The young gun behind Law & Order's loose cannon

By Ken Tucker
November 12, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

Jesse L. Martin is strolling past a bowling alley on Manhattan’s midtown West Side when two young men look at him, do an in-synch double take, and one begins to shout excitedly, ”Hey, you’re my man! My Ally McBeal man! My Law & Order man!”

”Hey, man,” says the other fellow, pulling a scrap of paper out of his pocket, ”I know you have a life, I’m sorry to interrupt you, but you gotta sign an autograph for my girlfriend.” Martin, pulling out a pen, smiles and signs, ”Thanks for noticing: Jesse L. Martin.”

A lot of people are noticing Martin these days. The 10th-season premiere of Law & Order was its highest rated ever, so millions were introduced to Martin’s Ed Green, a deceptively serene police detective with a few more quirks and problems than Benjamin Bratt’s by-the-book cop had. ”Ed Green is not a predictable guy,” says Martin. ”There’s not a lot about him that I know, and as [L&O creator-producer] Dick Wolf says, you only get eyedroppers-ful of these people’s lives as the series proceeds.”

Wolf himself observes of Martin’s character, ”This guy is something of a hothead…. And he doesn’t perceive himself as having a gambling problem, but that might be open to debate.”

Before scoring his new L&O gig, Martin had auditioned for the show numerous times. ”It’s like the New York actor thing to do—this is the show everyone wants to guest on. The only time I got offered a role was as a car-radio thief named the Hamster. I needed the money and the job, but I turned down the role because it was so small and I wanted to hold out for something bigger—which didn’t come along for a while.”

Though Martin couldn’t get arrested on L&O, he was wanted elsewhere. He costarred in the original cast of Rent and landed a recurring role on Ally McBeal as Dr. Greg Butters, the string-bean lawyer’s meltable love interest. ”Then I heard through the grapevine that Ben Bratt was leaving. I called my agent, got an interview with Dick Wolf, and basically begged him for the role, said I’d read with anyone, do anything.”

Martin was based in L.A. at the time. While earning his keep on Ally, he also appeared last season in a memorable episode of The X-Files — written and directed by David Duchovny — in which he starred as an alien-turned-Negro Baseball League star. ”I’d just received development-deal offers from two networks — CBS and Fox — and they would have left me sitting around in L.A., which I don’t really enjoy as a place to live. Those offers helped, though, because they spurred Dick to make up his mind about me more quickly.”

Born in Rocky Mount, Va. — ”nestled deep in the Blue Ridge Mountains; I was a country boy who had to lose his accent to make it on the New York stage” — the 30-year-old Martin is the son of a truck-driver father and a retired college-career-counselor mother. His parents divorced when he was young, and Martin moved with his mother to Buffalo where ”I was subjected to forced busing. In the fourth grade, I had a teacher who asked me to be in a play, The Golden Goose. I was the pastor, which I associated with a brimstone-and-fire, Southern Baptist sort of preacher, so that’s the way I played it. None of the white kids there had ever seen anything like that, and everyone was impressed, thought it was very funny. I got so much positive feedback, I knew I was on my way to being a performer.”

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