August 13, 2001 12:00 PM

A few years ago S. Epatha Merkerson was shopping in a Manhattan convenience store when she found herself surrounded by a police task force. “Next thing I know, they’ve got their arms around mine, and they’re walking me out,” she says. But the cops didn’t want Merkerson—who has costarred since 1993 as Law & Order‘s strong-willed NYPD Lt. Anita Van Buren—to come in for questioning. “They were saying, ‘We’re going to put in for a transfer—we want you to be our boss,’ ” she recalls. “It was really high praise.”

And in striking contrast to the last time she was confronted by police. Merkerson was then a teenager growing up in Detroit in 1967, the year rioting rocked the city. “My older brother Zephry and I were out driving, and the police were looking for someone driving a car like his,” she says. “One of them pointed a gun at the back of my head,” while his partner checked out Zephry’s ID. The cops soon let them go, but “it was terrifying,” says Merkerson. “If you told me back then I’d be playing a cop, I would have laughed in your face.”

Especially since the cop she plays is practically her polar opposite—so much so that Merkerson wears a wig on the set. “Anita’s a coiffed sister. But me, I’m a natural sister,” she says, stroking the long, twisted braids she wears off-screen. There are other differences. “Anita’s a mother,” says Merkerson, 48, who’s married (without children) to retired social worker Toussaint Jones Jr., 51. “And she’s rigid, while laughter is a part of who I am.”

Jerry Orbach (Det. Lennie Briscoe) can attest to that—but warns that Merkerson should never be entrusted with a punch line. “I’ll tell her a joke,” he says, “and she’ll go tell her husband, who says, ‘You better ask Jerry that one again, because it wasn’t funny at all.’ ”

She’s better in sing-alongs with Jesse L. Martin (Det. Ed Green), a regular since 1999. “Right from the beginning, she went out of her way to make me feel at ease and welcome,” he says. Perhaps that’s because she knows what it’s like to feel shunned. The youngest of five children raised by a divorced mother, Ann, 74, a postal worker, Merkerson was about 13 when she moved into an all-white Detroit neighborhood and saw neighbors move out. “Each day my brother Zephry and I would guess how many new For Sale signs had gone up,” she says. “Whoever had the closest number would win that day’s lunch money.”

Merkerson continued to struggle with discrimination as “the only black person,” she says, in the drama program at Detroit’s Wayne State University. “I was actually told not to audition for things,” she says. After graduating in 1975, she joined a children’s theater company in Albany, N.Y., where she began dating Jones. By 1980, however, with the couple pursuing careers in different cities—Merkerson in New York City and Jones in Washington, D.C.—they decided “to be just friends,” he says.

In 1986 Merkerson scored as Reba the Mail Lady on the children’s series Pee-wee’s Playhouse. “We needed an actor who could do lots of physical comedy and be a bit sassy,” says Pee-wee Herman portrayer Paul Reubens. “Epatha was it.” Though she would earn a 1990 Tony nomination for Broadway’s The Piano Lesson—followed by film roles in Postcards from the Edge, Navy SEALS and Terminator 2—”I fell in love with her on Pee-wee,” says Law & Order executive producer Dick Wolf, who cast her without a tryout. “Why audition her? I knew she could do it.”

Soon after, Merkerson received a congratulatory phone call from her old boyfriend Jones, who invited her to visit him in Washington. “When she finally did come, I couldn’t get rid of her!” he jokes. The couple, who married in March 1994, now share a one-bedroom apartment in Harlem. They also own a ranch house in Maryland, where Merkerson enjoys the view—not only of the nature preserve next door but of her hard-won success. “The house makes me step back,” she says, “and say, ‘Wow, look at this. This is all right!’ ”

Galina Espinoza

Steve Erwin in New York City

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