|Jesse L Martin knows how to melt hearts, and he's had plenty of practice. He did it as Dr. Greg Butters on Ally McBeal, when he courted Ally with a birthday serenade. He did it as Tom Collins in the Broadway production of "Rent," when he sang passionately to his lover, who had just died of AIDS. |
Now he's at it again on the streets of New York—where he's greeting a complete stranger (this TV guide reporter) with a heartfelt hug before sitting down to lunch at a cozy tearoom in Tribeca.In fact, his charm is practically a liability: When Dick Wolf, executive producer of NBC's Law & Order (Wednesdays, 10 P.M./ET), was fashioning the role of Detective Ed Green for Martin, he had to go out of his way to throw in a few flaws—like a yen for gambling and a tendency toward aggressive police work—to make him credible as a New York City cop.
But Martin hardly minds toughening up his image—not if it means a regular role on a series he has always respected. "For New York actors, it's been the show to watch. If you got to guest-star, you were the bee's knees," Martin says. The minute he heard a rumor that Benjamin Bratt wanted to leave the show, "I was gunning for it," he says. Wolf claims Martin was always "on a very short list of one" due to his rare combination of "credibility and likability" and his "immense appeal" for both men and women. "That may be true," says Martin, "but he made me sweat it just a little bit." Wolf, who heard that other networks were offering Martin development deals, offered him the job without an audition.
The gamble paid off: This season the ratings are up almost 40 percent. "I don't think you can credit it to any one cast member," says Wolf. "But there's clearly no sense of disappointment in the switch." Wolf adds that when a character is replaced, he's usually deluged with letters saying, “I’ll never watch the show again." No one, he says, has objected to Martin's arrival. Except maybe viewers who wanted Ally to become Mrs. McBeal-Butters. "I don't know if there was any plan to keep me as a regular character, and I couldn't even see how it would work," Martin says. "If you know anything about Ally, it's that she can never keep a man." Also, Martin refuses to put down roots in Los Angeles; when he has worked there, he's stayed with a college buddy, Shawn Michael Howard (now a voice on The PJs).
He may be a dedicated New Yorker today, but Martin, 30, still has traces of the accent he picked up in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains, where he was born to Virginia Price, now a retired college career counselor, and Jesse Reed Watkins, a truck driver. His parents divorced when he was young, and his mother moved the family to Buffalo, New York. (Martin—whose family calls him by his middle name, Lamont—and his four brothers took the surname of their mother's second husband, who passed away two years ago.)
The move wasn't easy. On top of being the shy new kid, Martin was part of a forced busing program that brought students from his neighborhood into another district. "It was terrifying. A lot of people were very, very opposed to it," he recalls. "There were protesters and signs with unmentionable words blazoned across." It wasn't until a fourth-grade teacher cast him as a pastor in a play that he felt accepted.
"It was the first time I felt any kind of overwhelming love, and I was like, 'Wow!' "he recalls.
After high school, Martin worked his way through New York university mostly at restaurants. Then came the starving-artist years with small roles on soap operas and commercials. He finally achieved some measure of stability in the mid-'90s, with his breakthrough role in "Rent" and a part on Fox's short-lived 413 Hope St. Producer David E. Kelley spotted him onstage and hired him for the role on Ally McBeal.
Martin's romantic life has been less of a success story—"I'm actually trying to see somebody now, but it's proving to be impossible," he says—due to his busy schedule. All he'll say is that the object of his affection is a New York actress Howard recently introduced him to.
So for now, both on-screen and off-, Martin is channeling his passion into his career. While Martin says he has made "real good pals" with costar Jerry Orbach, their characters, Detectives Green and Briscoe, will soon "get into it." (And incidentally, Martin recently made the papers by getting into a small squabble with Rosie O'Donnell, who confronted him on her talk show about the grim new series Law & Order: Special Victims Unit [NBC, Mondays, 9 P.M./ET]. "It wasn't a big deal, and she knew I wasn't offended," Martin says. "I think the show's great, but I agree with Dick Wolf that it's inappropriate for the time slot.")
What seems clear is that Martin's gift for empathizing won't go to waste on the beat. "You just have to pick and choose when you can infuse these stories with emotion," he says. "I mean, I'm not the kind of actor that goes without it, you know what I mean?"
That's for sure: As he takes leave to walk the few blocks home to his apartment, Martin initiates another full-body hug. That's the kind of guy he is. Eat your heart out, ladies.