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Jay O. Sanders ’76

Jay O. Sanders ’76 was the very first acting student admitted to Purchase College and has had an impressive and sustained career on stage and screens since.

Sanders recently starred as Ol’ Cap’n Cotchipee in the first revival of Purlie Victorious on Broadway at the Music Box Theatre (2023–2024). 

“A godawful White character prowls “Purlie Victorious” — the extremely funny anti-racist farce receiving its first Broadway revival — and Jay O. Sanders is having the time of his life playing him. “

“Sanders, on the other hand — in the most outrageously, satisfyingly bravura role of his career — doubles down on the stereotype.”

The Washington Post

In 2019, he earned a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Actor in a Play for his role as the title character in Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, a critically acclaimed performance.

(Read more about his role in a New York Times’ feature by Ben Brantley.)

Film and TV

Onscreen, he is perhaps most recognized for his work in the blockbuster films The Day After Tomorrow (2004) and Green Lantern (2011). He has appeared in many other notable films, however, including Glory (1989), JFK (1991), Angels in the Outfield (1994), Half Nelson (2006), and Revolutionary Road (2008).

On television, Sanders played mob lawyer Steven Kordo in the 1986–88 NBC detective series Crime Story. He played Norbert “Ziggy” Walsh on two episodes of Roseanne. He played recurring characters on shows such as Person of Interest and True Detective. He is the narrator for the PBS series “Wide Angle” from 2002–2009, and has served as narrator for a number of Nova episodes starting in 2007.

A Legend on Stage

On stage, Sanders was cast in both plays at Shakespeare in the Park his first summer after graduating from Purchase. He has since become one of the most familiar faces at Central Park’s Delacorte Theater.

He went on to work in the acting companies of the Arena Stage in Washington D.C. and the American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.) in San Francisco, before returning to New York where he was cast in the Off-Broadway NY premiere of Sam Shepard’s “Buried Child” (which won the Pulitzer Prize during the run), his first feature film Starting Over with Burt Reynolds, Jill Clayburgh, and Candace Bergen, and his Broadway debut, Michael Weller’s “Loose Ends at the Circle in the Square.”

At the Public Theater, where he has been a regular presence for over 40 years, he played George W. Bush in David Hare’s “Stuff Happens,” the title role in “Titus Andronicus, and a long list of leading roles in their Shakespeare in the Park productions.

Sanders completed a 2017 world tour out of the Public of Richard Nelson’s trilogy “The Gabriel Family; Election Year in the Life of One Family” with his wife, Maryann Plunkett. Together, they also appeared in Nelson’s four “Apple Family” Plays, which toured Europe to great acclaim in 2015 and have performed across the country with Bryan Doerries’ “Theater of War.”

Sanders’ Voice Wins Awards

AudioFile Magazine designated Sanders one of their Golden Voices for the consistently high quality of his extensive narration work in audiobooks. Regularly heard on commercials, he is one of the most prominent documentary narrators for PBS, including NOVA, Nature, Wide Angle, and Secrets of the Dead.


As a writer, his play, “Unexplored Interior,” which explores the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, was the center of a 2014 international live stream between New York City’s Museum of Jewish Heritage and Rwanda’s Kigali Genocide Memorial. It was seen online in 10 different countries as part of the 20th Commemoration of the Genocide. In 2015, it was chosen to be the inaugural production of Washington D.C.’s new Mosaic Theater.

Sanders’ book, A World In Common, made up of his diaries, photos, and reflections from the Gabriels world tour, will be published soon.

He has returned to Purchase College for over 20 years to give master classes to the drama students that explore how to make a life as an artist.

Awards / Residencies

Winner 2019

Drama Desk Awards

Outstanding Actor in a Play  

Uncle Vanya


Winner 2012

Drama Desk Awards

Outstanding Ensemble Performance

Sweet and Sad


Winner 2012

Obie Awards


Sweet and Sad


Nominee 2012

The Lortels

Outstanding Lead Actor

Titus Andronicus