|In a controversial TV season marked by NAACP protests over the dearth of minority roles, Jesse L. Martin stands out. The new star of NBC's flourishing 10-year-old drama Law & Order (Wednesday, 10 p.m. ET) has become one of TV's highest-profile African Americans. "Jesse is the kind of actor an audience appreciates for who he is, not what he is -- not his color," says Law & Order creator Dick Wolf. Wolf, who has walked in public with great-looking actors from Don Johnson to Benjamin Bratt (whom Martin replaced on Law & Order), says, "This will probably embarrass Jesse, but I've never seen the young female demographic respond to anybody like they respond to him. It's unbelievable. Talk about a rainbow coalition of female admirers! And he's very charming with fans, very responsive." |
Martin, 31 and single, notices his growing appeal -- "I get approached by many different kinds of women" -- but he still sees himself as a timid boy from Buffalo. The son of a truck-driver dad and career-counselor mom, he moved there at age 7 from a small town in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains. "It was really difficult at first. I was a shy kid with a thick accent. I was afraid to speak. There was forced busing in Buffalo, and people were vehemently opposed to it. It was scary as a kid to go into a community that didn't want you there. And they were very vocal about it."
Despite the rough start, he developed meaningful relationships with white classmates and teachers, who saw his talent for singing, dancing and acting and recommended him for a performing-arts high school. He got his first big television break thanks to Michelle Pfeiffer, who saw him on Broadway in Rent and alerted her husband, Ally McBeal creator David E. Kelly. That led to his recurring role as Ally's love interest, which led to a turn as a baseball-playing alien on The X-Files -- and then to his part as a police detective on Law & Order.
In this role, Martin's race is incidental. He likes that. He thinks the show keeps getting more popular because it is story-driven -- the police and court cases are the focal points -- not character-driven. "The stories are so compelling. That's more important than who's in the cast."
Martin says he may someday return to Ally McBeal in guest spots. He'd enjoy re-exploring the interracial romance on that show. So far, race has never been mentioned as an issue between the characters. Critics called that unrealistic, but Martin found it refreshingly progressive. "We really enjoyed working without that weight," he says. "It's silly to assume that problems are inherent in mixed relationships."
Martin is heartened that many kids today take his perspective for granted. "Race doesn't really matter much to a lot of kids these days. They see a person, not a color. When they grow up, just think of the possibilities."
Not just an actor -- he's a song-and-dance man, too:
Martin was first noticed in Rent on Broadway. "He has an incredible voice and he's an incredible dancer, but he's not going to sing on Law & Order," says show creator Dick Wolf. "It's not The Gene Autry Show."
Martin may never perform as a crooning cop, but he vows America will hear him sing. His longtime dream is to star in a film biography of the late singer Marvin Gaye. His manager is "pursuing it like crazy."
What's in Martin's CD changer? "Beck, Macy Gray, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder and a heavy rotation of Marvin Gaye."