stay, and there was absolutely no way that he would have been able to function without Dith Pran. So was it moral of him to put this Cambodian in harm's way that way? After the movie was made and Pran was on tour and promoting the film as it was coming out, people would ask him how he processed that. And one of his answers was that he was a journalist himself. And he made his own choice.

DAVIES: And we should note that Schanberg did get Dith Pran's family taken out with the last of the Americans. And the question was, would he be - stay behind and take the risk? He suffered terribly in a labor camp and remarkably managed to make his way out of the country four years later and survived the experience. What's fascinating about this is - about making the film is that your co-star who played Dith Pran, this friend and translator, was a Cambodian himself who was not a professional actor, Dr. Haing Ngor, who had himself experienced the horror of the Khmer Rouge regime. I'm just wondering what it was like working with him. That just must have been a powerful, emotional experience.

WATERSTON: Haing Ngor was an extraordinary man, first of all, a very beautiful, really extraordinary man, full of heart. Roland Joffe did a very smart thing. He - first of all, he sent Julian Sands and John Malkovich and I...

DAVIES: We should just note, Roland Joffe is the director of the film.

WATERSTON: Yeah, exactly. And he sent the three of us and Haing up north to spend a weekend and Haing told us the story of his experience in Khmer Rouge time, which was harrowing. And it made it very personal. And there was no no atmosphere of the movie around it. It was just four people together in a hotel in some remote part of Thailand talking. And that had an enormous impact, I think, on all of us and on the movie. And then he sent Haing and I out into Bangkok to do reports on this, that and the other thing, just so that I could feel what it was like to be totally - because I don't speak Thai and I don't speak Chinese. I don't speak any of the languages, except English, that are spoken in Thailand. And I was completely dependent on him for everything - how to get around town, how to ask people questions for the, quote-unquote, "story" we were working on, all of that stuff. So he gave us the opportunity to bond in a way that was similar to what Sydney and Pran had, absent the bombs.

DAVIES: I thought we'd listen to one scene. This is after your character, Sydney Schanberg, has left Cambodia and is back in New York where he is, you know, a celebrated journalist for his reporting, won the Pulitzer Prize, while his friend and interpreter, Dith Pran, is back in Cambodia, where the regime is committing all these awful atrocities. And Schanberg is unable to help him or even know if he's alive, can't contact him. The scene we're going to hear is where Schanberg has won a big journalists award, and he's in the men's room after the ceremony. And he runs into a photographer who had been there in Cambodia - he's played by John Malkovich - who blames Sydney for letting Pran stay behind, which led to his capture by the Khmer Rouge. Let's listen.


WATERSTON: (As Sydney Schanberg) What?

JOHN MALKOVICH: (As Al Rockoff) It bothers me that you let Pran stay in Cambodia because you wanted to win that [expletive] award and you knew that you needed him...

WATERSTON: (As Sydney Schanberg) I didn't have any idea what [expletive]. I did everything I could, and I'm doing everything I can.

MALKOVICH: (As Al Rockoff) Yeah. Well, anyway, it's nice to see you. I'm on my way to Florida.

WATERSTON: (As Sydney Schanberg) I'm telling you, I'm doing everything I can.

MALKOVICH: (As Al Rockoff) Yeah, I'm sure you are. I didn't realize you've been out there to see him.

WATERSTON: (As Sydney Schanberg) Don't play games with me, Al. Don't play stupid games. Nobody gets to go in there. If I thought I could, I would. I've sent out hundreds of photographs. Every relief organization on the Thai-Kampuchean border has got his picture. If I saw one glimmer of hope, I'd go. I'd go today. Can't just get on a damn plane and make the whole world come out right. And I can't believe I'm hearing this from you.

DAVIES: And that is our guest, Sam Waterston, in "The Killing Fields" - a performance that got him an Academy Award nomination for best actor. We should say that, eventually, Dith Pran survives his horrific experience, and they are reunited after four years.

WATERSTON: And he came out to work for The New York Times.

DAVIES: That's right. In fact, he - I would see his byline as a photographer and on stories here after that, at that. He appeared on FRESH AIR actually - Dith Pran did. You know, the scenes of war in this film are so compelling. I mean, when you - your character and Pran arrive, for example, at the remains of a village that had been bombed by the United States, it is absolutely horrific and really realistic-looking. I'm just wondering what it was like to be in that world and - shot in Thailand, I guess, right?

WATERSTON: Yeah. Well, there were Cambodians working on the movie, not just Haing. There were other Cambodians in the cast. And they dressed a street on the outskirts of Bangkok somewhere - I don't even know exactly where - to look like downtown Phnom Penh. And when we got out of our vans - coming from our hotels and all that stuff - and walked down these streets in Bangkok and then walked around a corner and - it was like we were in Phnom Penh. It looked like all the photographs. The Cambodians, to a person, burst into tears. It felt as close as make-believe gets to real.

DAVIES: Did the film change your career at all? I mean, it's pretty cool to get a Academy Award nomination.

WATERSTON: It is wonderful to be honored by the Academy. No matter what you think you think, it's a great thing. And I remain very, very proud of that movie. I think it's a wonderful movie, a really fabulous anti-war movie. And given what we're looking at in the world today - you know, the thing that made David Puttnam want to make this movie was that he found a story that told about war from the point of view of the victims instead of the combatants. And that was the central reason that he wanted to make this movie.

And again, that's what we're looking at today, and there is - there isn't really any other way that we ought to be looking at this. It is the people who are - who suffer the war. They are the people that deserve our attention and our sympathy and our response.

DAVIES: Sam Waterston, it's been fun. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

WATERSTON: Oh, you're so welcome. Thank you for having me.

DAVIES: Sam Waterston appears in the revival of the NBC series "Law And Order" and in the Netflix series "Grace And Frankie," which is wrapping up its final season this spring - also in the new Hulu series "The Dropout" about Elizabeth Holmes and the blood-testing company Theranos.


DAVIES: Coming up, David Bianculli reviews "Julia," the new HBO Max series about Julia Child. This is FRESH AIR.


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