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Law & Order Has Always Been A Second Home For Broadway Performers

It's fairly common knowledge that many of today's celebrity actors got their start by appearing in the "Law & Order" franchise. It's a well-established television institution: the original series is currently airing Season 22, with two spin-offs, "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" and "Law & Order: Organized Crime" following it. With 18 to 24 episodes per season, a case-of-the-week format, and at least 20 supporting actors needed to play the many lawyers, cops, witnesses, and victims required for each story, it's no surprise that they've needed thousands of actors over the years.

It's fun to watch reruns of the various "Law & Order" to catch some of the "prameos," or pre-cameos of stars who are famous now but weren't quite then. These include Emmy Rossum, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Sarah Paulson playing their first television roles in the original series, and Bradley Cooper in an early Season 6 episode of "SVU." A multitude of current Marvel Cinematic Universe stars debuted in the franchise, including Zoe Saldana, Chadwick Boseman, Viola Davis, Sebastian Stan, and "Stranger Things" star David Harbour. Even John Krasinski, before becoming forever known as Jim Halpert on "The Office," had an early role on "Law & Order: Criminal Intent."

Since the New York-based franchise is constantly in need of actors, and the lines between acting for television, movies, and theatre have now blurred, it's not surprising that "Law & Order" would be a second home for Broadway performers as well as screen stars — whether they're well established or just getting started.

Some Law & Order regulars were Broadway stars first

Just like "The Good Wife," "Sex and the City," "Evil," and other New York-based series, "Law & Order" is a hotbed for theatre actors to make some extra money. But "Law & Order" started filming in the Big Apple long before it became known for television production. The proximity of filming in the city can make it easier for actors (if complex for productions) to schedule both stage and screen gigs. What's more, showrunner Warren Leight knows these "money players" can handle it. As he told Deadline, they "hit their marks and can do it over and over." That can result in actors landing longer, recurring roles, or even a series-regular spot.

Jefferson Mays, who played multiple roles simultaneously in "A Gentlemen's Guide to Love and Murder," had a recurring role as a chief medical examiner moonlighting as a serial killer. And Andy Karl, who originated lead roles in the "Rocky," "Groundhog Day," and "Pretty Women" musical adaptations, played Sergeant Mike Dodds on "SVU" for 15 episodes in Season 17.

Even some "Law & Order" series regulars were famous for their stage work before reaching new audiences through the cop procedural. Jerry Orbach became Detective Lennie Briscoe from Seasons 3 through 14 after a lengthy Broadway career, creating roles in the musicals "Carnival!," "Promises, Promises," and "Chicago" in the 1970s. Before Jesse L. Martin portrayed Detective Ed Green from 1999 through 2008, he starred as Tom Collins in "Rent." Raúl Esparza, currently playing DA Rafael Barba on Season 23 of "SVU," is a four-time Tony nominee.

Hiring Broadway actors was a goal during the COVID shutdown

From familiar character actors lacking household names like Ronald Guttman, Dennis Boutsikaris, and Jessica Hecht, to well-known crossover stars like Bebe Neuwirth, Roger Bart, Billy Porter, and Laura Benanti, "Law & Order" has always made room for Broadway actors. Even creator Dick Wolf noticed the many credits in the program bios. "If you go to the theater and you're in New York and you read the playbill and the actor doesn't have a 'Law & Order' credit," Wolf told a Paley Center audience, "he's either just gotten here or he's really bad."

Though "Law & Order" has always been a lifeline for struggling actors, as one role can provide residuals for years, the franchise also helped well-established stage actors back on their feet after the coronavirus pandemic shuttered Broadway. "We are trying to hire every Broadway actor we can while we and they wait for the curtains to rise again," "SVU" showrunner Warren Leight tweeted in January 2021, knowing that live theatre would be closed longer than television. He also acknowledged that it's easier, logistically, to keep things close to home, telling Deadline, "We realized early on that we'll have to cast locally much more." Leight estimates that the show employed 10 theater actors in each episode of Season 22. "Everyone's aware that it's a horrible time," he told The New York Times. "And if you can help out, you do."