One of several permanent fixtures of the television landscape is the NBC crime procedural "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit." Also known as "Law & Order: SVU," the show premiered in 1999 and has aired for over 20 seasons, setting the record for longest-running primetime live-action series in the US along the way. Through it all, the show’s emotional core has been Olivia Benson, a main character since the first episode that continues to remain on the show, with no indication that she’ll depart any time soon.
The actress behind Olivia, Mariska Hargitay, has seen her star rise as well, as her portrayal has become an immediately recognizable aspect of television, even among those who aren’t regular viewers of the show. However, Hargitay was an established performer even before the show began, and her path to the role of Olivia Benson has had many twists and turns along the way. Here’s a look at the transformation of Mariska Hargitay from her childhood to her iconic run on "Law & Order: SVU."
Mariska Hargitay faced tragedy early in life
Mariska Hargitay was born in January 1964 to Jayne Mansfield and Mickey Hargitay. Her parents were no strangers to fame on their own, as Mickey was a former Mr. Universe championship winner, and Mansfield was a famous Hollywood actress. However, tragedy struck for Hargitay in 1967, when Mansfield died in a car accident. Hargitay, who was also in the car, ended up with a scar but was otherwise unhurt. She was subsequently raised by Mickey and his then-wife Ellen Siano, who became the mother figure in Hargitay’s life.
Hargitay also followed in her father’s footsteps, becoming Miss Beverly Hills USA in 1982 and going on to compete in the Miss California USA pageant in 1983, where she was less successful. She also went to the UCLA School of Theater Film and Television, but quit before she finished her degree.
Hargitay made her acting debut in the 1985 film "Ghoulies" as Donna. She followed that up with lead roles in subsequent years: "Welcome to 18," where she played Joey, and "Jocks," where she played Nicole. It wasn’t until 1986 that her career trajectory changed.
Hargitay takes on her first TV role
In 1986, Hargitay did something she hadn’t thought of before: She took a role on a television show. She made her first appearance in the 1986 CBS crime procedural "Downtown," and her co-stars included Robert Englund and Blair Underwood. The plot revolved around an LAPD officer named John Forney, who supervised four parolees in a halfway house. In turn, they helped him solve crimes. Hargitay was Jesse Smith, one of the parolees, and appeared in every episode of the show’s single season.
The show’s cancellation didn’t mark the end of Hargitay’s television acting career, as she continued to appear in guest turns in numerous TV shows. She appeared as Marsha Wildmon on an episode of "Freddy’s Nightmares – A Nightmare on Elm Street: The Series," which reunited her with Englund, who reprised his iconic role as Freddy Krueger on the show. She also appeared in 15 episodes of the soap opera "Falcon Crest," playing Carly Fixx, supposed half-sister to Dan Fixx (Brett Cullen). When it turns out the two aren’t related, they enter a romantic relationship, which leads to the exit of both characters from the show.
She also appeared in the third overall episode of "Baywatch" as Lisa Peters. Thus, while her only movie role for the rest of the decade was an appearance as herself in a documentary about the Mr. Universe contest, her acting career was just getting started.
Hargitay’s career continued to grow in film and TV
In 1991, Hargitay appeared in the lead role of Anita in "Hard Time Romance," a romantic comedy that marked the filmmaking debut of writer/director John Lee Hancock. That wasn’t her only appearance on the big screen that year, however, as she also showed up in the martial arts action film "The Perfect Weapon," where she played Jennifer, and the immigrant drama "Strawberry Road," where she played Jill Banner and starred alongside Toshiro Mifune and Pat Morita. She also appeared in an episode of the crime drama "Adam-12" in that same year, playing Michelle Brown in an episode titled "Anatomy of a Rape."
In 1992, Hargitay got another lead role on a TV series, this time in the CBS crime dramedy "Tequila and Bonetti." Hargitay portrayed Officer Angela Garcia, the human partner to Nick Bonetti, who begins the show by transferring from the New York Police Department to Los Angeles. Bonetti’s partner is a dog named Tequila, whose thoughts the audience can hear. Garcia also had a daughter, played by Troian Bellisario, who would go on to a lead role in "Pretty Little Liars." The show, however, only lasted for 12 episodes.
In 1993, Hargitay starred in the crime drama film "Bank Robber" alongside a cast that included Patrick Dempsey, Lisa Bonet, and Forest Whitaker. Over the next two years, she appeared in small roles in two major projects, as she showed up in the 1995 award-winning drama "Leaving Las Vegas" with Nicolas Cage and Elisabeth Shue, and in Season 4 of "Seinfeld."
Hargitay did a stint on another famous NBC series
Hargitay got another lead role on television in the 1995-1996 season, once again on CBS, in the sitcom "Can’t Hurry Love," where she played Didi Edelstein, a main character and friend to the show’s lead, Annie O’Donnell. She showed up in all 19 episodes of the show before once again finding herself on the wrong end of cancellation. She was also cast as a detective in two different series: "Cracker: Mind Over Murder" as Detective Penny Hatfield for an episode, and "Prince Street" as Detective Nina Echeverria, an undercover member of the NYPD Intelligence Division, for the show’s six-episode run.
Hargitay also appeared in a recurring role in the NBC medical drama "ER" as Cynthia Hooper. A recent transplant to Chicago, Hooper gets the job of desk clerk in the ER department after forging a personal connection with Dr. Mark Greene. While her inexperience in the position leads her to clash with some of the doctors, Hooper and Dr. Greene ultimately get into a relationship, though it’s clear the emotional investment is unequal between the two.
When Dr. Greene travels to California on a family emergency, Cynthia decides to follow him as a surprise, which leads to the revelation that he isn’t in love with her, causing the two to break up. When Dr. Greene returns to Chicago, he finds that Hooper has quit, and when he tracks her down and tries to rekindle the relationship, she rejects him, marking the end of Hargitay’s time on the show.
The beginning of an era
September 1999 marked the premiere of "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" on NBC. The show, hailing from creator Dick Wolf, was a spinoff from "Law & Order," and saw Hargitay take on the role of Detective Olivia Benson, a member of the Special Victims Unit, or SVU, the department that investigates sexually-based offenses. Benson was the child of a rape victim herself, which led her drive for justice, and she began the show partnered with Detective Elliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni). Benson and Stabler remained partners for 12 seasons until Meloni departed the show, and Benson subsequently got promoted to Sergeant in Season 15, Lieutenant in Season 17, and ultimately Captain in Season 21.
As Benson, Hargitay has appeared in almost 500 episodes of the show, which is currently in its 22nd season, with a renewal through Season 24 already confirmed. Hargitay has reprised the role in numerous other shows, including "Law & Order," "Law & Order: Trial By Jury," "Chicago P.D.," and "Chicago Fire." She has also made an in-character cameo in the sketch comedy series "Saturday Night Live," and has eight Primetime Emmy nominations for the role, winning the award in 2006. She has also been nominated for two Golden Globes for the role, winning one in 2005. In the process, Hargitay has become an iconic part of the pop culture landscape, and is sure to go down in television history for her work as Olivia Benson.