John Waters is now part of the “recurring cast” of NBC’s Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, playing Floyd Cougat the “Pornmonger Man.”
Over on PBS, meanwhile, he learned this week from Henry Louis Gates Jr. on “Finding Your Roots” that one of his ancestors owned slaves, while another went to The Klondike in hopes of striking gold.
Waters, 74, made appearances on both hour-long shows this week, giving fans a chance to see him act on the crime drama and learn about his background from a Harvard professor on the PBS show ‘Finding Your Roots.’
The ‘recurring cast’ designation is akin to a contributing writer title for a magazine, recognizing a writer whose work appears more than once but who isn’t a full-time staff member. It’s also like a celebrity hosting Saturday Night Live more than once: Viewers never know when they might be back.
In the latest SVU episode, Waters was reprising his role from a show last March as a pornography website owner in New York. His change in status from a guest star to a recurring cast member is noted in a cast roster for the latest show. This time, he gets drawn into an attempted rape case involving one of his “cam girls.”
In the IMDb listing for the January 14 episode, Waters’ character is identified as “Pornmonger Man.” According to tvinsider.com, his character’s name is Floyd Cougat.
As one of the longest-running dramas on television, Law & Order: SVU has made a practice of using actors in recurring roles, especially judges and others in the criminal justice system. Another recurring actor in Waters’ January episode is Aida Turturro, playing Judge Felicia Catano.
This isn’t the first time Waters has appeared more than once on an NBC drama. He also appeared in two episodes of Homicide: Life on the Street that were filmed in Baltimore in the 1990s.
As for Waters’ appearance on PBS, he and actress Glenn Close were the stars who kicked off the seventh season of “Finding Your Roots,” the show where Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. helps “today’s most compelling personalities discover the surprising stories buried within their own families,” as the network puts it. The premiere episode was called, “To the Manor Born.”
Gates started by saying Waters’ immediate family isn’t nearly as strange as some of the characters in his movies, and Waters agreed.
“We were upper-middle class,” he said. “My father started his own business. I lived in a functional family.”
Gates gave viewers an overview of Waters’ movies, ranging from Mondo Trasho to Pink Flamingos to Hairspray.
“What did you want to be when you grew up?” Gates asked him.
“The filthiest person alive,” Waters replied, not skipping a beat.
“I wanted to always be what I became,” Waters added. “I knew I was going to be in show business…I want to be inside the magic trick.”
Gates started delving into family history by asking Waters about the relatives he knew, including his grandparents on his mother’s side, Clifford and Stella Whitaker. Waters said they got divorced, at a time when divorce in a Catholic family was much less common than it is today.
“It was a secret, I guess,” Waters said. “It wasn’t in our family. My mother told us. But it was, then, for a Catholic woman to be divorced, was a scandal.”
Waters said he was close to his maternal grandmother. “I loved my grandmother. She understood my life, even though she was straighter…She still was always my supporter.”
Waters said he knew less about his maternal grandfather, who died in 1935, at the age of 35. Gates pointed to a coroner’s report that said he died in Canada of carbon monoxide poisoning, in an accident caused by a faulty heater in a hotel.
Although Clifford and Stella had been divorced for two years at the time of Clifford’s death, Gates said, he left her virtually his entire estate worth close to $200,000, which would be $3.5 million today.
For PBS, the job of researching Waters’ family history was made easier by the fact that his ancestors apparently got nearly as much press as he does now. Reports of their whereabouts appear in newspapers from Maryland to Alaska, as if the family had its own publicist.
Going back one generation, researchers found newspaper clippings and other records that showed his great-grandfather on his mother’s side, also named Clifford Whitaker, was born in 1863 and raised in Maryland, the heir to his family’s fortune.
The elder Clifford Whitaker was living in Seattle and working as a miner when he married John’s great grandmother, Bertha Ford. The following year, they moved to Alaska, where John’s grandfather was born.
Any guesses why they moved from Seattle to Alaska? asked Gates, ever the inquisitor.
“Looking for ore,” Waters volunteered, playing along. “Maybe they were frackers.”
Gates showed Waters the front page of a Seattle newspaper from 1897, with a headline blaring GOLD! GOLD! GOLD! GOLD! and an account of prospectors who traveled to the Klondike in hopes of striking it rich.
“Look at them. It looks like hippies in San Francisco,” Waters said, scanning black and white photos of the prospectors.
Waters’ great-grandfather never found gold. According to a newspaper clipping from Dawson City, Canada, he died in 1902 after a pistol accidentally discharged and struck him in the chest. He was 39.
“Oh brother,” Waters said. “See, it proves there’s no such thing as karma. It really does. After he went through all that…It’s kind of dramatic though. It sounds like a movie scene I’d write.”
Waters made an effort to look on the bright side.
“Isn’t it great that we had somebody that brave in our family, that much of a risk-taker?” he asked. “Because I don’t think my family since has been known for being big risk-takers. He was a big one. He didn’t sit around eating bons bons and being Richie Rich.”
Clifford’s widow Bertha, who had already returned to Seattle with their son, moved back to Maryland, where the Whitaker family was based.
After a dispute with her mother-in-law, John’s great-great-grandmother Mary Whitaker, Bertha had to go to court to keep custody of her son, John’s great grandfather. Bertha ultimately prevailed, securing the family fortune for her son.
“This is like a Dickens novel,” Gates told Waters. “Your family tree drips with drama.”
“It’s twisted history,” Waters agreed. “Well, maybe that’s where I inherited wanting to tell stories and thinking up drama. You know, I’m always thinking up and saying things that happen to people. That’s how I make my living.”
How did the Whitakers make so much money in the first place?
Going further back on the family tree, researchers learned that John’s great great great grandfather, George Price Whitaker, was a pioneer “ironmaster” who formed a company called Principio Furnace with two others. He eventually controlled 10,000 acres, making him one of the largest landowners and wealthiest men in Maryland.
Waters said he was unaware of any of this.
“How do you descend from the man who owns the most land in the state of Maryland and not know it?” Gates asked. “How are these stories not passed on?”
“I think because of the divorce,” Waters said. “The divorce, I think, was the deep, deep scar…We knew about it, but it was not mentioned a lot, at least in my mother and father’s household.”
“What would your mother have made of it all?” Gates asked, playing psychiatrist.
“I think she would be proud to know that she came from people who took chances, and some of them made their own fortunes and obviously didn’t throw it away, because it came down the line to a lot of people,” Waters said.
Gates showed him a photo of his great great great grandfather in his prime, with a long beard and a top hat.
“He looks so much like a hipster,” Waters said. “He looks like somebody who would live in Brooklyn. Good for him.”
“He saw the future,” Gates said. “He figured out how to become an ironmaster.”
“An ironmaster,” Waters repeated. “That almost sounds like, I don’t know, a sexual term.”
“Sounds kinky to me,” Gates said.
“Well good, an ironmaster,” Waters said. “That’s what I’ll be now. A relative of an ironmaster. And proud of it.”
But one ancestor had a more troubling past.
Researchers found records that showed his great-great grandfather on his father’s side, Somerset R. Waters, was a slaveowner.
According to records from the 1860 census, Gates said, Somerset Waters held four people as slaves, three males and a female, ranging in age from 6 to 26 at that time.
Gates told viewers that John Waters “had known that this was always a possibility.” Even so, he said, it wasn’t easy for him to face.
“John, in 1860, your great-great-grandfather, Somerset R. Waters, held four people as slaves. Did you have any idea?” Gates asked Waters.
“No. I certainly did not,” Waters answered.
“How does it make you feel to know that your ancestor owned slaves?” Gates probed.
“Well, I’m shocked always that there was slavery, period,” Waters said. “I’m shocked for the whole situation of it, ever. It’s appalling.”
Gates said researchers learned that Somerset Waters was a farmer in Carroll County, Maryland. Although they couldn’t find out much about the day-to-day operation of his farm, Gates said, they uncovered a series of documents that “cast an unsettling light on his character.”
Gates showed Waters a newspaper ad that his great-great grandfather placed in 1858, offering a $500 reward for a runaway slave, “a Negro woman calling herself Caroline Gassaway,” if she is “apprehended and returned” to him.
“It says ‘calling herself,’ ” Waters noted, reading from the ad. “That’s even worse.”
“You know why they said that?” Gates asked. “Because you didn’t have a legal name if you were a slave, because you were a piece of property.”
“It’s really terrible,” Waters said. “A $500 reward. That’s like a dog, you know? So he was a pig. That’s all. What can I say? I didn’t know him. I hope every bit of his racist genes each time was wiped away.”
In the Maryland state archives, Gates said, researchers found court documents from 1858, dated shortly after Caroline Gassaway ran away, that showed four men, three of them freed people of color, were arrested for helping her escape.
They also discovered news articles showing that the three freed men were found guilty of helping the runway and ordered to be sold into slavery.
“It’s stupefying, of course,” Waters said. “My whole life, I’ve always been pissed off about racism, as much as I can possibly be. I live in a city that’s still torn with that, torn with that. And it’s because of people like him. And I’m sure that his father was even more racist. It’s passed down like a bad disease.”
Gates told Waters that researchers found another ancestor on his father’s side, two generations farther back, who is notable for other reasons.
He said this ancestor, Richard Waters, was likely born in Maryland around 1760, making him a teenager when the Revolutionary War began.
Was he on the British side or the American side? Gates asked, putting Waters on the spot for the umpteenth time.
“I’m sure he took the wrong side,” Waters said, still thinking about the slave-owning Waters. “I’m not being optimistic on anything.”
Gates told Waters that his ancestor was commissioned in 1778 to join the “the Field Staff and Warrant Officers of the Second Maryland Regiment, of foot, in the Service of the United States of America,” and that he was an assistant surgeon.
One month after he was commissioned, Gates said, the Second Maryland Regiment went to Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, where General George Washington’s troops had just endured a harsh winter. That means Richard Waters served with the future President Washington and had a “close-up view of one of the most famous events of the Revolutionary War,” Gates said.
“It’s nice to know we have good guys and bad guys’ in the family,” Waters said.
What does he think of the family’s history in general?
“There only seems like one really rotten apple, to me,” Waters said.
“The slaveowner, you mean?” Gates said.
“One rotten apple,” Waters said. “I think everybody probably has one rotten apple. I’m not saying it was slaves, always, but did something hideous.”
Waters said he can now understand why some people don’t want to research their ancestry.
“You think maybe that’s why you don’t want to look sometimes,” he said. “For fear. Because what can you do about it, you know?”
Having given Waters a “Book of Life” containing all the photos and documents the researchers unearthed, Gates had one final question for him: What has this journey into the past meant to you?
“It’s meant to me a lot about how much I miss my parents and how much they would love to know all this and see it,” Waters said.
If they were still alive, Waters said, he’d have a lot of questions for them.
“I could ask them: How much did you know of this? How come we never talked about this? Or did you know it? Or how come you think your parents never told you this? Or if they did, I get why some of it you didn’t tell. I’d like to just see their reaction to it, because they’d be one step closer to it than I was.”
The January 14 Law and Order: SVU episode is viewable on NBC streaming services, including peacocktv.com. Finding Your Roots with John Waters and Glenn Close is available for free on PBS.org until February 16.
Very good article.
Sounds like HLG is following in Mike Wallace’s footsteps.
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