Born in Cedar Rapids, IA, Emerson received a bachelor of fine arts in theater from Drake University and then set off for Manhattan to try his luck with acting. Like most struggling actors, however, he was unable to find work and ended up toiling in "crummy retail jobs" and as a magazine illustrator. His then-wife suggested relocating to Florida where her family had settled, and while the marriage did not last, Emerson developed into an accomplished performer, landing in a production of Shakespeare's "Othello" and taking leads in Theatre Jacksonville productions. Over a seven-year period (1986-93), Emerson offered a series of memorable turns in local productions but, while he was passionate about acting, he was not exactly earning a living off of it.Although he had considered abandoning acting in favor of teaching, Emerson instead took the advice of a playwright-actor friend and enrolled in the MFA program at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, sponsored by the University of Alabama, where he spent three years honing his craft in "The Tempest," "Much Ado About Nothing" and "Henry V." Armed with his graduate degree, he opted to tackle New York once more, but most of the offers he received were for parts in regional theater. Finally in 1997, Emerson was hired for a supporting role in the off-Broadway play "Gross Indecency: The Trials of Oscar Wilde." When the performer tapped to play Oscar Wilde was fired, Emerson was brought in to play the lead. With glowing reviews, the production transferred to an off-Broadway theater and Emerson became touted as one to watch. Although he reportedly turned down a role in Michael Bay's disaster flick "Armageddon" (1998) to remain with "Gross Indecency," Emerson did accept supporting roles in "The Journey" (1997), which co-starred future second wife, actress Carrie Preston, as well as "The Impostors" (1998) and "Playing by Heart" (1998). In the years after he first came to prominence in New York, Emerson continued to act on stage, including a turn opposite Uma Thurman in the off-Broadway staging of "The Misanthrope" (1998) and a well-received performance as Willie Oban in the revival of "The Iceman Cometh" (1999) starring Kevin Spacey. He went on to co-star with Kate Burton in "Give Me Your Answer Do" in a 1999 staging, then played George Tesman to Burton's "Hedda Gabler" at Williamstown, followed by runs in Boston and Washington, DC, before finally settling on Broadway in 2001. In between those performances, Emerson essayed a memorable role as a confessed serial killer in several episodes of "The Practice." As the seemingly mentally unbalanced William Hinks - who may or may not have committed the murders he claimed - Emerson was nothing short of dazzling, earning him his first Emmy award for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series in 2001. Emerson continued to churn out guest spots on series television, but had yet to find a home with a recurring or regular role. After episodes of "The Education of Max Bickford" (CBS, 2001-02) and "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" (NBC, 1999-), Emerson made the occasional foray into features with a small part in the Richard Gere-Diane Lane thriller "Unfaithful" (2002). Emerson popped up in guest-starring roles on the long-running FBI procedural "Without a Trace" (CBS, 2002-09); the short-lived "Skin" (Fox, 2003-04), Jerry Bruckheimer's porn-centered take on "Romeo and Juliet;" and the ubiquitous "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" (NBC, 2001-10). Back in features, he had a small role in "Straight-Jacket" (2004), a period drama about a closeted 1950s actor (Matt Letscher) trying to keep the lid on his homosexuality by entering into a sham marriage to a naïve studio secretary (Carrie Preston). Emerson made a noticeable impact with his role as a sexually ambiguous orderly in the brutal horror flick "Saw" (2004). In "The Legend of Zorro" (2005), Emerson had the tricky role of playing a fundamentalist Christian assassin who has a cross burned into his cheek and two pistols named Salvation and Damnation. Returning to television, he landed a guest spot on another short-lived series, "The Inside" (Fox, 2004-05), an FBI drama about a female profiler tracking down the most grisly of serial killers. It was in early 2006 during the second season of "Lost" that Emerson finally landed the role of a lifetime. Originally slated for three episodes as a captured member of the mysterious Others, Henry Gale, Emerson impressed the producers enough for them to write him into the show as a regular character. The seemingly innocent Henry Gale turned into the manipulative Ben Linus, the leader of The Others, by the end of season two. Straddling the line between good and evil, Emerson kept viewers guessing what Ben was up to and why he was manipulating the island's castaways, adding a much-needed element of intrigue in a show that was seen by some as losing steam. His eerie portrayal earned the one-time walk-on Emmy award nominations for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series in 2007, 2008 and 2009. He would finally win the Emmy in 2009, while later that year, he earned his first-ever Golden Globe nod, entering the Best Support Actor category alongside an eclectic group that included Neil Patrick Harris, William Hurt, John Lithgow and Jeremy Piven.
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