On September 20, 1999, audiences were invited to explore another side of New York City, where crimes were “especially heinous.” The first spinoff of creator Dick Wolf’s successful Law & Order series, Special Victims Unit introduced viewers to a new team of “dedicated detectives” -- Oliva Benson (Mariska Hargitay), Elliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni), Monique Jeffries (Michelle Hurd) and John Munch (Richard Belzer), led by Capt. Don Cragen (Dann Florek) -- tasked with bringing justice for sexually based crimes.
Their stories quickly became beloved by audiences as the series not only became a ratings hit for NBC, but also earned critical acclaim -- including a historic run of Emmy nominations and wins for its guest stars -- and adoration among the many actors who passed through on their way to stardom.
“At its heart, it's a show about good versus evil,” Michaela McManus, who played ADA Kim Greylek on season 10, tells ET. “In a world that's increasingly scary and uncertain, people want to believe there are tireless champions like Benson and Stabler.”
In the middle of its 18th season, now starring Raúl Esparza (ADA Rafael Barba), Kelli Giddish (Det. Amanda Rollins), Peter Scanavino (Det. Dominick Carisi Jr.) and Ice-T (Det. Fin Tutuola) alongside Hargitay, SVU is just two seasons away from the record for longest-running live action prime-time scripted series (a title shared by the original Law & Order and Gunsmoke). On Wednesday, Feb. 8, it will air its 400th episode, a feat achieved by only eight other scripted programs over the past four decades.
“In the classic sense of television, the Law & Order formula is still very vibrant and effective in delivering a punch and a message,” Scanavino says, explaining why the show still works, while Giddish adds: “The viewers know the format by now, but the show still manages to surprise you.”
“They will never run out of stories,” Ice-T, who initially came on to do four episodes in season two and has stayed for the duration the series, says of Wolf and the writers, who continue to draw inspiration from real-world situations. “When they first decided to do this show they were wondering if there would be enough material, but it just keeps coming.”
Inspired by the 1988 prosecution of “preppie murderer” Robert Chambers by Linda Fairstein, who served as the head of sex crimes in Manhattan’s District Attorney’s office, Wolf became fascinated by the psychology of crime as it related to human sexuality. “It was really [Linda’s] brainchild to have this unit that we could fictionalize,” says Tamara Tunie, who has played Medical Examiner Melinda Warner since season two. What started off as a story idea for a 1990 episode of Law & Order turned into the concept for Law & Order: Sex Crimes, which served as the foundation for SVU.
“I knew when I read [the script] it was the greatest show I ever read for,” Hargitay says. After several false starts on short-lived series and numerous guest spots, the actress finally found her groove when she was cast as Cynthia Hooper on season four of ER, which at the time was co-produced by Neal Baer, who went on to be the showrunner for SVU seasons two through 12. “It was the beginning of something, and the trajectory of my life and career -- and certainly me as an actor -- changed from being on that show.” After 13 episodes on the No. 1 TV show on prime time, Hargitay thought her next stop should be Law & Order. “True story: I said, ‘That Dick Wolf likes brunettes,’” the actress recalls telling her agents. “’Can I be on that show, can you call them?’”
Within two months, the actress had an audition for the series. After flying in to New York from L.A., where she was living at the time, Hargitay met up with longtime friend Fisher Stevens, the actor-turned-director of Leonardo DiCaprio’s Before the Flood who appeared on Key West with her in 1993. “She was like, ‘God I want to move to New York,’” Stevens recalls. “She was actually hanging out with us when she got the gig.”
By the end of season five, in 2004, Hargitay had earned her first of eight Emmy nominations for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series, winning one in 2006. Very quickly, the actress became the heart of the series, both on- and off-screen. “It’s been the perfect marriage of storytelling with an actress on television,” Baer says, citing “911,” which earned the actress an Emmy, as his favorite episode of hers.
“She is the face of the show but also the face for empowered women,” Wolf says. “She capitalized on it in an incredibly positive way with her foundation, Joyful Heart, and used it in a way that you hope people would use their positions.”
In 2004, after the show had opened the public’s eyes to the epidemic of sexual assault and domestic abuse, Hargitay founded Joyful Heart with the intention of helping survivors heal and reclaim a sense of joy that was ripped from them. In addition to raising $32 million for services and goods for survivors and various prevention programs with her foundation, Hargitay has also helped raise awareness for untested rape kits and campaigned for the Violence Against Women Act, a bill written by Vice President Joe Biden.
One of the longstanding legacies of the show is easily the way it’s changed the dialogue about sex crimes. “We deliberately tried to demystify both the process and the perception of people who had been assaulted,” Wolf says, adding that reports of sexual assaults in New York City increased after the show premiered. “When the show started, many women didn’t come forward because they would be labeled [that] it was their fault.”
The show’s impact was further cemented when Biden appeared as himself on the season 18 episode “Making a Rapist” to talk about the backlog of untested rape kits. “When SVU started, a significant number of police departments didn’t have sexual violence units in their departments. It began to change the whole culture of policing. It’s not the only reason, but it was really important,” Biden told the press ahead of his appearance. “When I came out publicly and said you should be able to marry who you love, I had no doubt that the public was already there because of Will & Grace and a number of other programs. Entertainment changes culture. Responsible entertainment can have a phenomenal, positive impact. SVUis one of those programs.”
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.
“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