Emmy, Golden Globe and NAACP Image award-winning actress S. Epatha Merkerson is passionate about a few things.
Acting is one of them.
Advocating for people afflicted with Type 2 diabetes is another.
And also her belief in the value of education and extracurricular activities in keeping kids away from violence.
Best known for her 17-year run as Lt. Anita Van Buren on TV’s longest-running crime drama, “Law & Order,” Merkerson moved to Chicago three years ago for a role on “Chicago Med,” one of NBC’s Chicago-centric drama series.
“I was doing August Wilson’s ‘The Piano Lesson’ on Broadway, and a producer of ‘Law & Order’ was there,” said the actress, who now lives on the Gold Coast, recalling how she met “Law & Order” franchise creator Dick Wolf.
“I got an opportunity to audition for a part in the very first season. The character wasn’t Van Buren, but it connected me with Dick Wolf, and he has completely changed my life,” she said.
Wolf is behind “Chicago Med,” “Chicago Fire” and “Chicago P.D.”
“The great thing about working with Dick is that he really knows exactly what he’s looking for. And he’s very loyal, which you don’t always hear about in the business that I’m in,” she said. “He doesn’t suffer fools, but he’s a great person to work for.”
Merkerson, 64, acclaimed for her work in theater, film and TV for over 40 years, plays hospital administrator Sharon Goodwin, head of “Chicago Med,” and buffer between bureaucrats and doctors. The show enters its third season this fall.
Besides acting roles, Merkerson’s also known for her work as spokesperson for America’s Diabetes Challenge, an educational project of the American Diabetes Association and Merck pharmaceuticals to help people with Type 2 diabetes manage the disease.
The seventh leading cause of death in 2015, diabetes affects more than 30 million Americans, Merkerson one of them.
“When I turned 50, I was asked to participate in a health convention as the ‘celebrity.’ They asked to take my blood sugar. The doctor comes up to me afterward and says, ‘Would you come back?’ I’m like, ‘Sure!’ Thinking he wanted a photograph or autograph. He says, ‘Your blood sugar’s extremely high.’ That’s how I was diagnosed,” Merkerson said.
Merkerson was shocked that she hadn’t recognized symptoms of a disease that runs in her family.
“Grandma has a touch of sugar. That’s how we talked about it,” she said. “We didn’t discuss diet. We didn’t discuss exercise. My grandmother lost her sight from complications of diabetes, my father died from it, my uncle had multiple amputations, but there was never a dialogue.”
After a yearslong battle to get her own blood sugar under control through monitoring, diet and exercise, Merkerson feels a calling. “Being able to go around the country and talk about it, I’m amazed at how many people have gone through what I’ve gone through. They’ve seen me gain weight and lose weight and gain weight on television. So they know my struggle.”
At the end of last season, Merkerson asked “Chicago Med” writers to have art meet life. Her character revealed she has diabetes to help a patient.
“Television at its best entertains and educates,” she said. “It’s one of the things I love about working on Dick Wolf’s shows. If using me will help someone at home say, ‘Oh!’ Then use me up.”
Chicago has grown on the Detroit native and New York transplant.
“Everything I do in New York, I can do in Chicago. The food is extraordinary, and I’ve really gotten into the music scene. The difference is it’s not as dense, so you can experience it differently,” Merkerson said. “Chicago now for me means a lot of things, because it’s a place where I’ve learned to really take care of myself. Maybe I just needed a change of scenery.”
There is one thing, however, that troubles her in the city she now calls home.
“The violence has been quite an eye-opener for me. When you’re removed from it, it doesn’t impact you as much. It’s been the one thing about Chicago I’ve found out since I’ve been here. It’s hurtful, because we’re losing all these youth,” Merkerson said.
“But it is a cry for help. In my heart, I believe education is always the key, and after-school activities. I grew up in a single-parent home, the last of five children, watching my mother struggle. But there was always a sense coming from her, that the more we were educated, the better we would have it in the world. Even if it’s just how we think of ourselves in the world — that we belong here, that we have something to offer. It’s important for this city, every city, to find ways to bring quality education to children; because with education, you have dreams.”