Born on Nov. 28, 1952 in Saginaw, MI, Merkerson was initially raised by her father, a factory worker, and her mother, Ann, a postal worker until her parents split when she was around five years old. Growing up in Detroit, she graduated Thomas M. Cooley High School before earning a bachelor of fine arts in theater from Wayne State University. Merkerson moved to New York City and gradually found a niche in off-Broadway productions and regional theater. A breakthrough came her way via the small screen with her charmingly relaxed and ordinary Reba the Mail Lady on the critically acclaimed children's show, "Pee-wee's Playhouse" (CBS, 1986-1990). Theater roles both musical and dramatic began to pick up as well, reaching a climax with her powerful work as Bernice in the Broadway production of August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, "The Piano Lesson" (1990-91), with Merkerson as one of a family of Depression-era African-Americans disputing the fate of a family heirloom. Her many nominations for the play included a Tony, a Drama Desk Award and the L.A. Theater Critics Award.
Merkerson began landing roles - albeit small ones - in major features, making her film debut in the comedy Loose Cannons (1990), before moving on to the psychological thriller Jacob's Ladder (1990) and essaying the screaming wife of Joe Morton in the blockbuster, Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). Back on the stage, Merkerson won an OBIE Award for a later New York stage appearance in "I'm Not Stupid" (1992), which helped open the door to her career-defining role on television. In 1993, Merkerson landed the role of Lieutenant Anita Van Buren on the mother of all procedurals, "Law & Order" (NBC, 1990-2010), a tough-minded homicide detective capable of salvaging investigations while paying a price for her hard-edged tactics. With numerous actors coming and going throughout the years, Merkerson remained a constant over the course of the show's nearly unprecedented 20-season run, with her character ultimately appearing in more episodes - 390 all told - than any other performer. Because of her raised profile, Merkerson landed more substantial parts on other projects, including the television movie "A Place for Annie" (1994), starring Sissy Spacek.
While continuing to guest star on television series, including episodes of "South Beach" (NBC, 1993) and "Fraiser" (NBC, 1993-2004), Merkerson maintained a steady presence in feature films and movies-of-the-week. After playing a caustic, but compassionate nurse caring for an HIV-positive mother and widow (Linda Hamilton) in "A Mother's Prayer" (USA, 1995), she appeared in "Breaking Through" (ABC, 1996), a heart-rending drama about an abused deaf girl (Kellie Martin) given a new lease on life, thanks to a dedicated abuse counselor (JoBeth Williams). In the drama "An Unexpected Life" (USA, 1998), the sequel to "An Unexpected Family" (USA, 1996), Merkerson added zest as a school principal from Harlem to an otherwise underwhelming film. That same year, she once reprised Lt. Van Buren for "Exiled: A Law and Order Movie" (NBC, 1996) before going back to features for a brief appearance in the psychological drama Random Hearts (1999), about two Washington, D.C. insiders (Harrison Ford and Kristen Scott Thomas) who discover after their spouses perished in a plane crash, that their late loves were having an affair.
In between reprising Lt. Van Buren on episodes of "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" (NBC, 2001- ) and "Law & Order: Trial By Jury" (NBC, 2005), Merkerson played the loving mother of a mentally disabled man (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) who is brought out of his loner existence by a small town football coach (Ed Harris) in the sentimental drama, Radio (2003). After playing a doctor in Kevin Smith's Jersey Girl (2004), Merkerson had arguably the biggest role of her career, playing Nanny, a vibrant woman who runs a lively boarding house in "Lackawanna Blues" (HBO, 2005). Nanny becomes the primary caregiver of a young boy, Rueben Jr. (Marcus Carl Franklin), who was left at the boarding house by his working mother. In her role, Merkerson emanated joy despite the hardships suffered by her character, giving the young boy hope that good will can come from misfortune. For her widely praised performance, Merkerson earned a Golden Globe and Emmy Award for Best Actress in a Miniseries or Television Movie. In her Emmy acceptance speech, Merkerson had the biggest laugh of an otherwise dull evening when she lost her list of people to thank down the front of her dress, where she put it for safe keeping.
Merkerson moved on to co-star in the controversial Tennessee-set Black Snake Moan (2007), a character-driven drama about Lazarus Woods (Samuel L. Jackson), a God-fearing ex-blues singer who tries to right a young sexually promiscuous girl (Christina Ricci) after finding her unconscious in a ditch. Following an episode of "The Closer" (TNT, 2005- ), Merkerson had a supporting role in the made-for-television drama "Girl, Positive" (Lifetime, 2007), which focused on a 17-year-old girl (Andrea Bowen) dealing with the potential of being HIV-positive after learning that her late boyfriend was infected. Meanwhile, she returned to the stage as the aging, disillusioned Lola of William Inge's "Come Back, Little Sheba" (2007), which earned Merkerson a Tony nomination for Best Actress in a Play. She next had a small part in the little-seen Tim Allen comedy "The Six Wives of Henry Lefay" (2008), before appearing in Mother and Child (2010), an ensemble drama about three women - a 50-year-old (Annette Bening), her 35-year-old daughter (Naomi Watts) she gave up for adoption at birth, and an young woman (Kerry Washington) longing for motherhood - whose lives are inexorably entwined.
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