It was also the program that everyone wanted to be a part of. And for New York actors, it meant an opportunity for screen time and a paycheck. “I've been in the business a very long time and at the beginning of my career, there was no reciprocity between stage and film actors,” Broadway veteran Patti LuPone says. Having appeared on the original Law & Order and a 2015 episode of SVU, she credits the franchise for hiring theater actors in need of additional work. “For a lot of actors, that was their one opportunity to get on-camera time and get paid a really good wage,” adds Transparent star Amy Landecker, who says she stills gets residual checks in the mail for her two appearances in 2003 and 2005. “We all owed a lot to Dick Wolf.”
Of course, ask any actor and they’ll say appearing on the show in any fashion -- guest-starring or recurring, alive or dead, victim or villain -- is a rite of passage. And in its 18 seasons, a countless number of would-be stars have gotten their start on an episode of SVU. “It’s beyond a rite of passage if you go through and see the people who have been on the show,” Wolf says, taking pride in the casting of the likes of Philip Seymour Hoffman, who got his SAG card for appearing on the original Law & Order. “It’s phenomenal.”
In fact, four of the 2017 Academy Award acting nominees -- Mahershala Ali, Viola Davis, Isabelle Huppert and Michael Shannon -- have appeared on SVU. “One of my highlights was having Isabelle Huppert shoot me. That was just delicious,” Tunie says of the longtime French actress’ notable guest role on the season 11 episode “Shattered.” For Ali, who made a brief appearance in 2009, he says “it was great working on such an iconic show.”
Just about anybody who has appeared on SVU speaks highly of the show and its stars. It may be a well-oiled machine, as many describe it, but Hargitay and the rest of the cast have created a welcoming environment that has led to many standout performances. “This truly is -- and this is real -- that even if you came on for a day, you always felt like you're part of a family,” says Davis, who recurred on SVU as defense attorney Donna Emmett between 2003 and 2008 before becoming Annalise Keating on ABC’s How to Get Away With Murder.
MORE: 'SVU' Reunion! Christopher Meloni and Mariska Hargitay Reunite for Sweet Selfie
“Everyone comes on the show and goes, ‘I expected you to phone it in. I expected you to be over it.’ And I go, ‘I am so not over it. I’m just trying to be better. We all are,’” Hargitay says of the cast’s continued drive to do the best show possible.
“There’s a great phrase: Always be a beginner,” says Peter Gallagher, who has been recurring as Deputy Chief William Dodds since 2014. It’s an idea that’s easy to forget, especially on a long-running series, but that’s not the case with SVU. “What I’m most impressed with is how much energy goes into keeping it fresh. A lot of that comes from Mariska, who has this boundless energy and a desire to keep the show relevant and alive.”
While a lot of deserved credit is given to Hargitay’s longtime leadership on the series, it’s hard to ignore the writing, which has earned several Edgar Allan Poe Award nominations over the years. “They write so well,” Ice-T says. “When they keep giving us good scripts, it makes it fun.” And if the writing “stays good,” Wolf says the show can reach 21 seasons -- a goal of the creator and the cast alike -- and continue well beyond it.
When asked about his biggest takeaway from producing the show -- and the franchise as a whole, which has included four spinoffs, plus two upcoming series -- Wolf says that diligence is its own reward. “The biggest challenge, if you’re doing what I modestly call A-level television, is quality control,” he says of the cast and crew that have contributed to SVU’s success. “A-level work is not a hope, it’s an expectation.”
--Additional reporting from Darla Murray, David Batista, Desiree Murphy, Denny Directo, Jama Suchomel, Jennifer Peros, Leigh Scheps, Lexi Ciccone, Rande Iaboni and Valentina Valentini