A handsome African-American actor, Jesse L. Martin broke through as part of the original cast of the seminal 1996 Broadway musical, "Rent," a late-1980s, NYC/HIV gloss on Puccini's classic opera "La Bohème." Martin's performance as Tom Collins, a gay professor and lover of the doomed drag queen Angel, led to a recurring role as Dr. Greg Butters, the seemingly perfect new boyfriend of "Ally McBeal" (Fox, 1997-2002). Showing an impressive off-screen savvy, Martin moved on to "Law & Order" (NBC, 1990-2010), where he was cast as Jerry Orbach's loose cannon new partner, detective Ed Green. He stayed with the show until 2008, taking a leave of absence to reprise his Broadway role in the film version of "Rent" (2005), as well as notching supporting roles in indie films like "The Cake Eaters" (2007) with Kristen Stewart and co-starring on the short-lived show "The Philanthropist" (NBC, 2009) and the hit musical series, "Smash" (NBC, 2012-13) before scoring his dream role in the long-gestating Marvin Gaye biopic, "Sexual Healing." Although he never truly broke out as an A-list star, Martin proved a reliably likable presence and a welcome addition to any ensemble.
Born Jan. 18, 1969 in Rocky Mount, VA, Jesse Lamont Watkins was the son of Virginia, a college counselor, and Jesse Reed Watkins, a truck driver. After his parents divorced, his mother moved the family to Buffalo, NY, and the children took their adopted father's last name. Martin became interested in acting when his fourth-grade teacher cast him in a play, and the subsequent performance helped him overcome his shyness. He graduated from The Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts and then attended NYU's Tisch School of the Arts theater program. Choosing to jump into acting rather than graduating, Martin appeared in multiple regional theatrical productions around the country before returning to Manhattan, where he waited tables and auditioned, booking brief jobs on "One Life to Live" (ABC, 1968-2012), "New York Undercover" (Fox, 1994-98) and "The X-Files" (Fox, 1993-2002), for which he was uncredited.
Success onstage came more quickly to the actor, and Martin debuted on Broadway in "Timon of Athens" in 1993 and earned a larger role opposite the legendary Lainie Kazan in "The Government Inspector" in 1994. Fate smiled on the struggling actor when he met a coworker at the Moondance Diner, Jonathan Larson, an aspiring playwright. The two became friends and Larson gave Martin the role of Tom Collins, a gay, HIV-positive philosophy professor and lover of a doomed drag queen, in 1996's smash hit musical "Rent." The AIDS-era, NYC art world reworking of Puccini's opera "La Bohème," the show became a cultural phenomenon, garnering millions of fans and earning a slew of awards, including four Tonys and the Pulitzer Prize. Martin and his castmates saw their entertainment industry stock rise accordingly, and he was cast as one of the stars of Damon Wayans's short-lived, inner-city drama "413 Hope St." (Fox, 1997-98).
Next up, Martin played a supporting role in the aspiring-actor indie "Restaurant" (1998), but his mainstream breakthrough came when he was cast as Dr. Greg Butters, the new boyfriend of Calista Flockhart's "Ally McBeal" (Fox, 1997-2002). His charming, Image Award-nominated turn helped raise his profile and allowed him to return to "The X-Files," this time in a credited role when David Duchovny cast the actor as a baseball-playing alien in an episode he wrote and directed called "The Unnatural." Martin proved his business acumen when he heard rumblings that Benjamin Bratt was leaving "Law & Order" (NBC, 1990-2010) and convinced producer Dick Wolf to bring him on board in 1999. The actor made a splash as detective Ed Green, an unconventional cop who became the partner of Lennie Brisco (Jerry Orbach). As the vegetarian, gambling-obsessed, Rolex-wearing Green, Martin appeared in episodes across the "Law & Order" universe's multiple series and earned seven Image Award nominations as well as four Screen Actors Guild nominations for ensemble acting.
Flexing his Broadway-honed chops with two musical numbers, Martin made a charismatic Ghost of Christmas Present in the Emmy-winning musical adaptation of "A Christmas Carol" (NBC, 2004), which also starred Kelsey Grammer, Jane Krakowski and Jason Alexander. He had the chance to star in another musical project when the film version of "Rent" finally became a reality in 2005. Featuring six of the original actors playing the roles they created, the movie lost much of the original's magic but many fans were glad to see them return. Martin reprised his role of Tom Collins with the blessing of "Law & Order," which gave him a leave of absence and sent his character off to recover from an in-the-line-of-duty shooting. Although the film did moderately well at the box office, reviews ranged from scathing to lukewarm. When he returned to "Law & Order," in tribute to his friend and co-star Jerry Orbach, who had died in 2004, Martin escorted his widow to the 2005 Tony Awards and performed Orbach's famous "Chicago" number, "Razzle Dazzle."
The actor went on to take a role in the Kristen Stewart indie drama "The Cake Eaters" (2007), directed by Mary Stuart Masterson, and narrated the Marvin Gaye episode of "American Masters" (PBS, 1986- ). His resemblance to the singer, as well as his publicly stated desire to play him, fueled reports that Martin was attached to star as Gaye in a big screen biopic, tentatively titled "Sexual Healing." Unfortunately for fans, the film languished in development hell while competing projects slowly overtook it. Martin left "Law & Order" in 2008 and made an appealing cameo as a postal worker in "A Muppet Christmas: Letters to Santa" (NBC, 2008). Martin resurfaced with a series role in "The Philanthropist" (NBC, 2009), in which James Purefoy played the titular billionaire who renounces capitalistic greed to help others with his endless financial resources. Although Martin offered strong support as Purefoy's co-CEO and best friend, viewers and critics felt less than charitable towards the show, and it disappeared quickly.
Returing to the indie world, Martin landed small roles in the romance "Peter and Vandy" (2009) and in the thriller "Buffalo Bushido" (2009), but neither project made much noise. Back on the stage, he performed for New York's Public Theater in productions of "A Winter's Tale" (2010) and "The Merchant of Venice" (2010), with the latter of which finding its way onto Broadway later that year. From there, he joined Dolly Parton and Queen Latifah in the musical comedy "A Joyful Noise" (2012), playing the estranged husband of Latifah's no-nonsense gospel singer. Meanwhile, he joined the ensemble cast of "Smash" (NBC, 2012-13) for its second season, where he played Scott Welker, the artistic director of the Manhattan Theatre Workshop. In early 2013, Martin made his dream news when it was announced that he would assume the role of Marvin Gaye from the departing Lenny Kravitz on the indie-financed biopic, "Sexual Healing," which was to be loosely based on the book Trouble Man: The Life and Death of Marvin Gaye (2000) by author Steve Turner.
Cast (Feature Film)
Moved with family to Buffalo, NY
Played recurring role on the CBS daytime drama "Guiding Light"
Broadway debut in the ensemble of the National Actors' Theater production of "Timon of Athens"; directed by Michael Langham
Reunited with Langham for the National Actors' Theater production of "The Inspector General"
Primetime TV debut on the Fox drama "New York Undercover"
Originated the role of Tom Collins in Jonathan Larson's award-winning musical "Rent"; show opened off-Broadway before later moving to Broadway
TV series debut as a regular in the short-lived Fox drama "413 Hope Street"
Played recurring role of Dr. Greg Butters, a love interest for Calista Flockhart's "Ally McBeal" (Fox)
Feature acting debut in the ensemble of "Restaurant"
Joined cast of the NBC drama series "Law & Order" as Detective Ed Green
Played a Negro League Baseball player on an episode of "The X-Files" (Fox), written and directed by David Duchovny
Reprised role of Tom Collins, the HIV-positive computer genius in Chris Columbus directed feature adaptation of "Rent"
Made a guest cameo as a postal worker in the TV movie "A Muppets Christmas: Letters to Santa" (NBC)
Performed for the Public Theater in New York's Central Park in the plays "Winter's Tale" and "The Merchant of Venice"
Returned to Broadway when the production of "The Merchant of Venice" transferred from Shakespeare in the Park
Featured alongside Dolly Parton and Queen Latifah in the musical comedy "Joyful Noise"