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NBC Insider The Irrational

How Jesse L. Martin's Childhood Experiences Led to a Career in Acting

Jesse L. Martin knew he wanted to become an actor from a very young age.

By Cydney Contreras

TV viewers know Jesse L. Martin by many names.  

How to Watch

Watch The Irrational on NBC and Peacock

Many first got to know and love the star when he appeared as Detective Edward "Ed" Green on Law & Order for seasons 10 through 18. Then, musical theater fans rejoiced when he reprised his role as Tom Collins on the 2005 film version of the Broadway hit Rent. And most recently, he's taken on the role of behavioral science expert Alec Mercer on NBC's The Irrational

But very few people know that Martin went by a different name way back in the day: Jesse Lamont Watkins.

RELATED: Meet the Cast of NBC's New Series The Irrational, Starring a Law & Order Favorite

Jesse L. Martin's Real Name 

Detective Ed Green opening a door in a scene from Law & Order.

The actor was born Jesse Lamont Watkins in January 1969. Some years later, his mother, Virginia Price, divorced his father, Jesse Watkins, and remarried — this is when the name change took place. Though some actors and musicians take on stage names — like Chance the Rapper — the Irrational star takes his surname from his stepfather, who adopted Jesse and his four brothers after marrying Price. 

Jesse L. Martin's Childhood 

The Martin family eventually relocated from the Blue Ridge Mountains to Buffalo, New York. There, Martin was among the hundreds of Black and Brown children who were bused into Buffalo schools as part of the city's desegregation efforts, which resulted in him being bullied.

"I was a country boy who had to lose his accent to make it on the New York stage," he told Entertainment Weekly in 1999. 

But his Southern upbringing later worked in his favor when he was in the fourth grade. As Martin has explained on multiple occasions, his teacher cast him in the school's production of The Golden Goose

"I was the pastor, which I associated with a brimstone-and-fire, Southern Baptist sort of preacher, so that’s the way I played it. None of the white kids there had ever seen anything like that, and everyone was impressed, thought it was very funny," he remembered. 

Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Linda Emond and Jesse L. Martin on stage looking at the audience during the curtain call for The Winter's Tale.

He added in a separate interview with Playbill that he still holds a place in his heart for that teacher.

"It literally changed my life," he said. 

Following his fourth-grade production, Martin began pursuing an acting career, studying theater at Buffalo School for the Performing Arts as well as New York University's prestigious Tisch School of the Arts.  

Jesse L. Martin's Relationship History 

From the moment Martin appeared on the screen as Det. Ed Green, he attracted many fans. He was even dubbed the "Sexiest Newcomer" in People magazine's 1999 issue. 

However, the star has not publicly discussed any relationships in the last two decades.  

The most he's said about his love life was in 2012, when he told Page Six, "My life now is out looking for a lady. Failing that, I’m willing to settle for a dog."