In the world of television, few series are more iconic than Law & Order. Although it’s been almost two decades since Angie Harmon appeared on the program, fans haven’t forgotten the actress and her role as A.D.A Abbie Carmichael. The actress’ life and career, however, weren’t limited to the New York City set. There was a lot more to Harmon than scripted courtrooms and plea bargains.
These days, film and TV fans know Angie Harmon as a talented actress who has appeared in projects like Law and Order and Rizzoli & Isles. Growing up, however, she seemed destined for a different career.
Getty Images / Paul Archuleta/WireImage
Growing up, Harmon made a name for herself as a child model. Angie wasn’t content sticking to the local scene, though. Before long, she found herself striding into the national spotlight.
Angie Harmon / Twitter
As a teenager, Harmon entered a Seventeen Magazine modeling contest; she beat out more than 50,000 contestants to claim the top spot. That early success, though, was just the beginning.
A few years later, Harmon entered the Spectrum Model Search; once again, she emerged as the winner. With those victories already under her belt, she decided it was time to strut her stuff as a professional.
Getty Images | John Shearer/WireImage
Based on her previous successes, Harmon stepped seamlessly into a professional modeling career. Before long, she was working the runway and gracing the covers of some big name magazines. Her career path, however, still held an unexpected turn.
Getty Images | Carlo Allegri/Getty Images
One day in 1995, Angie Harmon headed to the airport. While she boarded her flight without any problems, her life would be forever changed by the time the plane arrived at its final destination.
Brad Elterman / Contributor
As fate would have it, David Hasselhoff sat near Harmon during the flight. She caught his eye, and he approached with a one simple question: Had Angie ever considered becoming an actor?
Getty Images/ Jean-Paul Aussenard/WireImage | Getty Images/ Kurt Krieger/Corbis via Getty Images
Harmon was flattered, but not interested. “I said, ‘No, thank you, because I’d never had an acting lesson,” she told Parade in 2014. That flight, however, wasn’t her last encounter with the Hoff.
James Aylott / Contributor
A few weeks later, Harmon’s friend went to audition for a role and ran into none other than David Hasselhoff. He recognized her and, once again, asked after Angie. This time, she couldn’t say no.
Getty Images | Eric Robert/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images
With that, Angie Harmon became an actress. Her first role came in Baywatch Nights, a spinoff of the original Baywatch; fittingly, she hit the screen alongside Hasselhoff himself.
Getty Images | Brad Elterman / Contributor
From there, Harmon kept landing roles and building her acting resume. In 1997, she appeared on C-16: FBI, an ABC crime drama (below); a year later, she hit the big screen in Lawn Dogs.
Shortly after, Harmon got her big break, taking on the role of Law & Order’s Abbie Carmichael. With a gig on an iconic — and perhaps more importantly, prime time — series, she became a household name.
Getty Images/ Photo by Univeral International Television courtesy of Getty Images
Despite appearing on three seasons of Law & Order, plus one season of Law & Order SVU, Harmon eventually gave notice and left the show. For all of her success on television, the actress had another goal in mind.
Getty Images | Jordan Strauss / Stringer
Ever since she was a little girl, Harmon had dreamed of heading to Hollywood and becoming a movie star; TV gigs just weren’t the same. Now with her impressive resume, Angie was ready to make that dream a reality.
Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/WireImage
In 2003, Harmon graced the silver screen in Agent Cody Banks; she played Veronica Miles, the teenage spy’s supervisor. The movie wasn’t exactly a cinematic masterpiece, but Angie was still living her dream.
Getty Images | Gregg DeGuire/WireImage
Harmon appeared in a few more movies, like a remake of Fun With Dick and Jane and End Game, but failed to make a major impact in Hollywood. Her career, it seemed, was in need of another shake-up.
Photo by David Livingston/Getty Images
Harmon returned to the world of television, but things didn’t immediately fall into place; bit parts and failed pilots didn’t have the same magic as filming Law & Order in the Big Apple.. In 2010, everything suddenly clicked.
TNT launched a new crime drama called Rizzoli & Isles and tapped Harmon as one of the series’ leading ladies. She would spend the next six years playing Jane Rizzoli, a Boston homicide detective.
After bouncing between various projects, Angie Harmon had found stability and received some well-deserved acclaim. Her work on Rizzoli & Isles earned her two People’s Choice nominations as Favorite Cable TV Actress; in 2015, she took home the title.
Getty Images | Lester Cohen/WireImage
Though she moved around from job to job, Harmon will always be beloved for her work on Law and Order. Once you join the L&O family, you join for live, and the perks of that commitment have been a godsend for one of Harmon’s co-stars.
Born Mariska Magdolina Hargitay, the future superstar was actually named for the biblical figure Mary Magdalene. A name like that might suggest she was destined for a convent, though, thanks to her parents, Hollywood was always her endgame.
Bettmann / Getty Images
That’s because her mother was actress and ’50s sex symbol Jayne Mansfield, and her father, Mickey Hargitay, was a former Mr. Universe. Sadly, only one of the two would live to see Mariska reach her sky-high potential.
Sunset Boulevard / Corbis via Getty Images
On June 29, 1967, Jayne was killed in car accident while traveling on U.S. Route 90 between New Orleans and Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. Mariska, who was asleep in the backseat, survived the crash with minor injuries, though the emotional scars ran much deeper.
Bettmann / Getty Images
According to the actress, the early loss of her mother left “a hole in my life that won’t ever be filled. I will never get over it. I will always be a girl who lost her mom.” Somehow, she found the strength to carry on.
Her mother’s death spurred her toward an acting career, leading her to attend the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. By the end of her freshman year, Mariska had already secured an agent and several small roles, and she actually dropped out before finishing her degree to pursue acting full-time.
United Archives / Getty Images
This wasn’t exactly shot in the dark for the aspiring actress, as earlier that year she’d already been crowned Miss Beverly Hills USA and later competed for the title of Miss California USA. Though she wound up placing fifth, the exposure landed her in Ronnie Milsap’s 1984 music video for “She Loves My Car.”
Poppy / YouTube
From there, Mariska made her film debut in the 1985 horror-comedy Ghoulies. With her first television role coming a year later on Downtown, the young star’s rise to fame seemed almost effortless — in reality, it was the exact opposite.
Mariska actually struggled mightily early on in her career, and it was all thanks to her famous mother. Everyone from casting directors to her fellow actors would constantly compare her to the late blonde bombshell, and some producers even suggested she dye her hair to look more like Jayne.
Hulton Archive / Getty Images
Mariska, however, was determined to make her own way in Hollywood, even if it meant taking forgettable roles on Falcon Crest, Tequila and Bonetti, and Can’t Hurry Love. But with an appearance on the ’90s phenomenon that was Seinfeld — no matter how brief — Mariska was clearly trending in the right direction.
Momentum continued to build for the second-generation star following a small role in the critically acclaimed 1995 film Leaving Las Vegas and a fill-in part in Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie the same year. Then, in 1999, a casting call went out.
20th Century Fox
The role was for the female lead in a spinoff of Dick Wolf’s iconic Law & Order procedural: Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Despite past experience playing police officers and detectives, Mariska was anxious about her chances, though following several rounds of auditions, she found herself among the three finalists.
For her final read-through she was paired with actor Christopher Meloni, with whom it was clear she had incredible chemistry. Dick Wolf seemed to think so, too, for as soon as the pair walked out of the room he blurted out, “Oh well. There’s no doubt who we should choose – Hargitay and Meloni.”
And so, Mariska landed her career-defining role of Olivia Benson, lead detective and, later, commanding officer of the NYPD’s Special Victims Unit. The part officially cemented Mariska as a top-tier talent, though dealing with such traumatic subject matter wasn’t always an easy job.
Despite the show’s fictionalized nature, Mariska was forced to face topics such as sexual assault, domestic violence, and child abuse, and she actually became a rape crisis advocate to prepare for the role of Det. Benson. Yet early on, Mariska realized she could use these experiences for good.
“I started getting fan mail from survivors who felt a connection to Olivia. In many of these letters, people would disclose their personal stories of abuse—some for the very first time,” she explained. “I wanted to help find a way to help people reclaim their lives and live them with a renewed sense of possibility and hope.”
That’s why in 2004, Mariska founded the Joyful Heart Foundation, an organization designed to provide support for individuals who’ve experienced many of the same traumas depicted on SVU. Since then, the foundation has helped thousands of women and children escape abusive homes and has provided millions of dollars in funding for domestic violence shelters.
Charley Gallay / Getty Images for Joyful Heart Foundation
That same year, Mariska also wed actor Peter Hermann, a recurring guest star on SVU. The couple welcomed August Miklos Friedrich Hermann in 2006, and five years later, they adopted a baby girl named Amaya Josephine as well as a baby boy named Andrew Nicolas.
James Devaney / Getty Images
Sadly, Mariska’s father only got to know his first grandson for a short time, as a month after her August 2006 Emmy win Mickey died from multiple myeloma, a cancer of the plasma cells. The loss of her last living parent was devastating, but, like always, Mariska used this tragedy as an opportunity.
Gregory Pace / FilmMagic
She began working to raise awareness of multiple myeloma, eventually becoming an honorary board member director of the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation. She continues petitioning for the cause to this day, along with her extensive work in domestic violence prevention and promotion of the arts.
And, of course, Mariska is still getting the job done as Captain Olivia Benson, a role she’s played going on 21 years. Unsurprisingly, Mariska has some pretty crazy stories from over the course of those two decades.
Tasos Katopodis / Getty Images for EMANUEL Film
For starters, Mariska insisted on doing her own stunts for the first nine season of SVU — no matter how dangerous. That all changed in December 2008, as a hard fall she suffered on set left her with a collapsed lung.
2. Before it was the longest-running live action series on television, Law & Order: SVU was originally called Sex Crimes. NBC, however, felt this title was too off-putting, and showrunner Dick Wolf wanted to incorporate the series into the greater Law & Order universe.
3. Ice-T and his SVU character Odafin “Fin” Tutuola have become one in the same to most fans, though the legendary rapper was originally supposed to play the role for just four episodes. Ice, however, liked the part too much and decided to stick around.
4. The SVU writers know how to squeeze meaning out of every little detail — even when it comes to character names. “Odafin,” for example, translates to “lawmaker” in the Nigerian language of Yoruba while “Tutuola” means “The Gentle One.” Pretty spot on, right?
5. SVU is known as the standard for New York crime procedurals, though for more than a decade, it wasn’t very New York at all. That’s because for its first 11 seasons, SVU was actually filmed in New Jersey!
Mariska Hargitay / Twitter
6. Most SVU fans can recite the show’s opening narration forward and back, though not many can name the man behind the signature salutation. All the credit goes to voice actor Steve Zirnkilton, who also once served as a Maine congressman.
7. Quick: what do Mariska Hargitay and comedian Kathy Griffin have in common? Well, aside from both women having appeared on episodes of Seinfeld, Kathy was actually Mariska’s improv teacher during her time at L.A.’s Groundlings Theater and School.
8. From Season 13 through 17, the letters in the title of each episode corresponded with the respective season — 13-letter titles in Season 13, 14 in Season 14, and so on. It wasn’t until Season 18 that writers realized no one was paying attention and scrapped the idea.
9. A gritty crime drama seems like the last place to find love, but that’s exactly what happened for Mariska Hargitay and her husband, Peter Hermann. The couple first met when Hermann began playing the recurring role of Defense Attorney Trevor Langan in Season 3.
therealmariskahargitay / Instagram
10. When Raul Esparza was first offered the role of ADA Rafael Barba, he didn’t want the part. Yet in the wake of a failed Broadway production, Esparza decided to take the role as a career rebound — the rest is history.
11. Before he was brought on as series regular Detective Dominick “Sonny” Carisi in Season 16, actor Peter Scanavino actually appeared on SVU two seasons earlier. In the episode “Monster’s Legacy,” Scanavino appears as Johnny Dubcek, a janitor and molestation victim.
12. Love him or hate him, there’s one thing nobody can take away from Richard Belzer’s John Munch: his longevity. The character has appeared in ten different television series over the course of 23 seasons, including stints on The X-Files, The Wire, and Arrested Development.
13. When you spend 10-plus hours a day on set in Manhattan, it’s nice to have a few personal touches to make the place feel a little more like home. That’s why Mariska Hargitay keeps an actual photo of her mother, Jayne Mansfield, on Lieutenant Benson’s desk.
14. Similar to Scanavino, Diane Neal, who played ADA Casey Novak from 2003 to 2008 and then again from 2011 to 2012, also first appeared on the show in a much smaller role. In Season 3, Neal was featured in the episode “Ridicule” as a female rapist.
15. Most SVU fans were shocked when Christopher Meloni’s character, Detective Elliot Stabler, abruptly retired before the Season-13 premiere. Well, this wasn’t a case of wanting to spend more time with the family: Meloni and NBC simply couldn’t come to an agreement on a new contract.
16. Despite SVU‘s heavy themes and graphic accounts of sexual violence, countless celebrities have lined up for their chance to cross paths with Lieutenant Olivia Benson. Some of these famous faces include Robin Williams, Elizabeth Banks, Bradley Cooper, and even Martin Short.
17. SVU‘s bread and butter is its ability to capitalize on trending news, with most of its episodes claiming to be “ripped from the headlines.” However, this only means that the episodes are loosely based on real events, as using straight facts would limit the flexibility of each story.
18. While SVU draws upon a variety of topical news stories for its episodes, two organizations in particular have given the show the most pushback: the NFL and the Catholic Church. Their complaints stem from the show’s tendency to associate these organizations with domestic violence and sexual assault, respectively.
19. In exposing the difficult realities of sexual violence and securing justice for victims, the SVU cast has earned a place of high esteem among actual assault survivors. Cast members are often approached and thanked by survivors for raising awareness and accurately portraying their stories.