S. Epatha Merkerson
Merkerson in 2017
S. Epatha Merkerson

(1952-11-28) November 28, 1952 (age 69)
Saginaw, Michigan
Alma materWayne State University (BFA)
Years active1976–present

S. Epatha Merkerson (/iˈpθə/; born November 28, 1952),[1][2] is a [3] film, stage, and television actress. She has received numerous high-profile accolades for her work, including an Emmy Award, a Golden Globe Award, a Screen Actors Guild Award, four NAACP Image Awards, two Obie Awards and two Tony Award nominations. She is best known for her award-winning portrayal of Lieutenant Anita Van Buren on the NBC police procedural drama series Law & Order, a role she played from 1993 to 2010, appearing in 388 episodes of the series.[4][5] She is also known for playing Reba the Mail Lady on Pee-wee's Playhouse and Sharon Goodwin in the NBC medical drama Chicago Med since the series premiered in November 2015 (and in crossover appearances on Chicago Fire and Chicago P.D.)

Early life

Merkerson was born in Saginaw, Michigan but raised in Detroit .[6][7][8] She is the last of five children (Linda Merkerson, Debbie Merkerson-Gooch, Barrie Merkerson, and Zephry Merkerson) raised by their mother, Ann, who worked for the post office.[6]

During a segment on the January 31, 2012, episode of The Wendy Williams Show, when asked about the origin of her name, Merkerson said that "Epatha" was the name of "a grade-school teacher who was influential in keeping her father in school".[4] Merkerson graduated from Cooley High School in 1970 and earned her Bachelor of Fine Arts in theatre at Wayne State University in 1976.[8][7] She was made an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters by Wayne State University in May 2009[9] and received the same distinction from the University of Maryland Eastern Shore in 2012, from Montclair State University in 2013, and from the University of Pittsburgh in 2017.


In 1978 moved to New York City.[8]

Merkerson made her television debut as Reba the Mail Lady on Pee-wee's Playhouse. Merkerson has also appeared on The Cosby Show, among other series.[9]

She first appeared in the NBC police procedural drama Law & Order in "Mushrooms" (Season 1: Episode 17) as the grief-stricken mother of an 11-month-old boy who is shot accidentally. Her performance impressed the producers enough to select Merkerson to replace Dann Florek as detective squad chief in the series' fourth season, making her one of the few actors to secure a recurring role after an initial single appearance on the show.

Merkerson's career began to rise after she assumed the lead role in the one-woman play Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill. That was followed by her performance as Berniece in August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize–winning play The Piano Lesson. For that, she was nominated for a Tony Award as Best Featured Actress in a Play. Merkerson has also won 2 Obie Awards for her work in I'm Not Stupid and Birdie Blue, a Helen Hayes Award for The Old Settler and a Lucille Lortel nomination for F**king A by Suzan Lori Parks.[9] Her screen credits include Jacob's Ladder, Loose Cannons, She's Gotta Have It, James Cameron's Terminator 2: Judgment Day; and Navy Seals. In 2006, she won a Golden Globe Award, an Emmy Award and a Screen Actors Guild award for her performance in the HBO film Lackawanna Blues. In 2007, she starred as Lola Delaney in the Los Angeles stage production of William Inge's Come Back, Little Sheba. In January 2008 the production opened a successful run on Broadway and earned Merkerson her second Tony nomination.

On April 1, 2010, it was confirmed that after 17 seasons, Merkerson would leave Law & Order at the end of the show's twentieth season.[5] Her departure from Law & Order, which aired on May 24, 2010, was also the show's final episode. In total, Merkerson appeared on the series for 17 consecutive seasons—395 episodes—which was more than any other actor associated with the program.[10]

In 2012, Merkerson became the host of Find Our Missing, a reality-reenactment series on TV One which profiles missing people of color.[11] She performed in Steven Spielberg's 2012 film Lincoln as Lydia Hamilton Smith, housekeeper to Tommy Lee Jones's character, Congressman Thaddeus Stevens.

In 2014, Merkerson appeared in the Primary Stages production of While I Yet Live, written by Billy Porter. In 2015, she joined the cast of NBC medical drama Chicago Med as Sharon Goodwin, Chief of Patient and Medical Services. The series was conceived and written by Law & Order creator Dick Wolf, along with Matt Olmstead, Derek Haas and Michael Brandt.[12] 2014, Merkerson became a spokesperson for Merck America's Diabetes Challenge, to increase Type 2 diabetes awareness among African Americans.

Personal life

Merkerson appeared on the television series of Henry Louis Gates' Finding Your Roots on February 5, 2019 (Season 5, Episode 5), in which he revealed that she was a descendant of Isaac Hawkins and eight others of the 272 enslaved people who were sold in the 1838 Jesuit slave sale by Jesuit priests. These priests owned plantations on which the enslaved people tilled tobacco; proceeds from the sale were used to pay off the debts of the Jesuit-operated Georgetown College (now Georgetown University). [13][8]



Year Title Role Notes
1986 She's Gotta Have It Dr. Jamison
1990 Loose Cannons Officer Rachel
1990 Jacob's Ladder Elsa
1990 Navy Seals Jolena 'Jo'
1991 Terminator 2: Judgment Day Tarissa Dyson
1999 Random Hearts Nea
2001 The Rising Place Lessie Watson
2003 Radio Maggie
2004 Jersey Girl Doctor
2006 Black Snake Moan Angela
2007 Slipstream Bonnie
2009 The Six Wives of Henry Lefay Effa
2009 Mother and Child Ada
2012 Find Our Missing Herself
2012 Lincoln Lydia Smith
2013 Tyler Perry Presents Peeples Daphne Peeples
2015 The Challenger Jada Miller
2016 Year by the Sea Liz


Year Title Role Notes
1986–1989 Pee-wee's Playhouse Reba, The Mail Lady 16 episodes
1988 The Cosby Show Book Club Member #5 Episode: "Bookworm"
1989 CBS Summer Playhouse Jimmie Episode: "Elysian Fields"
1990 Equal Justice Mrs. Walters Episode: "Pilot"
1991 Law & Order Denise Winters Episode: "Mushrooms"
1992 Mann & Machine Captain Margaret Claghorn 9 episodes
1992–1993 Here and Now Ms. St. Marth 12 episodes
1993–2010 Law & Order Lieutenant Anita Van Buren 388 episodes
NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series (2006, 2010–11)
Nominated—NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Actress in a Drama Series (1997–99, 2001)
Nominated—NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series (2007–09)
Nominated—Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Drama Series (1997–2002, 2004)
1994 A Place for Annie Alice Television movie
1995 A Mother's Prayer Ruby Television movie
1998 Exiled Lieutenant Anita Van Buren Television movie
2000 Frasier Dr. McCaskill Episode: "Dark Side of the Moon"
2001 Art:21 Herself Episode: "Spirituality"
2001 A Girl Thing Lani Television movie
2002 Law & Order: Criminal Intent Lieutenant Anita Van Buren Episode: "Badge"
2005 Law & Order: Trial by Jury Lieutenant Anita Van Buren Episode: "Skeleton"
2005 Lackawanna Blues Rachel 'Nanny' Crosby Television movie
Golden Globe Award for Best Actress – Miniseries or Television Film
Gracie Allen Award for Outstanding Female Lead in a Miniseries
NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Actress in a Television Movie, Mini-Series or Dramatic Special
Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or a Movie
Prism Award for Performance in a Television Movie or Miniseries
Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Miniseries or Television Movie
Nominated—Independent Spirit Award for Best Female Lead
Nominated—Satellite Award for Best Actress – Miniseries or Television Film
2007 The Closer Dr. Rebecca Dioli 3 episodes
2007 Girl, Positive Ariel Winters Television movie
Nominated—NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Actress in a Television Movie, Mini-Series or Dramatic Special
2012 Drop Dead Diva Judge Hiller Episode: "Lady Parts"
2013 The Good Wife Judge Melanie Ellis Episode: "Going for the Gold"
2013 Deception Beverly 3 episodes
2014 The Gabby Douglas Story Miss Caroline Television movie
2015 Being Mary Jane Mark's Mother Episode: "Freedom"
2015–Present Chicago Fire Sharon Goodwin 5 episodes
Chicago Med Main
2016–Present Chicago P.D. 5 episodes

Awards and nominations



  1. ^ "S. Epatha Merkerson in 'Come Back, Little Sheba'". The Leonard Lopate Show. New York City: WNYC. February 22, 2008. Archived from the original on February 25, 2008. Retrieved February 23, 2008.
  2. ^ S. Epatha Merkerson Interview Part 1 of 4 - EMMYTVLEGENDS.ORG, retrieved February 13, 2022
  3. ^ Office
  4. ^ a b "Interview with S. Epatha Merkerson". The Wendy Williams Show. Archived from the original on February 26, 2012. Retrieved January 31, 2012.
  5. ^ a b "Exclusive: S. Epatha Merkerson exits 'Law & Order'". Entertainment Weekly. Archived from the original on April 4, 2010. Retrieved November 20, 2019.
  6. ^ a b Fletcher, Sharon Melson. "S. Epatha Merkerson". Contemporary Black Biography. Gale. Retrieved September 14, 2018.
  7. ^ a b "S. Epatha Merkerson". TV Guide. Retrieved September 14, 2018.
  8. ^ a b c d "S. Epatha Merkerson". Biography.com. A&E Networks. Retrieved September 14, 2018.
  9. ^ a b c Merkerson, S. Epatha. "Interview". Inside the Actors Studio (Interview).
  10. ^ "Closing the Case With Law & Order's S. Epatha Merkerson" tv.com, Retrieved January 31, 2012
  11. ^ Labbé-DeBose, Theola (January 18, 2012). "TV One's 'Find Our Missing' highlight African Americans who vanished". The Washington Post. Retrieved May 28, 2012.
  12. ^ Andreeva, Nellie. "Laurie Holden Cast In NBC's 'Chicago Med'". Deadline.com. Retrieved March 11, 2015.
  13. ^ "PBS' Finding Your Roots Shares History of the GU272". Georgetown Voice. February 15, 2019.