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The Untold Truth Of Law And Order: SVU

For years, "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" has captivated television audiences with dramatic tales of murder and sexual assault that are "ripped from the headlines." Naturally, the people behind the scenes of the show have taken some liberties — okay, sometimes a lot of liberties — in incorporating those real-life stories into top-rated television procedural drama, but that doesn't mean there aren't plenty of actual fascinating facts associated with the show. As it turns out, while many of the episodes are only loosely based on actual real-life crimes, the "SVU" production history and cast offer up a lot of interesting — and, yes, 100 percent true — drama of their own. Whether you're a longtime fan of the series or simply curious about what goes on behind the scenes of a show from one of television's most popular and enduring franchises, here's an in-depth look at the untold truth of "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit."

The series almost had a much darker title

Dick Wolf, creator of the original "Law & Order" drama, initially planned for his new series to be titled "Law & Order: Sex Crimes." Barry Diller, head of the studio that would produce the show at the time, didn't want "sex" in the title. After conversations between Wolf and the other producers, they made the decision to name the show "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit." The new title still tied it to Wolf's wildly successful "Law & Order" franchise, while being more palatable to nervous network execs and the viewing public. The title also honored the officers of NYPD's real-life Special Victims Division, who handle investigating sexually based offenses in all of New York City's five boroughs.

A longtime star of the show started with only a small part

Rapper and actor Ice-T portrays Detective Odafin "Fin" Tutuola in the "SVU" squad room. Over the many seasons he's been featured on the series, he's become a fan favorite for his portrayal of the street-smart, no-nonsense detective, but Tutuola's occasionally strained relationship with partner Detective John Munch (portrayed by Richard Belzer) almost never happened. The rapper only agreed to four episodes at first because he was concerned about the "brutal" shooting schedule, saying in his memoir, "I'd rather have less money and more freedom." But Ice-T signed on for the long haul after he was reassured that as part of an ensemble cast, the hours wouldn't be grueling and the residuals he'd earn as a series regular on a potentially long-running show would earn him a steady post-show income, like — to quote Ice — a "little money machine."

Speaking of Richard Belzer...

Richard Belzer became an original cast member of "SVU" when he asked the show's producers if he could reprise his role as Detective John Munch. Munch was previously a character on the original "Law & Order" series as well as the TV crime drama "Homicide: Life on the Street." Dick Wolf reportedly loved the idea, and added Munch to the lineup. The addition of Belzer as Munch made "Special Victims Unit" the only primetime television drama to be spun off from two separate shows. Belzer would go on to become the King of Crossovers, appearing as Munch in a record ten different television programs across five different networks. His guest appearance in the 17th-season "SVU" episode "Fashionable Crimes" marks the 23rd season that the character has appeared on TV.

Mariska Hargitay takes method acting to a whole new level

Shortly after being cast in the series as Olivia Benson in 1999, actor Mariska Hargitay actually became a trained rape victim advocate after her fan mail switched from mainly autograph requests to victims sharing their stories with the woman behind the fictional detective. Her dedication to victims of sexual assault didn't stop there — Hargitay established the nonprofit Joyful Heart Foundation in 2004. The charity provides support to survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence, and child abuse. The foundation even brought experts in the field together with the writers and producers of "SVU" to help craft storylines for the show.

The highest-paid cops in the country

By season 12 of "SVU," series stars Christopher Meloni and Mariska Hargitay had entered the ranks of television's highest-paid actors on a drama. Each were earning nearly $400,000 an episode, an amount that TV Guide claimed at the time was only exceeded by Hugh Laurie of "House, M.D." At the end of season 12, Meloni departed the cast after being unable to negotiate acceptable terms of his contract with the network. After his departure, Hargitay was reported to be earning $450,000 an episode in season 16, and $500,000 an episode for season 17.

How a lawmaker became a major part of the show

You're probably familiar with the iconic opening monologue of every "Law & Order" show, which begins with the phrase, "In the criminal justice system." Steven Zirnkilton provided these narrations after he was hired by series creator Dick Wolf for a small acting part on the original "Law & Order" series. If Zirnkilton's name sounds familiar to residents of the Northeast, that's because he actually served four terms as a lawmaker in the Maine State House of Representatives.

Why SVU is still around all these years later

At the time of this writing, "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" is the longest-running scripted non-animated U.S. primetime TV series since the cancellation of the original "Law & Order" in 2010. "SVU" started its 23rd season on September 23, 2021, airing its 500th episode roughly a month later. Why is the show so wildly popular with its devoted fans? Some actors say it's the subject matter and the great storytelling. Survivors of sexual assault and law enforcement officers regularly approach the actors to thank them for their portrayal of such an important subject. Whatever the reason for its stunning success, we hope that we'll continue to see Detectives Benson, Tutuola, and the rest of the cast continue to put away bad guys for years to come.

Taylor Swift's obsession with the show

Over the years, "Law & Order: SVU" character Olivia Benson has attracted legions of fans. Among them is singer and performer Taylor Swift, who's reportedly obsessed with both the show and the gritty female detective portrayed by Mariska Hargitay. Swift is such a big fan of the show that she even named one of her cats after Olivia, and the pampered kitty (and her adopted feline sibling Meredith) have their own gigantic following on social media, where Swift posts pictures of the cats to her millions of Instagram followers.

Christopher Meloni got started in commercials

As the steely-eyed and sometimes temperamental Detective Stabler on "SVU," Christopher Meloni and his dynamic partnership with Mariska Hargitay's character Olivia were one of the best parts of the show. We can thank the acting gods for letting Meloni get picked up for big-time acting roles, first on the HBO drama "Oz," and then on "SVU." Before his big break, Meloni made a living as a construction worker and bouncer while also appearing in commercials. We can't really imagine any lady actually going for "Larry's" pickup strategy in the Meloni McDonald's clip seen here, but maybe Meloni's rugged good looks make up for his commercial character being a total cheapskate.

The secret code

For most of the show's run, "Law & Order: SVU" episode titles have followed some sort of naming formula. From the third season through the 12th season, every episode title (except one) was a single word. From the 13th season onward, episode titles were changed to be two words, but the two words always had the same number of letters as the number of the current season. For example, "Acceptable Loss" (from Season 14) contains 14 letters, and "Manhattan Transfer" (from Season 17) has 17 letters. When Season 18 premiered in late 2016, it became quickly apparent that the writers decided they couldn't keep up with the difficult naming scheme, and all the episode titles since have followed no specific pattern.

Law & Order: SVU has set all kinds of longevity records

"Law & Order: SVU" isn't just a venerable and reliable hit for NBC, it's one of the most enduring TV shows in television history. When it was renewed for its 21st season in March 2019 (per The Hollywood Reporter), it surpassed 20-season stalwarts "Gunsmoke" and parent series "Law & Order" to become the longest-running drama, live-action series, and live-action spinoff of all time. In 2021, the series entered its 23rd season, and as far as scripted primetime TV shows are concerned, only animated comedy "The Simpsons" outpaces it.

Mariska Hargitay, who has portrayed New York Police Department detective Olivia Benson since "Law & Order: SVU" began in 1999, and with no interruptions, holds another TV record all on her own. With the 21st season renewal, Benson became the longest-running primetime character in history, with Hargitay overtaking James Arness and Kelsey Grammer, who portrayed Sheriff Matt Dillon on "Gunsmoke" and Frasier Crane on "Cheers" and "Frasier" combined, respectively, for 20 seasons each.

Jennifer Love Hewitt could have replaced Mariska Hargitay

Mariska Hargitay has amassed a record-breaking run of 20-plus seasons on "Law & Order: SVU," but her streak nearly ended in 2011. Jennifer Love Hewitt, who has dozens of TV credits to her name, nearly took over the top spot in the cast of "Law & Order: SVU." She appeared on a 2010 episode as Vicki Sayers, a victim of multiple assaults who helps Hargitay's character, Det. Olivia Benson, catch and lock up a serial rapist. Hewitt almost replaced Hargitay in the role of Special Victims Unit detective and partner to Elliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni). According to TV Line (via the New York Daily News) in May 2011, Hargitay signed a new deal with "SVU" producers to work less hours but at the similar salary she'd been receiving ($385,000 per episode), which meant the show would need to make up for the lack of Benson — prompting them to consider hiring Hewitt.

The arrangement ultimately never came to fruition; Meloni left "SVU," Hargitay stayed on, and Hewitt never appeared on the show again.

Law & Order: SVU saved a girl from kidnapping

According to NBC's "Today," one morning in May 2021, an 11-year-old girl identified in news reports as Alyssa was waiting for her school bus in Escambia County, Florida when a man attempted to kidnap her. "The man got out of his vehicle holding a knife, came towards me and I tried to run, but he caught me," Alyssa said. The perpetrator tried to drag Alyssa away, but she struggled so much they both fell to the ground, prompting the man to run back to his car and drive off, the kidnapping thwarted.

Hours later, authorities captured and arrested the man, thanks in part to an identifying clue planted by Alyssa. While waiting for the bus, she'd been combining blue paint with homemade slime, and during the attack, she had the wherewithal to slap some on the attacker's arms. Alyssa got the idea from an episode of "Law & Order: SVU," when she'd seen a potential kidnapping victim similar "mark" their assailant. "I knew that might be better evidence if the cops do find him," Alyssa explained. "The suspect, when we caught him, had blue slime all over his arms," Escambia County Sheriff Chip Simmons said at a press conference.

"Law & Order: SVU" star Mariska Hargitay wrote about Alyssa's story on her Instagram account. "I am so honored to be part of your incredible story," the actor said. "I think the SVU squad might have to add slime to their crimefighting gear!"

Law & Order: SVU has employed a lot of actors, and some in multiple roles

"Law & Order: SVU" has been airing for so long — NBC aired the 500th installment of the series in October 2021 — that it's become one of the most reliable employers of actors in the New York-based sector of the entertainment industry. Over the course of its two decades-plus in production, literally thousands of actors have appeared on the show, either as regular cast members, recurring characters, or in one-shot guest star-gigs as law enforcement officers, legal professionals, suspects, and crime victims. That talent pool, while large, is only so large, however, and a few up and coming actors who paid their dues with a short or small arc on "Law & Order: SVU" returned to the series years later as main cast members — and playing entirely different roles.

Kelli Giddish landed one of her first onscreen jobs in the 2007 "SVU" episode "Outsider" as an assault victim. In 2011, Giddish returned to the series (and joined the primary cast) as Detective Amanda Rollins. Diane Neal regularly portrayed Assistant District Attorney Casey Novak from 2003 to 2008, following an earlier one-episode stint in 2001 as a suspect. Peter Scanavino joined "Law & Order: SVU" in 2014 as detective-turned-ADA Dominick Carisi, Jr., having already played a criminal assailant in a 2013 episode in addition to single-episode runs on sibling shows "Law & Order," "Law & Order: Criminal Intent," and "Law & Order: Trial by Jury."

Law & Order: SVU is full of Broadway stars

As one of the few dramas to film in New York, "Law & Order: SVU" has access to a huge pool of theater actors. "It's actually gotten to the point where if I go to the theater and open the 'Playbill' and the actor doesn't have one of the 'Law & Orders' in his or her credits, I figure they just got off the bus [to New York] or they are really bad,'" "Law & Order" franchise creator Dick Wolf told the New York Times in 2003, a year in which the casts of Broadway hits "Nine," "Gypsy," and "Salome" included a combined 15 "Law & Order" veterans. In 2021, when "SVU" was in production but Broadway was shut down over coronavirus concerns, the  showrunner Warren Leight (who wrote "Side Man," 1999 Tony Award winner for Best Play) told Deadline that he was committed to getting "as many jobs to as many theater actors" as possible. Leight granted "SVU" gigs to theater stars Adriane Lenox, Eva Noblezada, Alex Brightman, Elizabeth Marvel, and Michael Mastro.

Stage and "SVU" actors are often one and the same. After "Hamilton" premiered in 2015, stars Leslie Odom Jr. and Daveed Diggs turned up on "SVU," Tony winner Laura Benanti has appeared on nine episodes, "The Producers" scene-stealer Roger Bart played a serial rapist, and Jefferson Mays (a Tony winner for "I Am My Own Wife") recurred on "SVU" as serial-killing medical examiner Dr. Carl Rudnick.

Why Christopher Meloni left Law & Order: SVU

"Law & Order: SVU" debuted in 1999 with a cast anchored by Mariska Hargitay and Christopher Meloni, who would play emotionally driven NYPD Detective Elliot Stabler for 12 seasons. But suddenly, at the outset of Season 13 of "Law & Order" SVU in the fall of 2011, viewers learned that Stabler was no longer part of the Special Victims Unit, as the detective had retired — offscreen — after his sixth in-the-line-of-duty shooting.

Meloni's exit was abrupt and startling for long-time "SVU" viewers, but it wasn't particularly scandalous — merely the result of a business disagreement that couldn't be resolved. Production company NBC Universal and Meloni entered contract renegotiations in early 2011, according to TV Line, and disagreed on the actor's salary. According to Vulture, the company offered Meloni $8 million for the upcoming season, significantly less than the $9 million or so he'd earned previously. Meloni opted to walk away, but returned to the franchise in 2021 with the spinoff "Law & Order: Organized Crime."

Two other "SVU" characters disappeared for plot reasons, and to inject a bit of realism into the series. "NYPD has mandatory retirement before your 63rd birthday," showrunner Warren Leight told ScreenerTV. "You can't have 65-year-old guys running after guys. It is a hard and fast rule." The characters Captain Donald Cragen (Dann Florek) and Detective John Munch (Richard Belzer) both hit that aging-out threshold, and were largely written off the show.

The Vice President guest-starred on Law & Order: SVU

In 2016, future President Joe Biden, at the time Vice President of the United States, guest-starred on an episode of "Law & Order: SVU." It's extremely rare for someone so politically elevated, and at the time a sitting executive, to appear on an entertainment television show. In 1970, Vice President Spiro Agnew made a brief cameo on the "The Red Skelton Hour" and 30 years later, outgoing Vice President Al Gore turned up on a "Saturday Night Live" primetime special. But Biden, serving in the Barack Obama administration, showed up on two NBC series while he was Vice President: two episodes of "Parks and Recreation," and the "Making a Rapist" installment of "SVU."

Raising awareness of, and eliminating the prevalence of, campus assaults was one of VP Biden's pet causes, which thematically aligns with the content of the NBC drama series. According to The Daily Beast, Biden established the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault, and on his 2016 "SVU" episode, he opens the show, honoring Lt. Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) for leading the Special Victims Unit team in working through the substantial backlog of untested rape kits.

Mariska Hargitay and Christopher Meloni are extremely close

There are only a handful of classic TV detective duos: Starsky and Hutch, Cagney and Lacey, Simon and Simon, and, from "Law & Order: SVU," Elliot Stabler and Olivia Benson. Portrayed by Christopher Meloni and Mariska Hargitay for the first 12 seasons of the series, the pair had a natural chemistry that fueled the onscreen pairing that was central to the show's structure and success.

The actors are so close, according to Meloni, that he knew certain things about his co-star before she did. In 2002, Peter Hermann made his first of a few dozen appearances on "Law & Order: SVU" as lawyer Trevor Langan, which is where he met Hargitay. In 2004, Hermann and Hargitay married, and they've since had three children together. Meloni predicted the couple would make it. "After they'd been dating a long time, she came in one day and she was crushed," Meloni told People. "She goes, 'Peter and I had a really deep, long conversation. We cried, and I just don't think it's going to work.' And she's sobbing, and the whole time, the bubble in my head was just: 'You'll be married within five months.' That's all I was thinking. I knew."

Meloni considers Hargitay such a positive influence on his life that he made his former co-star his daughter's godmother.

Other actors almost starred on Law & Order: SVU

The rapport between original "Law & Order: SVU" stars Mariska Hargitay and Christopher Meloni was palpable even before the show began production. According to People, casting directors paired the two actors for a screen test, although Hargitay initially figured she'd be paired with another contender for the role of Detective Elliot Stabler: John Slattery, who'd lose out on the part but would later find fame as '60s ad man Roger Sterling on "Mad Men." "I walked in, saw him, and I went, 'That guy. That's the guy,'" Hargitay said of the moment she knew Meloni would be her eventual co-star.

Hargitay and Meloni outlasted and outperformed other notable actors for the lead roles on the series that would keep them employed for decades. According to "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit Unofficial Companion," the other finalists for the part of Det. Olivia Benson were Samantha Mathis ("Billions") and Reiko Aylesworth ("24"). For Stabler, Meloni beat "Animal House" and "The West Sting" actor Tim Matheson and character actor Nick Chinlund.

The effect of 9/11 on Law & Order: SVU

The flavor and setting of New York City is vital to the sensibility and plotting of "Law & Order: SVU." The tragic terrorist attack that besieged the city on Sept. 11, 2001 had an immediate and lasting impact on the series and the people who make it. Season 3 of the show was in production in September 2011, per the New York Times, and the show's sets, located in the Chelsea Piers area of Manhattan, were temporarily displaced when that part of the city became a staging ground for relief organizations. The production also allowed search-and-rescue teams to use its high-powered lights in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. And while "Law & Order: SVU" often takes inspiration from real-life news stories for its plots, creator and producer Dick Wolf said 9/11 wouldn't directly factor into the series. "Our characters may make reference to it, as any New Yorkers would," he said.

Images of the destroyed World Trade Center towers were removed from the establishing shots in the opening credits, and Wolf also canceled plans for a suddenly too-real-feeling crossover event — a miniseries featuring characters from "Law & Order," "Law & Order: SVU," and "Law & Order: Criminal Intent," as they come together in the wake of a terrorist attack on New York's subway system.

There's a lost episode of Law & Order: SVU

An episode of "Law & Order: SVU" called "Unstoppable" was scheduled to air in mid-October 2016, early in the show's 18th season and just before the United States presidential election. According to Deadline, the installment was inspired by the candidacy of Donald Trump — Gary Cole played a wealthy, polarizing, and outspoken celebrity and political outsider who unexpectedly makes a play for the presidency and sees those ambitions potentially derailed when a woman comes forward and accuses him of sexual assault (allegations also leveled against Trump, per the AP).

NBC delayed airing the particularly and potentially controversial episode, first by two weeks and then to mid-November, after the election. Then, following Trump's surprise victory, the network indefinitely delayed "Unstoppable," choosing to not broadcast it at all during the 2016-2017 season, per Deadline. As of this writing, the episode remains shelved and unseen by the general public.

Law & Order: SVU is part of a vast interconnected TV crimefighting universe

Every scripted "Law & Order" show is connected. All those procedural shows, including "Law & Order," "Law & Order: Criminal Intent," "Law & Order: Trial by Jury," "Law & Order: LA," "Law & Order: Organized Crime," and "Law & Order: SVU" were all created and executive produced by Dick Wolf, and on occasion, the characters of one show would pop up on another because they all take place in the same fictional universe.

However, "Law & Order" isn't Wolf's only successful television franchise about public servants. He's also responsible for NBC's "One Chicago" franchise, comprising "Chicago Fire," "Chicago Med," and "Chicago P.D.," and CBS' "F.B.I." shows, which include "F.B.I.," "F.B.I.: International," and "F.B.I.: Most Wanted." Not only do all the series connect to their similarly branded cohorts, but every one of these Dick Wolf shows thus connects to every other Dick Wolf show. In 2019, the producer plotted out a rare multi-network crossover in which characters from NBC's "Law & Order" and "One Chicago" brands interacted with characters from CBS' "F.B.I." series.

Mariska Hargitay suffered an injury while shooting Law & Order: SVU

During her two-decades-plus tenure as Det. Olivia Benson on "Law & Order: SVU," Mariska Hargitay has only missed a handful of episodes. One of those came in 2009, right after the actor suffered a serious on-set accident while filming an action-heavy shot.

"I've been doing my own stunts on the show for 10 years," Hargitay told People (via TV Guide). "I fell wrong, basically. I collapsed my lung doing a stunt." In January 2009, Hargitay had to take some time off from "SVU" to attend to her injuries and health, and underwent surgery to correct the lung issue. After returning to the set of her show weeks later, Hargitay was once more hospitalized for post-injury, post-surgical discomfort. After being given a clean bill of health, she was playing Det. Benson again within three weeks. "I'm back to my old self," Hargitay reported.