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The Transformation Of Tamara Tunie From Childhood To Law And Order SVU

Actress Tamara Tunie has been playing New York City Medical Examiner Melinda Warner on "Law and Order: Special Victims Unit" since its second season, and it's now into its 23rd. During that time, the strong and dedicated professional she plays has acted as an important ally to the Special Victims Unit team, but she has also gotten more closely involved in cases than a regular medical examiner might — as when she shot a bank robber in the leg in "Blast," and has also had some harrowing experiences of her own, like when she was shot during a standoff in "Shattered."

Tunie has become so seamlessly integrated into the show, it's sometimes hard to imagine her anywhere else. Yet the actress is a longtime industry veteran with many high profile credits in theater, movies, and television to her name, both before and during her 2001-2021 tenure on the "Law and Order" spinoff. If you're interested in how she transformed from her beginning years to the street-smart medical examiner you see every week, we have all her important career highlights covered.

Tamara Tunie began her professional career in the theater

According to Film Reference, Tamara Tunie was born in McKeesport, Pennsylvania in 1959; she says in her official bio that she considers herself a Pittsburgh native. She may have gotten her first taste of the limelight when she was a contestant in the Miss Black Teenage Pageant in the 1970s (via TVGuide). She graduated from Carnegie-Mellon University's musical theater program in 1981, which was also the year she began her Broadway career in "Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music." Those first professional experiences made a big impact on her. 

"I studied theater at Carnegie-Mellon University and when I first came to New York all I did was theater, so theater has always been my first love. But I was determined to break into film and television, which fortunately I was able to," she told SideWalks in an interview (at the 1:00 mark). "But I always go back to the theater." Her transformation from young thespian to well-regarded television actor thus includes some back-and-forth so she can indulge in different media types she enjoys.

To this day, she still acts in and produces theatrical works

That theatrical career has spanned decades and earned Tunie plenty of accolades in both regional and national productions, like "Julius Caesar," "Oh Kay," "American Son," "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," "Anthony and Cleopatra," and Shakespeare productions such as "Troilus and Cressida" in Central Park. She even started producing her own Broadway shows, including 2006's "Spring Awakening" (which won the 2007 Tony for Best Musical), 2007's "Radio Golf" and 2012's "Magic/Bird" (via Playbill). 

In 2018, Tunie became the first African-American woman to play the role of Prospero in Pittsburgh Public Theater's production of "The Tempest." In 2019, Tunie also starred in the contemporary, reimagined version of the iconic musical "42nd Street," which ran at St. Paul, Minnesota's Ordway Center for the Performing Arts (via Playbill).

"Theres something about live performance that's just very empowering, if you will, and also the connection with the audience, like even in this room, you can feel the energy, it's a give and take situation, it's reciprocal ... For actors, I feel like, the theater is where we have the most control over our performance, and we also have the luxury of rehearsal," Tunie said about her deep love for the art form on "The Jason Show." 

Tunie started her TV career with As The World turns

You may think that Tunie's run on "Law and Order: SVU," encompassing more than two decades, is an abnormally long one, but she is no stranger to longevity in her television stints. She spent 15 years on the soap opera "As the World Turns," playing Jessica Griffin. She originated the role in 1987 and played Jessica through 1995, then returned to the role from 2000-2007 (via Soap Central). Jessica quickly established a place in Oakdale as an attorney, and over the years experienced the type of drama you consistently find in the soaps. Her storylines included several romances, prosecuting murder suspects who were her friends, having affairs, getting blackmailed, becoming a rape victim, indirectly taking a role in someone's death, and dealing with motherhood. 

"It was a well-oiled machine and a family," Tunie said on "The Jason Show" about her long-term experience there. "It's the most difficult because you're getting a new script every day ... The script is 70 pages, you're shooting an hour — well, 47-minute show, and even though the storylines kind of drag out so you kinda know generally what's going on, but it's a new script every day and you have to be really fast and really quick and be able to memorize and make choices and go with it and hit it and knock it out and get out by 7 o'clock so everybody can go home and be with their families."

She's done so many exciting TV, movie, and theater projects

"As the World Turns" was one of Tunie's very first television roles, but during her tenure on that show, she took on many guest-starring turns on shows like "Law and Order," "Chicago Hope," "NYPD Blue," "Sex and the City," and "24," in which she had a recurring role as Alberta Green, the Assistant Regional Division Director during the events of Day 1, the first season. You may notice that her years on "As the World Turns" and "Law and Order: SVU" overlap, so she has been quite busy, especially when you factor in all her theater appearances. Still, she has continued to act, and her recent work has also included some longer recurring gigs with shows like "Blue Bloods" in 2016-2018, "Dietland" in 2018, "Better Call Saul" in 2017-2018, "Black Earth Rising" in 2018 and "Almost Family" in 2019-2020. Whew, we're getting exhausted just thinking about it all. 

She has said that "The Red Road," a two-season series she did for SundanceTV, is one of her favorite projects because it allowed her to connect with the Native American part of her culture as matriarch Marie Van Der Deen. "Her ancestry is very similar to my own in real life," she told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "I have Native American blood. I have African blood. I have European blood. And so it was the first time that a role was presented to me that actually completely embraced my entire DNA makeup, so I was really excited."

She has also worked on movies like 1996's "City Hall," 1997's "The Devil's Advocate," 1997's "Eve's Bayou," and 2012's "Flight." It's clear that her "As the World Turns" and "Law and Order: SVU" work has gotten her many fans and opened doors for her, helping her become a versatile performer in several types of media.

Tunie's experienced longevity in her personal life too

Now that she's become such a well-established actor, Tunie is involved in plenty of philanthropic ventures. She is an active member of Carnegie Mellon's Board of Trustees, following her election in 2020. According to her personal bio, she is Chair Emerita of the Board of Directors of Figure Skating in Harlem, where she lives. She also serves on the Board of Directors at Harlem Stage/The Gatehouse and God's Love We Deliver, sending home-cooked meals to sick people. Additionally, she serves on the Advisory Board of Hearts of Gold and the Center for Military Medical Research in her hometown of Pittsburgh.

She's a Pittsburgh Steelers fan, her Twitter account reveals. She sometimes posts about political issues there. She appears to enjoy traveling both for work and fun, sharing images on Instagram from trips to Niagara Falls, New Zealand, and Thailand (pre-pandemic). Tunie has been married twice, to Greg Bouquett until 1991, and then to jazz musician Gregory Generet from 1995-2015 (via E!). This is a woman who is a magnet for long-lived projects, both in her personal and professional pursuits.