They say the worst thing in Hollywood is being typecast, but for Christopher Meloni, his 12 seasons on Law & Order: SVU made him a star. Detective Elliot Stabler became a household name, and Meloni’s association with the role continues to earn him admirers. If this is being typecast, can anyone really complain?
Yet while Meloni may appear to fit the one-hit wonder profile, the veteran actor’s resume is filled with enough memorable roles to rival his NYPD days. You may know him as one SVU‘s most beloved characters, but there’s far more to Christopher Meloni’s career than just putting bad guys behind bars.
Acting wasn’t Christopher Meloni’s first love growing up. Born in Washington, D.C. and raised in Virginia, Meloni was far from a drama-club standout during his days at St. Stephen’s School in Alexandria.
Instead, he spent his days on the football field. As St. Stephen’s star quarterback, Meloni led the 1978 football team to an undefeated season and was even inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame.
St. Stephen’s & St. Agnes School / Washingtonian
But football wasn’t a viable career path, so Meloni majored in history at the University of Colorado at Boulder. On a whim, he took a few acting classes while at school — the next thing he knew, he was packed headed for New York.
He continued his studies at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre under legendary instructor Sanford Meisner, earning a number of commercial roles and bit parts. All the while, however, Meloni still needed to make ends meet.
That’s why, during his downtime, the aspiring actor worked a variety of odd jobs around Manhattan. Most days he worked construction, though he also had stints as a bouncer, bartender, and even personal trainer.
Meloni’s big break came in 1996, when he played the hotheaded son of a Mafia don in the crime thriller Bound. This role helped him land an eight-episode appearance as criminal Jimmy Liery on NYPD Blue, which, in turn, caught the attention of a certain HBO drama series.
In 1998, Meloni was cast in the prison drama Oz, earning universal acclaim for his portrayal of the sadistic Chris Keller. But while the up-and-coming actor was quickly settling into a niche playing criminals, he’d soon get the chance to flip the script.
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A casting call came out in 1999 for a spin-off Dick Wolf’s legendary Law & Order series, and after a few rounds of auditions Meloni found himself one of three finalists for a lead role. Producers were on the fence about casting him, though after a final reading opposite Mariska Hargitay, everything changed.
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The pair’s chemistry was instant, and by the time both actors had left the room the decision was clear. Dick Wolf himself even blurted out, “Oh well. There’s no doubt who we should choose – Hargitay and Meloni.”
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So Meloni joined Law & Order: Special Victims Unit as Detective Elliot Stabler, a role that’d define his career during the 2000s. Yet even as he became one of the most watched men in television, Meloni wouldn’t settle on being a one-trick pony.
He countered Stabler’s seriousness by taking on more comedic roles alongside SVU, appearing as Gene in Wet Hot American Summer (2001) and as a puppet-loving pediatrician on a 2003 episode of Scrubs. He even played the grotesque “Freakshow” in Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle (2004).
New Line Cinema
Meloni also dabbled in voice acting during this time, portraying Hal Jordan/Green Lantern in the DC animated film Green Lantern: First Flight (2009) as well as John Taylor in the video game Call of Duty: Black Ops III. SVU, however, remained his most notable project — though by no means was it easy work.
Meloni’s SVU schedule was incredibly rigorous, working him 14 hours a day, five to six days a week for nine months out of the year. In fact, the actor even remarked that his time on the show was really just one big blur.
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“I did 270 [episodes], and … I don’t know. I can’t remember too many of them, to be honest,” Meloni once claimed — however, the season 12 finale “Smoked” would be one episode he’d never forget.
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That’s because following the finale, Meloni announced that he would be leaving SVU after failing to agree on a new contract with NBC. With the actor unwilling to shoot new material to explain his impending absence, Elliot Stabler “retired” off-screen at the start of season 13.
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Fans were heartbroken to see Meloni leave SVU, but the tears didn’t last for long. Just a year later, the veteran actor returned to television in True Blood as a powerful, 500-year-old vampire.
He also appeared in a number of prominent roles in several big-budget movies, including as Colonel Hardy in Man of Steel (2013) and as Brooklyn Dodgers manager Leo Durocher in 42 (2013). Still, Meloni wasn’t done just yet.
In 2017, he executive produced and starred in Syfy’s Happy!, an action-dramedy based on the comic book of the same name. The series only ran for two seasons, but shortly after its cancellation, Meloni announced some incredible news…
Elliot Stabler was back! Meloni is set to reprise the role in a upcoming SVU spin-off series titled Law & Order: Organized Crime that’ll see Stabler overseeing a brand new team — but that’s not all.
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Meloni is also set to return as Stabler for several episodes of SVU‘s 22nd season! The actor and his good friend Mariska Hargitay will no doubt have a lot to catch up on, as plenty of craziness has gone on behind the scenes of the beloved police procedural since the two first joined forces back in 1999.
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For starters, Mariska insisted on doing her own stunts for the first nine season of SVU — no matter how dangerous. That all changed in December 2008, as a hard fall she suffered on set left her with a collapsed lung.
2. Before it was the longest-running live action series on television, Law & Order: SVU was originally called Sex Crimes. NBC, however, felt this title was too off-putting, and showrunner Dick Wolf wanted to incorporate the series into the greater Law & Order universe.
3. Ice-T and his SVU character Odafin “Fin” Tutuola have become one in the same to most fans, though the legendary rapper was originally supposed to play the role for just four episodes. Ice, however, liked the part too much and decided to stick around.
4. The SVU writers know how to squeeze meaning out of every little detail — even when it comes to character names. “Odafin,” for example, translates to “lawmaker” in the Nigerian language of Yoruba while “Tutuola” means “The Gentle One.” Pretty spot on, right?
5. SVU is known as the standard for New York crime procedurals, though for more than a decade, it wasn’t very New York at all. That’s because for its first 11 seasons, SVU was actually filmed in New Jersey!
Mariska Hargitay / Twitter
6. Most SVU fans can recite the show’s opening narration forward and back, though not many can name the man behind the signature salutation. All the credit goes to voice actor Steve Zirnkilton, who also once served as a Maine congressman.
7. Quick: what do Mariska Hargitay and comedian Kathy Griffin have in common? Well, aside from both women having appeared on episodes of Seinfeld, Kathy was actually Mariska’s improv teacher during her time at L.A.’s Groundlings Theater and School.
8. From Season 13 through 17, the letters in the title of each episode corresponded with the respective season — 13-letter titles in Season 13, 14 in Season 14, and so on. It wasn’t until Season 18 that writers realized no one was paying attention and scrapped the idea.
9. A gritty crime drama seems like the last place to find love, but that’s exactly what happened for Mariska Hargitay and her husband, Peter Hermann. The couple first met when Hermann began playing the recurring role of Defense Attorney Trevor Langan in Season 3.
therealmariskahargitay / Instagram
10. When Raul Esparza was first offered the role of ADA Rafael Barba, he didn’t want the part. Yet in the wake of a failed Broadway production, Esparza decided to take the role as a career rebound — the rest is history.
11. Before he was brought on as series regular Detective Dominick “Sonny” Carisi in Season 16, actor Peter Scanavino actually appeared on SVU two seasons earlier. In the episode “Monster’s Legacy,” Scanavino appears as Johnny Dubcek, a janitor and molestation victim.
12. Love him or hate him, there’s one thing nobody can take away from Richard Belzer’s John Munch: his longevity. The character has appeared in ten different television series over the course of 23 seasons, including stints on The X-Files, The Wire, and Arrested Development.
13. When you spend 10-plus hours a day on set in Manhattan, it’s nice to have a few personal touches to make the place feel a little more like home. That’s why Mariska Hargitay keeps an actual photo of her mother, Jayne Mansfield, on Lieutenant Benson’s desk.
14. Similar to Scanavino, Diane Neal, who played ADA Casey Novak from 2003 to 2008 and then again from 2011 to 2012, also first appeared on the show in a much smaller role. In Season 3, Neal was featured in the episode “Ridicule” as a female rapist.
15. Most SVU fans were shocked when Christopher Meloni’s character, Detective Elliot Stabler, abruptly retired before the Season-13 premiere. Well, this wasn’t a case of wanting to spend more time with the family: Meloni and NBC simply couldn’t come to an agreement on a new contract.
16. Despite SVU‘s heavy themes and graphic accounts of sexual violence, countless celebrities have lined up for their chance to cross paths with Lieutenant Olivia Benson. Some of these famous faces include Robin Williams, Elizabeth Banks, Bradley Cooper, and even Martin Short.
17. SVU‘s bread and butter is its ability to capitalize on trending news, with most of its episodes claiming to be “ripped from the headlines.” However, this only means that the episodes are loosely based on real events, as using straight facts would limit the flexibility of each story.
18. While SVU draws upon a variety of topical news stories for its episodes, two organizations in particular have given the show the most pushback: the NFL and the Catholic Church. Their complaints stem from the show’s tendency to associate these organizations with domestic violence and sexual assault, respectively.
19. In exposing the difficult realities of sexual violence and securing justice for victims, the SVU cast has earned a place of high esteem among actual assault survivors. This is part of the job that means the most to Mariska.
@Mariska / Twitter
Born Mariska Magdolina Hargitay, the future superstar was actually named for the biblical figure Mary Magdalene. A name like that might suggest she was destined for a convent, though, thanks to her parents, Hollywood was always her endgame.
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That’s because her mother was actress and ’50s sex symbol Jayne Mansfield, and her father, Mickey Hargitay, was a former Mr. Universe. Sadly, only one of the two would live to see Mariska reach her sky-high potential.
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On June 29, 1967, Jayne was killed in car accident while traveling on U.S. Route 90 between New Orleans and Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. Mariska, who was asleep in the backseat, survived the crash with minor injuries, though the emotional scars ran much deeper.
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According to the actress, the early loss of her mother left “a hole in my life that won’t ever be filled. I will never get over it. I will always be a girl who lost her mom.” Somehow, she found the strength to carry on.
Her mother’s death spurred her toward an acting career, leading her to attend the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. By the end of her freshman year, Mariska had already secured an agent and several small roles, and she actually dropped out before finishing her degree to pursue acting full-time.
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This wasn’t exactly shot in the dark for the aspiring actress, as earlier that year she’d already been crowned Miss Beverly Hills USA and later competed for the title of Miss California USA. Though she wound up placing fifth, the exposure landed her in Ronnie Milsap’s 1984 music video for “She Loves My Car.”
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From there, Mariska made her film debut in the 1985 horror-comedy Ghoulies. With her first television role coming a year later on Downtown, the young star’s rise to fame seemed almost effortless — in reality, it was the exact opposite.
Mariska actually struggled mightily early on in her career, and it was all thanks to her famous mother. Everyone from casting directors to her fellow actors would constantly compare her to the late blonde bombshell, and some producers even suggested she dye her hair to look more like Jayne.
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Mariska, however, was determined to make her own way in Hollywood, even if it meant taking forgettable roles on Falcon Crest, Tequila and Bonetti, and Can’t Hurry Love. But with an appearance on the ’90s phenomenon that was Seinfeld — no matter how brief — Mariska was clearly trending in the right direction.
Momentum continued to build for the second-generation star following a small role in the critically acclaimed 1995 film Leaving Las Vegas and a fill-in part in Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie the same year. Then, in 1999, a casting call went out.
20th Century Fox
The role was for the female lead in a spinoff of Dick Wolf’s iconic Law & Order procedural: Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Despite past experience playing police officers and detectives, Mariska was anxious about her chances, though following several rounds of auditions, she found herself among the three finalists.
For her final read-through she was paired with actor Christopher Meloni, with whom it was clear she had incredible chemistry. Dick Wolf seemed to think so, too, for as soon as the pair walked out of the room he blurted out, “Oh well. There’s no doubt who we should choose – Hargitay and Meloni.”
And so, Mariska landed her career-defining role of Olivia Benson, lead detective and, later, commanding officer of the NYPD’s Special Victims Unit. The part officially cemented Mariska as a top-tier talent, though dealing with such traumatic subject matter wasn’t always an easy job.
Despite the show’s fictionalized nature, Mariska was forced to face topics such as sexual assault, domestic violence, and child abuse, and she actually became a rape crisis advocate to prepare for the role of Det. Benson. Yet early on, Mariska realized she could use these experiences for good.
“I started getting fan mail from survivors who felt a connection to Olivia. In many of these letters, people would disclose their personal stories of abuse—some for the very first time,” she explained. “I wanted to help find a way to help people reclaim their lives and live them with a renewed sense of possibility and hope.”
That’s why in 2004, Mariska founded the Joyful Heart Foundation, an organization designed to provide support for individuals who’ve experienced many of the same traumas depicted on SVU. Since then, the foundation has helped thousands of women and children escape abusive homes and has provided millions of dollars in funding for domestic violence shelters.
Charley Gallay / Getty Images for Joyful Heart Foundation
That same year, Mariska also wed actor Peter Hermann, a recurring guest star on SVU. The couple welcomed August Miklos Friedrich Hermann in 2006, and five years later, they adopted a baby girl named Amaya Josephine as well as a baby boy named Andrew Nicolas.
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Sadly, Mariska’s father only got to know his first grandson for a short time, as a month after her August 2006 Emmy win Mickey died from multiple myeloma, a cancer of the plasma cells. The loss of her last living parent was devastating, but, like always, Mariska used this tragedy as an opportunity.
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She began working to raise awareness of multiple myeloma, eventually becoming an honorary board member director of the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation. She continues petitioning for the cause to this day, along with her extensive work in domestic violence prevention and promotion of the arts.
And, of course, Mariska is still getting the job done as Captain Olivia Benson, a role she’s played going on 21 years. Unsurprisingly, Mariska has some pretty crazy stories from over the course of those two decades.
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