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Off the cuff, from the heart

Times Staff Writer

With her acceptance speech still stuck in her bodice, S. Epatha Merkerson was clearly the standout star in a huge tent brimming over with celebrities Sunday night. Friends and well-wishers crowded around her table at HBO’s post-Emmy celebration to tell her they loved her in “Lackawanna Blues” -- or that they just plain love her.

Earlier, Merkerson had contributed the most endearing acceptance speech of the evening when she arrived on stage to accept her trophy for best actress in a miniseries or movie and admitted losing her notes down the front of her gown.

“When I saw her struggling with that note, I was about to go up there and try and get it out,” joked Jimmy Smits, one of her costars in “Lackawanna Blues.” Merkerson beamed and gave him a bearhug.

“When my name was read there was a lot of movement,” Merkerson said. “And when I tried to get the paper it dropped down below. It’s still there now; I can’t reach it, my bodice is too tight. I can laugh about it ... Sooner or later you just have to know how to laugh at yourself.”

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Earlier that evening, Merkerson had told the press corps backstage that she wished she had put the notes in her purse because she wanted to remember everyone who had helped her. “To me, the names of the people who have been supportive are very important.” Clutching her statuette against her chest, she added, “This is the gravy for all the hard work.”

At 52, Merkerson has built a substantial career as a working actor in theater, film and television, notably as the articulate, no-nonsense Lt. Anita Van Buren on “Law & Order” since 1993.

She delivered a richer performance as Nanny, the tough, maternal presence in HBO’s “Lackawanna Blues.” Her character runs a boardinghouse post-WWII and copes with an unfaithful husband while nurturing the recovering addicts, ex-convicts and eccentrics boarding with her as they look for a new start in life.

For Merkerson, being recognized for a single performance is wonderful but has to rank among many career highlights, including working with Ossie Davis, a leader in the African American acting community who died in February. "[Winning an Emmy] can’t top that.”

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But it is different. When Merkerson finally got up to leave the party attended by the likes of Geoffrey Rush, Bill Maher, Matthew Fox and Quentin Tarantino, Merkerson stood on a chair and threw her hands in the air. Everybody in her vicinity raised their arms also, and cheered.

Times staff writer Steven Barrie-Anthony contributed to this report.


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