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The Transformation Of Christopher Meloni From Childhood To Law & Order SVU

Ask any die-hard fan of "Law & Order" and they'll tell you the same thing: there's no "SVU" without Olivia Benson and Elliot Stabler. For a dozen seasons, Mariska Hargitay and Christopher Meloni were the beating heart of the crime procedural, bringing their ace detective work to New York's most sensitive crimes. Before he was cast as Stabler, Meloni was a finalist alongside John Slattery and Tim Matheson (via E! Online). Fortunately, Dick Wolf recognized the immediate chemistry between Meloni and Hargitay, locking in one of television's best partnerships.

Meloni joined the cast of "Law & Order: SVU" upon the show's premiere in 1999. As Detective Stabler, Meloni brought hot-headed energy to "SVU," often countering his partner's more empathetic voice. Stabler's rage can best be seen in his hatred of pedophiles, who were often the subject of his excessive force. A father of five children, Stabler is also known as a family man, a characteristic that often informs his detective work. In 2011, Meloni announced that he would not be returning for Season 13 of "SVU," ushering in a ten-year pause from the series (via Deadline). To the delight of fans, however, Meloni returned to the world of "Law & Order" in 2021, leading the latest spin-off, "Law & Order: Organized Crime."

Though Meloni is probably best known for his place in the Dick Wolf empire, the actor had been appearing on screen for about a decade before landing the role of Stabler. Here's Meloni's transformation from his boyhood in Virginia to the streets of New York City.

Meloni was a high school football star

Christopher Meloni was born in Washington, D.C. in 1961 to a family of doctors. In an appearance on "Finding Your Roots," Meloni was able to delve into his family ancestry, unearthing his ties to 17th Century Canada and, on his father's side, Liguria, Italy. The series even gets to the story behind his surname — Italian for melon — revealing that it was given to his orphaned great-grandfather as a pejorative nickname (via CheatSheet).

Meloni relished growing up in Alexandria, Virginia, and its proximity to the urban environs of D.C. "Downtown Alexandria was a different world," he told Washingtonian. "It was really cool, with a sense of history and our Colonial past. I'm more of an urban guy, which is probably why I liked Old Town so much." While a student at St. Stephen's School, Meloni was the quarterback and captain of the football team, a team that went undefeated in 1978. In 2007, Meloni returned to his alma mater to tearfully induct his team into the school's athletic Hall of Fame. The actor joked, "Usually I have five takes before it has to go live" (via The Washington Post).

He worked as a bouncer and a bartender, among other odd jobs

While Christopher Meloni was tossing pig skins for the St. Stephen's Saints, it was his sister, Michele, who began to dabble in acting. Meloni wouldn't follow suit until college. While studying at the University of Colorado Boulder, he began taking acting classes. "CU was definitely the first place where I got a chance to really study people, how they interact and react," he told The Coloradan. "There was a lot of quality people watching."

After graduating in 1983 with a degree in history, Meloni moved to New York City to pursue acting full time and study under Sanford Meisner (via Backstage). To support himself in the early days of his acting career, he picked up a number of odd jobs that helped him pay the bills, including stints as a construction worker, bouncer, bartender, waiter, and personal trainer.

He reminisced about his myriad day jobs to Page Six in 2015: "To make a buck, I did anything. Worst was bouncer. You're a policeman without the pay. Bartending's best. I loved that. You're making people happy, and there's three feet between them and you." Unbeknownst to Meloni, his experience as a personal trainer would serve him well. Indeed, he played one in a 2014 episode "Veep," a series he later called his favorite D.C.-based show (via Washingtonian).

Meloni got his start in commercials and sitcoms

In the late 1980s, Christopher Meloni became a regular fixture of the commercial circuit, appearing in ads for McDonald's, Burger King, Slice, and Head & Shoulders. His very first ad, per an appearance on "Harry," was a TV spot for Quick, a fast-food chain then based in Belgium.

Per Page Six, Meloni's first screen test was for a soap opera, and the green actor still had a lot to learn about auditioning. "Fresh out of acting lessons, I was all method-y," he said. "I went sleazy. Grabbing the actress, I French-kissed her. Staring daggers at me, she said, 'You motherf****er!'"

Despite the bumpy start, Meloni began getting bit parts in various TV shows and made-for-TV films. In 1989, the former footballer put his athleticism to use and joined the sports-themed series "1st & Ten," acting alongside former NFL star (among other hobbies) O.J. Simpson. For 13 episodes, Meloni played Johnny Gun, an ex-con-turned-football player. He followed up the job with appearances on other '90s sitcoms, including a lead role in the short-lived "The Fanelli Boys," as well as multi-episode arcs in 1993's "The Boys" and 1995's "Misery Loves Company."

His first big film role was a mobster in Bound

Just as Christopher Meloni was beginning to rack up substantial TV credits, he also turned his eyes toward the big screen. In 1994, he nabbed his first film appearances with "Clean Slate" and the Arnold Schwarzenegger comedy "Junior." The next year he also had a small role in the Bruce Willis-led "12 Monkeys."

In 1996, Meloni teamed up with his "Fanelli Brothers" co-star Joe Pantoliano in "Bound," the Wachowski sisters' directorial debut. Starring Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon, the erotic crime thriller follows two women — one the unhappy partner of a mobster, the other an ex-con — who enter into an affair and plot to steal millions from the Mafia. In the film, Meloni plays Johnnie Marzonne, the hotheaded, trigger-happy son of Mafia boss Gino Marzzone (Richard C. Sarafian). Meloni's performance would lead to a number of other film roles in that decade, including in "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" and as Julia Roberts' jilted jock fiancé in "Runaway Bride."

The mid-90s would prove to be a time of both professional growth and domestic bliss for Meloni. According to a 2006 interview with YourTango, Meloni and his wife, Doris Sherman Williams, first met in 1989 while Sherman was working as a production designer on an HBO series. However, Sherman had a boyfriend at the time and it wasn't until the mid-90s that the time was right for Sherman and Meloni. The two married in Malibu in 1995 after two years of dating. They have two children.

He got a taste of police dramas in the late 1990s

Following his primarily comedic television roles and his turn as a mobster in "Bound," Meloni did a complete 180 and began taking on parts in a number of police procedurals, roles that surely provided him with the experience needed to eventually play Elliot Stabler of "Law & Order" fame. Meloni joined Season 4 of "NYPD Blue" for a five-episode arc on the Manhattan-based drama, in which he played Jimmy Liery, an arms dealer with a taste for piña coladas.

In 1997, he starred in the short-lived "Leaving L.A.," a darkly funny drama based in the L.A. County Coroner's Office. That same year, he also appeared in three episodes of "Brooklyn South." Despite the seasoned "NYPD Blue" alums Steven Bochco and David Milch at the helm, the series fell to 94th place in the ratings and was canceled after the first season (via PopMatters).

The next year, Meloni continued his hot streak of working with police drama royalty by joining a series named "Homicide: Life on the Street." Based on David Simon's book "Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets," the Baltimore-based series is considered by many to be a spiritual predecessor to HBO's "The Wire" (via The Guardian). In Season 7, Meloni appeared in the drama for a two-part episode as bounty hunter Dennis Knoll.

Meloni struck prestige TV gold with Oz

After years of unlucky cancelations and brief-yet-memorable performances, Meloni achieved star status with a regular role in "Oz." Though not as overtly celebrated as other HBO hits like "The Wire" and "The Sopranos," "Oz" is considered by many to be the series that set the network on a path toward domination in the Golden Age of Television (via Vulture).

"Oz" premiered in 1997, making it HBO's first hour-long drama series, and it aired for six seasons. Meloni was a cast member for the series' entire run, appearing in 38 episodes as serial killer Chris Keller, a character who is the exact inverse of Meloni's "Law & Order" character. Notably, this makes it all the more impressive that Meloni played both roles at once for a time; the two series overlapped for four years until "Oz" ended in 2003.

Interestingly, Meloni would sometimes shoot both "Oz" and "SVU" scenes on the same day, playing a sodomizing murderer in the morning and a sex crimes detective in the afternoon. "I often worried whether one was bleeding over into the other," Meloni told NPR. "Whether Elliot Stabler from 'SVU' was making Keller soft, or whether Keller was making Elliot, you know, just too...crazed." The actor credits the completely different energies on set with separating the two characters. Now, with over twelve years playing Stabler under his belt, it seems safe to say that Keller is no longer a threat to the "Law & Order" veteran.