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Jesse L. Martin Turned Down a Law & Order Role — and 9 Other Things You Don't Know About the Actor

Whether it's his birth name or his passion for making music, there's a lot fans don't know about The Irrational's Jesse L. Martin.

By Jill Sederstrom

Whether it was from his eight-season run as Det. Ed Green on Law & Order or his current role as behavioral science whiz Alec Mercer on NBC’s The Irrational, Jesse L. Martin has become a beloved fixture on American television. 

How to Watch

Watch the Season 2 premiere of The Irrational Tuesday, October 1 at 10/9c on NBC and next day on Peacock

Yet there are still many things fans don’t know about this versatile actor. Luckily for them, Martin recently opened up to NBC Insider about his personal life, including what makes him tick and the one type of food he just can’t live without. 

“I love soul food. I can’t cook it, but I love it,” he confessed when discussing his interests. “So, [when] family comes to visit, they hook us up with soul food.” 

As we celebrate all that is Jesse L. Martin before The Irrational returns for the remaining Season 1 episodes on Mondays at 10/9c on NBC, here are nine other things you might not know about the actor

Jesse L. Martin Was Once Known by a Different Name 

The actor was born in 1969 as Jesse Lamont Watkins. His parents later separated and he took on the surname Martin after his stepfather adopted him and his four brothers, according to Playbill.

Jesse L. Martin Made a Memorable Break into Acting in the 4th Grade

Although Martin was born in Virginia, his family later relocated to Buffalo, New York. Initially, he was self-conscious of his “really thick Southern accent” until a teacher encouraged him to play a Southern Baptist preacher in The Golden Goose and use his accent to his advantage.

Jesse L. Martin in a blue suit and hat attending the Barbara Berlanti Heroes Gala.

“The kids loved it,” he told Playbill. “I got a lot of pats on the back after that.”

RELATED: Jesse L. Martin's Family Thinks He Has *This* in Common with His Character on The Irrational

After catching the acting bug, Martin went on to attend the Buffalo School for Performing Arts and was later a student at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.

Jesse L. Martin Was a Member of the Original Cast of Broadway’s Rent 

There was no Broadway show more iconic in the 1990s than the coming of age musical Rent — and Martin was a major part of bringing the show to life. As one of the musical’s original cast members, he played Tom Collins, a philosophy professor and computer genius who was also HIV positive. 

The show quickly became a cultural phenomenon.

“We always said, ‘Six years from now, I’m gonna be able to sit down and say, ‘Wow, that was amazing!’ But at the time, it was hard to do that. First of all, it was a lot of work,” he told Playbill. “Secondly, you were so wrapped up in what you needed to do, in order to propel this story into the universe. We didn’t have a chance to enjoy it while we were doing it. We were on a mission. It wasn’t until many years later that I could actually appreciate what it was that we did.”

Martin later reprised the role in the 2005 movie version of Rent. 

Adam Pascal, Tracie Thoms, Anthony Rapp, Wilson Jermaine Heredia, Jesse L. Martin, Idina Menzel, Taye Diggs and Rosario Dawson from the movie Rent at an event.

Jesse L. Martin Once Turned Down a Role on Law & Order

Many know Martin for his long-standing role on Law & Order as Detective Ed Green — but it wasn’t the first role he was offered on the popular crime procedural. 

Years before taking on the iconic role, Martin told Playbill he was offered a bit part as a car radio thief on Law & Order and actually turned it down.

"I don't know what possessed me. I was nobody at the time, just another actor trying to get on [the series]. I auditioned so many times, then I finally got a role, which was very tiny, about three lines. I thought there's gotta be something better than that,” he said. “I don't know where I got that from; I should've just taken it and shut up. But I didn't. I decided I was going to wait. It took a little while, but I did get Eddie Green. [Laughs]." 

Martin played the popular detective from 1999 to 2008. 

Jesse L. Martin Had a Memorable Guest-Starring Role on Ally McBeal

Before making his way onto the Law & Order set, Martin had a pivotal role in another legal show: the '90s hit Ally McBeal. Martin played Dr. Greg Butters, a love interest to Ally McBeal (Calista Flockhart), for 12 episodes in 1998. 

"People made a big deal about it being an interracial couple. Hadn't they seen Lucy and Desi? I thought we were over that, but apparently we weren't,” he recalled to Playbill. "That put me out there as a face that you might know."

Jesse L. Martin Loves All Things Art Whether It's Performance Arts or Music

Alec Mercer on season 1 episode 7 of The Irrational

Martin once told the National Endowment for the Arts that he has a “strong interest” in art, whether it's dance, visual arts, folk art, music, Indigenous rituals, or foreign language. 

“My version of an artist’s life can also be called a student’s life,” he said at the time. “I am constantly trying to enrich my brain and body so that I can expand the tools in my artist arsenal.” 

That same passion for the arts is evident today in Martin’s hobbies. He told NBC Insider he spends his time off doing “anything I can do culturally.” whether it’s going to a museum or catching the latest Cirque du Soleil show. 

“Going to a friend’s performance, going to see a band or a musician of a dance performance — any of those things I can do are amazing to me,” he said.

Jesse L. Martin Writes His Own Music

 Martin doesn’t just admire other’s music, he also makes his own! Martin told NBC Insider he spends “a lot of time at home with all my stuff,” whether it’s writing his own music or banging on the piano.

“I have lots of instruments, play a lot of instruments,” he said. 

When he isn’t perfecting his musical talents, Martin can also be found watching a good docuseries. 

Jesse L. Martin Loves His Dog

Martin has been notoriously private about his personal life, but one thing he is happy to open up about is his love for his four-legged friend, Romeo. 

“One of my favorite subjects is my dog,” he told NBC Insider. “He’s an Australian shepherd, border collie, poodle mix. He’s the coolest little guy in the world.” 

Martin also called merle-colored Romeo the “smartest thing I’ve ever met.”

The Irrational Director Called Him a ‘Total Pro’ on Set

These days, Martin is busy playing behavioral science expert Alec Mercer on NBC’s The Irrational, and he’s earning some rave reviews.

The show’s director Jesse Warn praised Martin for his  professionalism while speaking to MovieWeb, calling the veteran actor a “total pro.” The pair first worked together on The Flash and are joining forces again on The Irrational. 

“We've obviously worked together before and got along great,” Warn said. “I just respect him, not only as an actor but as a person. It was just a real treat for me to be able to work with him again."

To continue to follow Martin's career, tune in to The Irrational Mondays at 10/9c on NBC or available streaming the next day.