20 Surprising Secrets About Law & Order: SVU Revealed

Now the longest running primetime drama in TV history, the iconic NBC procedural has changed star Mariska Hargitay’s life

21 seasons in and 20 years later, Law & Order: SVU shows no signs of slowing down.

On September 20, 1999, the Law & Order spinoff centering on the Special Victims Unit of the NYPD, with fans immediately becoming invested in its lead detectives, Olivia Benson and Elliot Stabler, and even more invested in the real-life players: Mariska Hargitay and Chris Meloni. Two decades later, it’s the longest running primetime drama in TV history and is the only series from the Law & Order franchise still on the air. (Plus, who can forget Taylor Swift named one of her cats after Benson?)

While Meloni eventually exited the series, Hargitay, 55, is still the procedural’s star (and the only lead from the series to win an Emmy for his work), going on to add executive producer and director to her title, moving up the ranks the same way her iconic character did, with Benson going from detective to lieutenant over the series’ historic run. Chung-chung!

I still get nervous, still get super excited. I’m directing; producing is a whole new world,” Hargitay recently told The Hollywood Reporter. “I grew into boss lady, and I like it. I like it and I’m good at it. There were a couple of years where I was like, ‘I might be out.” There were some changes that I wasn’t on board with or I felt like, “Oh, I don’t know if we’re going in the exact right direction.” Now I love the show.

Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, SVU, Season 1 cast, Mariska Hargitay, Christopher MeloniChris Haston/NBCU Photo Bank

Along with Hargitay and Meloni, SVU has had a revolving door of detectives, attorneys, perps and victims walk in and out of the precinct over the years, including regulars like Ice-T and Stephanie March, as well as guest stars like Brooke ShieldsCynthia Nixon, the late Robin Williams, vice president Joe Biden, and some of the stars’ real-life spouses, including Hargitay’s husband Peter Hermann, whom she met on the set, and Ice-T’s wife Coco.

In New York City, the dedicated detectives who investigate these vicious felonies are members of an elite squad known as the Special Victims Unit. These are their behind-the-scenes secrets…

Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, Mariska Hargitay, Christopher MeloniNBC

1. The idea for the spinoff came from the infamous “Preppy Murder” case in 1986, in which Robert Chambers strangled Jennifer Levin, a young woman he had previously dated, in Central Park, later pleading guilty to manslaughter after originally saying it was jut “rough sex.” (The headline-making murder initially inspired a season one episode of Law & Order before SVU premiered in 1999.)

2. Before Hargitay and Meloni was cast in the roles that would make them TV icons, they were both up against other actors for their respective parts. Hargitay contended with the following actresses in the final round: Samantha Mathis and Reiko Aylesworth. As for Stabler, Meloni beat out John Slattery, Tim Matheson and Nick Chinlund. After seeing Hargitay and Meloni’s chemistry read though, Wolf immediately knew he found his pair of detectives, saying, “Oh well. There’s no doubt who we should choose.”

Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, Mariska Hargitay, Christopher Meloni

3. Of their chemistry, Hargitay recalled their final audition together, saying, “We started talking, and it turns out they’d paired us up, and he’d felt the same way reading the script—like it was a really good fit for him. We went into the room, comfortable in these roles, and everything fit like a glove.”

For Hargitay, who was just coming off of a stint on ER, she immediately connected to the pilot script, explaining to Marie Claire, “I felt the part in my soul. When I went in to read for Dick, I saw other actresses in the waiting room, and I told him, ‘I need you to understand, this is my role.'”

4. While fans were desperate for the partners to hook up (even though Stabler was married) during Meloni’s 12 seasons on the show, they never did, with the actor later explaining why he believed the writers never went there. “”That I think they always knew would be the death knell of that relationship,” he said. “I think they needed to keep that line taut and very clear…Keep the tension, never cross it.”


5. The first actor cast for the ensemble was Dann Florek, who had previously played Captain Don Craegen in the 1988 pilot of the original series, staying on the show for three seasons before he was written off because NBC wanted more female characters, with S. Epatha Merkerson‘s Anita Van Buren replacing him. He remained on SVU for 15 seasons before exiting the series in 2013.

6. Aside from his 325 episodes on SVU, Richard Belzer has played Detective John Munch on seven other shows, including The X-Files and The Wire since originating the role on Homicide: Life on the Street. On the squad since the first episode, Munch retired in season 15, with Belzer exiting the series.

“In the real world, which we try to very hard to simulate, NYPD has mandatory retirement before your 63rd birthday. And we were trying to figure out how to deal with it,” former SVU showrunner Warren Leight explained at the time. “The reason NYPD does it is because you can’t have 65-year-old guys running after guys. It is a hard and fast rule.”Christopher Meloni, Stabler, Law & Order: SVU

7. After 12 seasons, Meloni devastated SVU fans when the fan-favorite abruptly announced he was leaving the series (with Stabler’s final appearance not exactly delivering any kind of closure). He’s never made a return appearance on the show (though Stabler has been mentioned), despite many off-screen reunions with Hargitay in the 10 years since he exited SVU. When asked if he ever regrets leaving on Watch What Happens Live, Meloni responded, “Not for a day,” adding he knew it was time to leave “when negotiations broke down.”

8. Originally cast for a four-episode arc, Ice-T’s Detective Fin Tutuola proved so popular he’s remained on the show since his season two debut. Even though one of his biggest hits as a rapper was “Cop Killer,” Ice-T told Page Six, “You think because I am a rapper I should have turned this down? That would have been stupid. I am about getting that check.”

Law and Order: SVU, Law & Order: SVUNBC

9. Several series regulars over the years had actually been on the show previously as different characters: Before Diane Neal played ADA Casey Novak (making her debut as the character in season five), she actually had a role in a season three episode, while Kellie Giddish appeared briefly in season eight before joining the squad full-time as Det. Amanda Rollins in season 13. Oh, and Peter Scanavino played a janitor in season 14 before going on to join the cast as Det. Dominick Carisi the following year.

10. Just before he left the series in its 12th season after serving as the team’s forensic psychiatrist for eight seasons (and has returned as a guest star over the years), SVU revealed B.D. Wong‘s fan-favorite character was gay.

“I had no idea throughout the time that I was doing the show for ten and a half years, so it felt a little cheap to me,” Wong admitted in a recent interview with KQED. “I was also kind of torn because, you know, it’s positive…but it did feel a little convenient or kind of lazy or, you know, kind of not particularly the best way that you want to come out as a character.

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11. In a somewhat ironic twist of fate, Ice-T was arrested on his way to set in 2018 for a traffic violation. “Cops went a little Extra. Coulda just wrote a ticket. In and out..  Moovin,” he later wrote on Twitter, adding, “I love how people think just because I ACT like a cop on SVU I get special treatment from real cops… lol.”

12. Rooney Mara made her acting debut on SVU in season seven, later recalling her time on the show in a headline-making interview with Allure: “It was so awful. So stupid.” The Oscar-nominated actress later attempted to back-track on her comments, telling HuffPo, “That was my first job. It couldn’t have been more exciting for me. It’s an experience I hold very dear to my heart.”

Zoe Saldana, Baby2Baby GalaStefanie Keenan/Getty Images for Baby2Baby

13. Zhile Zoe Saldana only appeared in one episode in 2004 as a law student, the initial hope was for the actress to become an assistant district attorney, according to the casting director Jonathan Strauss, who told Buzzfeed the Guardians of the Galaxy star was “one I had my eye on for a while.”

“In the end, it ended up not being practical because she became famous very quickly and the scheduling was too complicated,” he explained.

14. Before he became a TV heartthrob thanks to The Vampire DiariesPaul Wesley starred in the memorable SK seven episode, “Ripped,” and Strauss revealed that he beat out Channing Tatum and Penn Badgley for the role.

Law and Order: SVU, Law & Order: SVUNBC

15. In its 20-year history, only one SVU episode has never made it to air: “Unstoppable,” which was set to air in 2016 and featured Gary Cole playing a Donald Trump-esque character who is accused of sexual assault by multiple women during a political campaign. After initially postponing the airdate to after the debate, NBC shelved the episode indefinitely after Trump’s win over Hillary Clinton and it’s never aired.

16. The show’s original title was actually Sex Crimes, with Wolf explaining to TV Guide, “There was a lot of pressure to come up with an idea that was unique enough. The one thing I knew that people have an insatiable interest in is sex—the original title was Sex Crimes—but [then head of Studios USA] Barry Diller didn’t want to have ‘sex’ in the title so we went with the sex crimes unit’s official name [Special Victims Unit].”

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17. One phrase you won’t hear Fin say on the show anymore? “You know what—I haven’t said ‘that’s messed up’ in about eight years,” Ice-T told News.comAU, revealing the writers stopped using the character’s catchphrase after noticing an online drinking game.

That being said, a lot of Fin’s voice comes right from the rapper, who said, “When I first came on the show they used to try to write slang and I was like, ‘Let me do the slang.’ I ended up taking a lot of it out.”

18. Paula Patton was set to join the series in 2010 as the new ADA, but only appeared for one episode. What happened? She booked a part in Mission Impossible 4 and the SVU team decided to let her out of her contract, bringing in Melissa Sagemiller to replace her.

“I don’t want to stand in someone’s career path if they’re going to be in a huge feature film with Tom Cruise. So when she got that role, we recast ours,” then-executive producer Neal Baer explained of the shake-up at the time.

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19. A 2015 study published in the Journal of Health Communication found that SVU had a positive and educational impact on viewers, with their results finding that exposure to Law & Order was associated with “lower rape-myth acceptance,” greater intentions to seek consent for sexual activity, greater intentions to refuse unwanted sexual activity, and greater intentions to adhere to decisions related to sexual consent.

20. In 2004, Hargitay founded the Joyful Heart Foundation, an organization that supports sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse survivors, she advocated for sexual assault victims on Capitol Hill in 2010, and in 2017 she produced the HBO documentary I Am Evidence, which aimed to raise awareness of the thousands of untested rape kits sitting dormant in police labs due to underfunding and general bureaucratic inefficiency.

“Look, the character has taught me so much and obviously changed my life and…was the impetus for The Joyful Heart Foundation and has completely taken my life in a different direction, an extremely fulfilling one,” Hargitay told E! News of the career-defining role’s impact on her life. “No, it’s been nothing but a privilege to play her.”


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