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A-List Stars You Didn't Know Were On Law & Order: SVU

In its more than two decades on the air, "Law and Order: Special Victims Unit" has employed hundreds of actors. Led from the very first episode by Mariska Hargitay's stalwart detective Olivia Benson, the show's core cast of police and prosecutors is surrounded by an ever-changing collection of officers, lawyers, criminal offenders, witnesses, and victims. Thanks to the show's New York-based production, a fair number of Broadway actors have appeared on the show over the decades, from divas like Audra McDonald to newcomers like "West Side Story" breakout Mike Faist. For the most part, though, most of the show's recognizable actors outside of series regulars like Ice-T and BD Wong are former television stars or "Hey, it's that guy!"-style character actors.

Every so often, however, one of those small-time "Law and Order: Special Victims Unit" roles will be an early part in the career of a future Oscar winner or a young actor on the cusp of stardom. Even more rarely, there are occasions when the show will bring in a major star for a single episode or two, lending gravitas to the often-lurid "ripped from the headlines" episodes. Here is a list of  A-list actors who have appeared in "Law and Order: Special Victims Unit."

Mahershala Ali

Two-time Academy Award winner Mahershala Ali appears in the Season 11 premiere episode "Unstable" as Mark Foster, a former stock trader being investigated for sexual assault. When he is brought in for questioning, it soon becomes apparent that he is an unrepentant serial rapist and that Det. Stabler (Christopher Meloni) had arrested another man for one of his assaults years earlier. Foster's testimony could free an innocent man, but with a loose cannon cop (Wentworth Miller) with a violent streak working the case alongside Benson and Stabler, will Foster live long enough to testify?

By the time he appeared on "Law and Order: Special Victims Unit" in 2009, Ali had already made his mark on television, appearing as a regular on "Crossing Jordan," "Threat Matrix," and "The 4400." Roles on "Treme" and "House of Cards" would follow in the early 2010s, but his breakthrough year was 2016 when he starred as the villainous Cottonmouth in Season 1 of Netflix's "Luke Cage" and appeared in Barry Jenkins' coming of age drama "Moonlight." That role won him an Oscar for best supporting actor, an award he would win again just two years later for the period drama "Green Book." 

In 2021 he returned to the Marvel Cinematic Universe with a quick vocal cameo in "Eternals" as the vampire hunter Blade, a role that Marvel will expand on-screen.

Patricia Arquette

The Special Victims Unit joins the FBI's hunt for a man on an interstate shooting spree in the Season 14 episode "Dreams Deferred." When the killer (longtime "Special Victims Unit" utility player P.J. Brown) contacts veteran sex worker Jeannie, played by Patricia Arquette, Benson and Capt. Cragen (Dann Florek) use her as bait to draw him out into the open. Despite the life-or-death stakes of the manhunt, the episode focuses more on Jeannie's life on the street and Benson's efforts to get her reunited with her family.

Arquette had been a film and television star for over two decades when she made her splashy "Special Victims Unit" debut. Born into a showbiz family, Arquette and her siblings Rosanna, David, and Alexis all became notable actors. Patricia made her film debut as the lead in the horror sequel "A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors" in 1987. Throughout the 1990s she worked with directors such as Tony Scott in the Quentin Tarantino-penned "True Romance," David Lynch in "Lost Highway," and Martin Scorsese in "Bringing Out the Dead," which she appeared in alongside her then-husband Nicolas Cage. 

Starting in 2005, she starred in the NBC supernatural drama "Medium," for which Arquette won an Emmy and a Golden Globe. During this time, she was also filming what would become Richard Linklater's experimental feature "Boyhood," which documented a young man's adolescence in real-time across twelve years. Arquette won a Golden Globe and an Academy Award for her performance in 2015.

Alec Baldwin

Alec Baldwin plays Jimmy MacArthur, a tough-talking, hard-drinking celebrity newspaper columnist writing a profile of Benson in the Season 15 episode "Criminal Stories." The SVU is investigating the assault of a young Muslim woman in Central Park, but when inconsistencies emerge in her story, Jimmy publishes a column calling the crime a hoax. A furious Benson confronts him, but Jimmy is unwilling to retract or correct the story.

Baldwin got his start on television in the early 1980s, playing male ingenue roles on soaps like "The Doctors" and "Knots Landing." Leading man roles in films like "Beetlejuice," "The Hunt for Red October" and "The Edge" followed in the late '80s and '90s, but in the 2000s he began pursuing more idiosyncratic work. He even lent his voice to Wes Anderson's "The Royal Tenenbaums" and Kevin Smith's short-lived animated adaptation of "Clerks." 

In 2006 he returned to television as NBC boss Jack Donaghy on Tina Fey's behind-the-scenes sitcom "30 Rock," parodying his leading man past and establishing his career's second act as a full-fledged comic actor. In 2016 the longtime member of the "Saturday Night Live" Five-Timers Club became a de facto cast member with his impersonation of Donald Trump. Baldwin would make regular appearances on the show throughout Trump's term as President.

Elizabeth Banks

A pre-fame Elizabeth Banks stars in the Season 3 episode "Sacrifice." When a young man (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) is found shot and possibly raped outside of a gay bar, he is initially hesitant to cooperate with Benson and Stabler. At first, they believe that he is keeping a secret double life from his wife (Banks), but the truth turns out to be much more complicated, involving a violent, controlling adult film director (Tom Gilroy) and the couple's disabled daughter. Despite wrestling with a country-fried Arkansas accent, Banks makes a great impression as a woman caught in a situation with no good choices.

Just a few months before this episode aired, Banks starred in the cult comedy classic "Wet Hot American Summer," part of a stacked cast of future stars including Paul Rudd, fellow "Special Victims Unit" alum Bradley Cooper, and Det. Stabler himself, Christopher Meloni. Her skills as a comic actor won her roles in "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," "Role Models," "Scrubs," and "30 Rock," where she played a love interest of Alec Baldwin. Banks is no stranger to blockbuster franchises, either. She played Daily Bugle secretary Betsy Brant in Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man" trilogy and stole the show in the "Hunger Games" and "Pitch Perfect" films. 

In recent years she has worked behind the camera as a producer and director, helming "Pitch Perfect 2" and the 2019 "Charlie's Angels" remake while serving as executive producer on Aidy Bryant's Hulu series "Shrill."

Jon Bernthal

The titular "Goliath" of this Season 6 episode is the US Government, as the SVU's investigation of two Iraq War veterans who attacked their wives leads to a possibly toxic anti-malaria drug prescribed to soldiers. Jon Bernthal plays Sherm Hempell, a muckraking journalist who tips Benson and Stabler off that the drug may have triggered the violent outbursts. At first, Sherm comes across as one of any number of the sleazy journalists featured in "Special Victims Unit" over the years, but his crusade to expose the government's abuse of its own soldiers marks him as one of the good guys. By the end, he is even commiserating with Benson, Stabler, and Novak (Diane Neal) when their case hits a brick wall.

Bernthal had made just a few film and television appearances, including on an episode of "Law & Order: Criminal Intent," before "Special Victims Unit." He continued working for the next few years as an underrated character actor in films like "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian," where he plays Al Capone. In 2013 he had his breakthrough role in Martin Scorsese's "The Wolf of Wall Street" and three years later landed the role of The Punisher in Netflix's Marvel television universe. 

Since then, his star has only risen, taking lead and supporting roles in films like "The Many Saints of Newark" and "King Richard." In 2022 he starred in two different prestige limited series, HBO's David Simon crime drama "We Own This City" and Showtime's adaptation of Paul Schrader's "American Gigolo."

Bradley Cooper

The Season 6 episode "Night" was a two-part crossover with the single-season spinoff "Law & Order: Trial by Jury." When a Jane Doe is found raped and murdered with hundred dollar bills stuffed in her mouth, the trail leads to the scion of a wealthy and powerful family (Alfred Molina) who is protected by his politically connected mother (Angela Lansbury). First, though, the trail goes through the family's young hotshot attorney, played by Bradley Cooper in full smarm mode. Though his fingerprints are on those hundred-dollar bills left at the crime scene, Benson and Stabler intuit that he is not the killer but rather represents the killer as a client.

Cooper brings the same cocky energy and smug personality that made him a standout villain in "Wedding Crashers" that same year. Still, it would take a few years, and a few attempts in lead roles — most notably, as an Anthony Bourdain proxy on Fox's television adaptation of "Kitchen Confidential" — before stardom would strike. Eventually, his appearances in the megahit "Hangover" trilogy and voicing Rocket Racoon across the Marvel Cinematic Universe made Cooper a household name. During that time, he's earned critical acclaim and Oscar nominations for his work with directors Clint Eastwood, David O. Russell, and Guillermo del Toro. 

In 2018 he stepped behind the camera for the first time, directing and starring (alongside Lady Gaga) in a critically and commercially successful remake of "A Star is Born."

Adam Driver

Actress Meghan (Jenn Proske) is sexually assaulted during a live interactive theatre performance in the Season 13 episode "Theatre Tricks." Everyone in the audience was wearing masks, and several audience members took part in holding the actress down, thinking it was all part of the show. So who was the assailant? Benson and Amaro (Danny Pino) start with the most obvious suspect, a grade-A creep played by Adam Driver who was there that night and, among other things, also planted surveillance cameras in Meghan's apartment. While he is a stalker and a menace, he was not the attacker that night. The SVU's investigation will eventually put them in the orbit of a state judge (Kevin Pollak), Meghan's pervy director (Fisher Stevens), and a dark web escort site.

Driver is featured in just a handful of short scenes, but he brings the signature intensity and volatility that would make him a breakout star on the HBO comedy "Girls" just a few months after his "Special Victims Unit" episode aired. While his scene-stealing turns on "Girls" and in films like "Inside Llewyn Davis" made him something of an underground sensation, he would soon be world-famous thanks to the role of Kylo Ren in the Disney-produced "Star Wars" sequel trilogy. 

Despite tasting mainstream blockbuster success, Driver has remained committed to bold, unusual indie work, earning acclaim and awards attention for his roles in "Annette," "BlacKkKlansman," and "Marriage Story," among many others.

Isabelle Huppert

"She's French and a bit unbalanced." Such is the description of Sophie Gerard, played by French icon Isabelle Huppert in the Season 11 finale "Shattered." When a kidnapping plot to regain custody of her son goes tragically awry, Sophie suffers a mental breakdown and takes Benson, Marlowe (Sharon Stone), and Medical Examiner Warner (Tamara Tunie) hostage. As Stabler and the rest of the NYPD work to rescue the hostages, they discover that Sophie's husband, also among the hostages, knows more about their son's death than he is admitting.

Much like the episodes featuring Patricia Arquette and Alec Baldwin, "Shattered" exists mainly as a showcase for its guest star. Huppert rages and weeps, filling the screen with emotion and power. A star in France since the early 1970s, Huppert made her English language debut in Michael Cimino's infamous 1980 flop "Heaven's Gate." Huppert has been nominated for sixteen Cesar awards, the most of any French actress and second only to Gerard Depardieu, and won twice. First for the 1995 domestic drama "La cérémonie" and in 2017 for the Paul Verhoeven rape-revenge drama "Elle," for which she also received an Academy Award nomination. 

Beyond awards recognition, she has received acclaim for her bold, unflinching work with directors such as Michael Haneke, David O. Russell, and Neil Jordan.

Jeremy Irons

British actor Jeremy Irons makes two appearances on Season 12 of "Special Victims Unit" as Dr. Cap Jackson, a psychiatrist specializing in treating sex addicts who have a dark history of compulsion. In the episode "Mask," his estranged daughter and her partner are assaulted by a masked man who might be one of his patients. In aiding Benson and Stabler's efforts to find the assailant, Cap faces up to his own unforgivable past, as well as the limits of rehabilitation. Later in the season he turns up again in the episode "Totem," now working as a psychiatric consultant and aiding the SVU in their search for a sex offender who murdered a young girl.

Irons is one of England's most celebrated Shakespearean actors. On film, Irons made waves in the 1982 postmodern adaptation of "The French Lieutenant's Woman" opposite Meryl Streep, and won an Academy Award in 1991 for playing accused murderer Claus von Bulow in "Reversal of Fortune." For anyone Millennial age or younger, he is likely best known for voicing the villainous Scar in "The Lion King." In 2020, he was nominated for an Emmy for his turn as Adrian Veidt, aka Ozymandias, in HBO's "Watchmen," based on Alan Moore's groundbreaking graphic novel.

Rita Moreno

Bradley Cooper isn't the only A-list star to appear in the Season 6 crossover episode "Night." Stage and screen legend Rita Moreno makes a short but vital appearance early in the episode as neighborhood activist Mildred Quintana. Seen leading a candlelight vigil for the rapist's latest victim, she lays out the situation for Benson and Stabler. She explains that the immigrant women he prefers to attack are afraid to go to the police for fear of deportation. Since the police can't open an investigation without a victim's complaint, nothing ever gets done.

With a career stretching back to the early 1950s, it can be easy to take Moreno for granted; it feels like she has always been here. She is the rare recipient of the full EGOT, winning two Emmys, a Grammy (as a cast member of "The Electric Company"), an Oscar (for 1960's "West Side Story"), and a Tony. After many years of taking journeyman television roles on "Oz," "Where on Earth Is Carmen Sandiego," and others, she was discovered by a new generation thanks to her acclaimed turn on Netflix's remake of the 1980s sitcom "One Day at a Time." She was also put in front of new and old fans when she appeared in Steven Spielberg's 2021 remake of "West Side Story."

Now in her nineties, Moreno is still going strong.

Pedro Pascal

In the Season 12 finale "Smoked," a woman is gunned down just days before she is set to testify in a high-profile sexual assault case. Benson and Stabler find their suspect in a homeless man named Eddie (Michael Raymond-James). The only problem is that Eddie is working as a confidential informant for an ATF agent played by Pedro Pascal. Could it be that the SVU has the wrong man? The truth, as always, is more complicated and more tragic.

By the time he appeared on "Special Victims Unit" in 2011, Pascal had already been on the original "Law & Order" as well as the spinoff "Criminal Intent" more than once. After making his television debut in 1999, he spent the next decade-plus as a small screen journeyman, notching guest appearances on "Touched by an Angel," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," and "Nurse Jackie." He had recurring roles on "The Good Wife" and the short-lived boxing drama series "Lights Out." However, his breakthrough came in 2014 when he was cast as the sensuous, deadly Oberyn Martell on "Game of Thrones," followed by a lead role in the Netflix cartel crime drama "Narcos." 

Casual fans may know him best as the laconic bounty hunter Din Djarin on the "Star Wars" series "The Mandalorian," but Pascal is also a gifted comedic actor, as seen in his scenery-chewing turn as the villain of "Wonder Woman 1984" and in 2022's Nicolas Cage hall-of-mirrors romp "The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent."

Zoe Saldana

Questions of police bias and rehabilitation come to the fore in the Season 5 episode "Criminal." When a law student is found dead in Central Park, all signs point to her advisor, a reformed murderer Cragen had arrested decades earlier. Cragen and the rest of SVU are convinced of his guilt, but the man's daughter, played by Zoe Saldana, maintains his innocence and attests that he is a changed man. Is he — or is Stabler right when he tells Benson, "Once a killer, always a killer?"

"Special Victims Unit" caught Saldana just as her career was about to skyrocket. Though she had appeared in early 2000s sleepover classics like "Center Stage" and "Crossroads," she was far from a movie star in 2004. Later that year, however, she had a featured role in Steven Spielberg's comedy "The Terminal," and in 2005 starred opposite Ashton Kutcher and Bernie Mac in the "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?" riff "Guess Who." In 2009, Saldana appeared in two of her three major blockbuster film franchises with the premiere of "Avatar" and J.J. Abrams' "Star Trek." Her role as Gamora in Marvel's "Guardians of the Galaxy" films wouldn't premiere for another few years, but her involvement in the MCU would cement her position as a major figure in pop culture. 

Saldana also voiced the lead role in the 2021 Netflix animated adventure series "Maya and the Three" alongside fellow "Special Victims Unit" alum Rita Moreno.

Amanda Seyfried

A missing teenager played by Amanda Seyfried turns up at a construction site, hands bound and claiming that she was raped by a group of cadets from a nearby college. As holes appear in her story, Benson and Stabler expand their pool of suspects, including her stepfather (Michael O'Keefe), to get at the truth of what happened. Is she lying about the assault or lying about who committed it? If so, is she lying to protect herself, or someone she loves?

A soap opera veteran from an early age, Seyfried's big break came in the hit teen comedy "Mean Girls," which premiered in theaters just a few months before the Season 6 "Special Victims Unit" episode "Outcry." In the years since, she has built up an eclectic, versatile career, equally at home in Nicholas Sparks adaptations like "Dear John," Seth MacFarlane goof-offs like "A Million Ways to Die in the West," and throwback erotic thrillers like Atom Egoyan's "Chloe." She earned her stripes on television with roles on "Veronica Mars," "Big Love," and David Lynch's 2017 sequel season of "Twin Peaks." 

In 2022 she garnered some of the best reviews of her already well-regarded career as disgraced medical tech scammer Elizabeth Holmes in the Hulu miniseries "The Dropout."

Robin Williams

By the time he starred in the Season 9 episode "Authority" in 2008, Robin Williams had already established himself as a great dramatic actor as well as a great comedian. Here, he exudes the same quiet menace that he brought to films like "Insomnia" and "One Hour Photo" as Merritt Rook, an aerospace engineer who impersonates a police officer and orders a fast-food manager to molest an employee. At the trial, Merritt represents himself and uses the case to put forth a philosophy of social disobedience that wins him a lot of public support. However, this isn't the first time he's used his powers of persuasion to violent ends, and soon Benson and Stabler learn that his need to teach people a lesson is really a need for others to feel the same pain that he does.

Williams was arguably the biggest guest star in "Special Victims Unit" history, and the role won him the seventh Emmy nomination of his career. It also wasn't the first time that the "Aladdin" and "Good Will Hunting" star had appeared somewhat unexpectedly on an NBC crime drama. In 1994 he had earned another Emmy nomination for a particularly poignant episode of "Homicide: Life on the Street." Williams would make a few more random television appearances in the years after "Authority," most notably playing himself in an episode of "Louie" and an episode of "Spongebob SquarePants." In 2013 he starred in the one-season David E. Kelley dramedy "The Crazy Ones," his first regular starring role on television since the end of "Mork & Mindy" in 1982. Sadly, Williams died by suicide in August 2014.

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline​ at​ 1-800-273-TALK (8255)​.