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28 Actors Who Started Out on Law & Order

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Call it a “role” all you want. For any actor who got his or her start after 1990, a guest spot on Law & Order is more like a rite of passage. 

While well-known actors such as Robin Williams, Frank Langella, Henry Winkler, Angela Lansbury, Jerry Lewis, Ellen Burstyn, Carol Burnett, and even Julia Roberts have filled in as special guest stars over the years, here are 28 actors who appeared on the show before they were stars (dun dun).

1. PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN: SEASON 1, EPISODE 14

Fifteen years before he was clearing space on his bookshelf for a Best Actor Oscar, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman made his on-screen debut in Law & Order’s first season. (The 1991 episode, “The Violence of Summer,” is also notable for being one of the few in which “Order” comes before the “Law.”)

2. JENNIFER GARNER: SEASON 6, EPISODE 23

Less than a year into her career, Jennifer Garner played temptress to Benjamin Bratt’s happily married Detective Curtis in the show’s sixth season finale, which was notable for its lack of the show’s typical “first comes law, then comes order” format. Instead, it follows the series’ key players in the aftermath of witnessing an execution at Attica.

3. CLAIRE DANES: SEASON 3, EPISODE 1

Claire Danes was clearly tinkering with her now-famous “cry face” at the tender age of 13, when she played the distraught daughter of a sometime-prostitute and murder suspect with her own romantic links to the murder victim. Six Feet Under star Lauren Ambrose makes one of her earliest career appearances in the same episode.

4. TY BURRELL: SEASON 11, EPISODE 2

Modern Family’s father of the year Ty Burrell was a bit of a latecomer to the game; he was 33 years old when he was cast in his first on-screen role in the 2000 episode “Turnstile Justice,” in which a mentally unstable homeless man is accused of killing a woman on the subway. The producers must have liked what they saw, because they brought Burrell back two seasons later to play a Marine marksman-turned-kidnapper.

5. ROONEY MARA: SEASON 7, EPISODE 20 (SVU)

By now, most people know that a year after (barely) appearing in the straight-to-video Urban Legends: Bloody Mary, Oscar-nominated actress Rooney Mara appeared in an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit as a formerly overweight teen who bullies overweight teens. Why do most people know this? Because she caused a bit of a PR stir when she was quoted in Allure as saying the experience “was so awful.” Fans of the series were none too happy with Mara’s criticism, but she was quick to respond, clarifying that, “If anything, I didn't mean that the storyline was ridiculous; I meant that humanity is ridiculous.”

6. KATE MARA: SEASON 8, EPISODE 8

Rooney isn’t the only Mara to count L&O among her earliest roles. It’s also the show (albeit the original edition) that gave big sister Kate her first paying gig in 1997 as Jenna Erlich, the daughter of a murdered bail bondsman.

7. JOHN KRASINSKI: SEASON 3, EPISODE 11 (CRIMINAL INTENT)

A year before he began giving sideways glances to the documentary crew of The Office for nine seasons, John Krasinski was the anti-Jim Halpert when he played a violent—and possibly homicidal—high school basketball player facing off against Vincent D’Onofrio in a 2004 Law & Order: Criminal Intent.

8. JESSICA CHASTAIN: SEASON 1, EPISODES 2, 3 and 13 (TRIAL BY JURY)

In the span of less than a year beginning in the fall of 2011, now-two-time Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain went from being in no movies to being in, well, just about every movie. One of the shows that got her there, after guest spots on ER and Veronica Mars, was the single-season snoozer of a Law & Order spinoff, Trial By Jury, on which she played an assistant district attorney.

9. PETER FACINELLI: SEASON 5, EPISODE 14

Three years before his breakthrough role as teenaged stud (but 25 at the time) Mike Dexter in Can’t Hardly Wait, Peter Facinelli was playing another teenaged stud, this one at the center of a points-for-sex rape scandal, in his second credited performance.

10. VERA FARMIGA: SEASON 8, EPISODE 12

After a recurring role on the short-lived series Roar, starring Heath Ledger, Oscar nominee Vera Farmiga did the L&O thing in 1998 as the daughter of a convicted murderer who goes on her own mini killing spree.

11. EDIE FALCO: SEASON 3, EPISODE 15

By the time she made her first of four appearances on L&O—all of them as attorney Sally Bell—Edie Falco was already becoming an increasingly familiar face to fans of American independent cinema, having appeared in Hal Hartley’s The Unbelievable Truth and Trust and Nick Gomez’s Laws of Gravity. But her introduction to television audiences came with L&O, and it is on the small screen that she would later find her greatest success with shows like The Sopranos and Nurse Jackie.

12. JULIANNA MARGULIES: SEASON 3, EPISODE 17

Before they were warring spouses on The Good Wife, Julianna Margulies—as a military lieutenant—played a brick wall to Chris Noth’s investigation into the death of a female Navy officer at a Manhattan hotel. The role was Margulies’ second ever; two years earlier she had played a prostitute in the Steven Seagal actioner Out for Justice.

13. ROB MCELHENNEY: SEASON 8, EPISODE 1

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia star Rob McElhenney wasn’t even old enough to drink at Paddy’s Pub when he appeared as one half of a thrill-killing duo who turns witness for the state. The role is actually referenced in the original Sunny pilot, when a gorgeous transsexual (played by Homeland’s Morena Baccharin) tells McElhenney how much she liked him in the show.

14. EMMY ROSSUM: SEASON 8, EPISODE 10

Shameless star Emmy Rossum was just 11 years old when she landed her first on-screen appearance in 1997. So we’re guessing/hoping that much of the episode’s plot—which involved an Egyptian family’s fight over whether or not the pre-teen should be circumcised—was a bit over her head.

15. LEIGHTON MEESTER: SEASON 9, EPISODE 15

As a teenager living in a shelter who may know more than she’s letting on about the circumstances surrounding the death of a classmate, Leighton Meester’s first role is a far cry from Gossip Girl’s Blair Waldorf in the glamour department. But her ability to sass all those around her, including Detectives Briscoe and Curtis, is evident.

16. CLARK GREGG: SEASON 1, EPISODE 12

Three years after making his big-screen debut in the role of “Stage Manager” in David Mamet’s Things Change, soon-to-be Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. Clark Gregg got mixed up in an investigation into the bombing of an abortion clinic in the first season of L&O.

17. CAMRYN MANHEIM: SEASON 1, EPISODE 12

Camryn Manheim made her television debut in the first season of L&O, in the same episode as Gregg. She would go on to star in two more episodes over the next three years.

18. AMANDA PEET: SEASON 6, EPISODE 5

Amanda Peet channeled her inner Patty Hearst for a 1995 L&O episode in which she claimed that she was kidnapped and forced to partake in a recent crime spree that has resulted in the death of four individuals.

19. PETER SARSGAARD: SEASON 6, EPISODE 6

Less than two months before he made his film debut in Dead Man Walking, Golden Globe nominee Peter Sarsgaard was just another college student caught up in the middle of a murder/cyber-stalking investigation.

20. ALLISON JANNEY: SEASON 2, EPISODE 12

With nearly 100 credits on her resume, Allison Janney is one of those actresses who seems to have been around forever. But one of her earliest roles was in a small part in a 1992 episode of L&O that follows the murder of a soap star. Two years later she appeared in a second episode of the series, this time playing a witness against the Russian mob.

21. GIL BELLOWS: SEASON 1, EPISODE 14

While his official acting debut came in a little-seen 1988 film called The First Season, Gil Bellows’ second professional credit—and first television gig—was as Hoffman’s scene partner-in-crime. Three years later, Bellows would share screen time with Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman in his breakthrough role in The Shawshank Redemption. In 1997 he returned to the small screen in a big way as the (sometime) romantic lead in Ally McBeal.

Fun fact: Samuel L. Jackson was also one of this same episode’s guest stars; though he was far from a household name at the time, he had made an impression with small but memorable parts in Do the Right Thing, Coming to America, and Goodfellas.

22. ELLEN POMPEO: SEASON 6, EPISODE 16

Grey’s Anatomy star Ellen Pompeo played the lone survivor of an attack that took the lives of her mom and brother, and landed her father in jail. But as her dad’s trial progresses, fingers start pointing in her direction. Four years later, Pompeo played a similar role in a different episode of L&O, but this time the crime was sororicide.

23. CHANDRA WILSON: SEASON 2, EPISODE 18

Four years before Pompeo’s L&O debut, her future Grey’s Anatomy co-star Chandra Wilson made her first of three L&O appearances (the latter two for SVU) in the (appropriately) hospital-themed “Cradle to the Grave,” in which a baby is found frozen to death in an emergency room.

24. MICHAEL PITT: SEASON 8, EPISODE 17

Michael Pitt has never conformed to the typical “rising young star” formula, not even when he was just starting out at the age of 17 and starred in “Carrier,” a 1998 L&O episode that played a bit like the movie Kids; it told the story of an HIV positive young man who is knowingly infecting others with the disease.

25. SARAH PAULSON: SEASON 5, EPISODE 4

Sixteen years before she was well-known enough to score a big promo as a “special guest star” on SVU, Sarah Paulson was stirring up a whole lot of family drama in her first-ever role in the original series’ fifth season, as the daughter of a murder victim who also may or may not be sleeping with her stepfather.

26. CHRIS MESSINA: SEASON 6, EPISODE 2

Being killed in a 1995 episode of Law & Order wasn’t exactly the breakthrough role Chris Messina—star of The Mindy Project and The Newsroom—needed. But it didn’t prevent him from appearing on the show on two more occasions in the next eight years (in different roles, obviously).

27. PAUL WESLEY: SEASON 2, EPISODE 1 (SVU)

In the same year that he landed a recurring role on Guiding Light, The Vampire Diaries star Paul Wesley—then just 18 years old, and going by the name Paul Wasilewski—made his Law & Order debut as an uncooperative head of security.

28. SARAH WAYNE CALLIES: SEASON 4, EPISODE 17 (SVU)

The Walking Dead’s Sarah Wayne Callies has kept herself busy with television gigs for the past decade, but it all started with a 2003 episode of SVU. She plays a one-percenting wife who used to be a prostitute, whose testimony could provide invaluable to Detectives Benson and Stabler in a rape and murder case.

See Also...

25 Future Stars Who Appeared on Seinfeld
27 Future Stars Who Appeared on Miami Vice
35 Future Stars Who Appeared on The West Wing

Images courtesy of NBC Universal Television.

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11 Secrets of Bodyguards
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When CEOs, celebrities, and the extremely wealthy need personal protection, they call in men and women with a particular set of skills. Bodyguards provide a physical barrier against anyone wishing their clients harm, but there’s a lot more to the job—and a lot that people misunderstand about the profession. To get a better idea of what it takes to protect others, Mental Floss spoke with several veteran security experts. Here’s what they told us about being in the business of guaranteeing safety.

1. BIGGER ISN’T ALWAYS BETTER.

When working crowd control or trying to corral legions of screaming teenagers, having a massive physical presence comes in handy. But not all "close protection specialists" need to be the size of a professional wrestler. “It really depends on the client,” says Anton Kalaydjian, the founder of Guardian Professional Security in Florida and former head of security for 50 Cent. “It’s kind of like shopping for a car. Sometimes they want a big SUV and sometimes they want something that doesn’t stick out at all. There’s a need for a regular-looking guy in clothes without an earpiece, not a monster.”

2. GUNS (AND FISTS) ARE PRETTY MUCH USELESS.

An armed bodyguard pulls a gun out of a holster
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Depending on the environment—protecting a musician at a concert is different from transporting the reviled CEO of a pharmaceutical company—bodyguards may or may not come armed. According to Kent Moyer, president and CEO of World Protection Group and a former bodyguard for Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, resorting to gunplay means the security expert has pretty much already failed. “People don’t understand this is not a business where we fight or draw guns,” Moyer says. “We’re trained to cover and evacuate and get out of harm’s way. The goal is no use of force.” If a guard needs to draw a gun to respond to a gun, Moyer says he’s already behind. “If I fight, I failed. If I draw a gun, I failed.”

3. SOMETIMES THEY’RE HIRED TO PROTECT EMPLOYERS FROM EMPLOYEES.

A security guard stands by a door
iStock

Workplace violence has raised red flags for companies who fear retribution during layoffs. Alan Schissel, a former New York City police sergeant and founder of Integrated Security, says he dispatches guards for what he calls “hostile work termination” appointments. “We get a lot of requests to provide armed security in a discreet manner while somebody is being fired,” he says. “They want to be sure the individual doesn’t come back and retaliate.”

4. SOME OF THEM LOVE TMZ.

For protection specialists who take on celebrity clients, news and gossip site TMZ.com can prove to be a valuable resource. “I love TMZ,” Moyer says. “It’s a treasure trove for me to see who has problems with bodyguards or who got arrested.” Such news is great for client leads. Moyer also thinks the site’s highly organized squad of photographers can be a good training scenario for protection drills. “You can look at paparazzi as a threat, even though they’re not, and think about how you’d navigate it.” Plus, having cameras at a location before a celebrity shows up can sometimes highlight information leaks in their operation: If photographers have advance notice, Moyer says, then security needs to be tightened up.

5. THEY DON’T LIVE THE LIFE YOU THINK THEY DO.

A bodyguard stands next to a client
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Because guards are often seen within arm’s reach of a celebrity, some think they must be having the same experiences. Not so. “A big misconception is that we’re living the same life as celebrities do,” Kalaydjian says. “Yes, we’re on a private jet sometimes, but we’re not enjoying the amenities. We might live in their house, but we’re not enjoying their pool. You stay to yourself, make your rounds.” Guards that get wrapped up in a fast-paced lifestyle don’t tend to last long, he says.

6. SOMETIMES THEY’RE JUST THERE FOR SHOW.

For some, being surrounded by a squad of serious-looking people isn’t a matter of necessity. It’s a measure of status on the level of an expensive watch or a fast car. Firms will sometimes get calls from people looking for a way to get noticed by hiring a fleet of guards when there's no threat involved. “It’s a luxury amenity,” Schissel says. “It’s more of a ‘Look at me, look at them’ thing,” agrees Moyer. “There’s no actual threat. It’s about the show. I turn those down. We do real protection.”

7. THEY CAN MAKE THEIR CLIENT'S DAY MORE EFFICIENT.

A bodyguard escorts a client through a group of photographers
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Because guards will scope out destinations in advance, they often know exactly how to enter and exit locations without fumbling for directions or dealing with site security. That’s why, according to Moyer, CEOs and celebrities can actually get more done during a work day. “If I’m taking you to Warner Bros., I know which gate to go in, I’ve got credentials ahead of time, and I know where the bathrooms are.” Doing more in a day means more money—which means a return on the security investment.

8. “BUDDYGUARDS” ARE A PROBLEM.

When evaluating whether or not to take on a new employee, Kalaydjian weeds out anyone looking to share in a client’s fame. “I’ve seen guys doing things they shouldn’t,” he says. “They’re doing it to be seen.” Bodyguards posting pictures of themselves with clients on social media is a career-killer: No one in the industry will take a “buddyguard” seriously. Kalaydjian recalls the one time he smirked during a 12-year-stint guarding the same client, something so rare his employer commented on it. “It’s just not the side you portray on duty.”

9. SOCIAL MEDIA MAKES THEIR JOB HARDER.

A bodyguard stands next to a client
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High-profile celebrities maintain their visibility by engaging their social media users, which often means posting about their travels and events. For fans, it can provide an interesting perspective into their routine. For someone wishing them harm, it’s a road map. “Sometimes they won’t even tell me, and I’ll see on Snapchat they’ll be at a mall at 2 p.m.,” Kalaydjian says. “I wouldn’t have known otherwise.”

10. NOT EVERY CELEBRITY IS PAYING FOR THEIR OWN PROTECTION.

The next time you see a performer surrounded by looming personal protection staff, don’t assume he or she is footing the bill. “A lot of celebrities can’t afford full-time protection,” Moyer says, referring to the around-the-clock supervision his agency and others provide. “Sometimes, it’s the movie or TV show they’re doing that’s paying for it. Once the show is over, they no longer have it, or start getting the minimum.”

11. THEY DON’T LIKE BEING CALLED “BODYGUARDS.”

A bodyguard puts his hand up to the camera
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Few bodyguards will actually refer to themselves as bodyguards. Moyer prefers executive protection agents, because, he says, bodyguard tends to carry a negative connotation of big, unskilled men. “There is a big group of dysfunctional people with no formal training who should not be in the industry,” he says. Sometimes, a former childhood friend can become “security,” a role they’re not likely to be qualified for. Moyer and other firms have specialized training courses, with Moyer's taking cues from Secret Service protocols. But Moyer also cautions that agencies enlisting hyper-driven combat specialists like Navy SEALs or SWAT team members aren't the answer, either. “SEALs like to engage and fight, destroying the bad guy. Our goal is, we don’t want to be in the same room as the bad guy.”

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13 Fascinating Facts About Nina Simone
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Nina Simone, who would’ve celebrated her 85th birthday today, was known for using her musical platform to speak out. “I think women play a major part in opening the doors for better understanding around the world,” the “Strange Fruit” songstress once said. Though she chose to keep her personal life shrouded in secrecy, these facts grant VIP access into a life well-lived and the music that still lives on.

1. NINA SIMONE WAS HER STAGE NAME.

The singer was born as Eunice Waymon on February 21, 1933. But by age 21, the North Carolina native was going by a different name at her nightly Atlantic City gig: Nina Simone. She hoped that adopting a different name would keep her mother from finding out about her performances. “Nina” was her boyfriend’s nickname for her at the time. “Simone” was inspired by Simone Signoret, an actress that the singer admired.

2. SHE HAD HUMBLE BEGINNINGS.


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There's a reason that much of the singer's music had gospel-like sounds. Simone—the daughter of a Methodist minister and a handyman—was raised in the church and started playing the piano by ear at age 3. She got her start in her hometown of Tryon, North Carolina, where she played gospel hymns and classical music at Old St. Luke’s CME, the church where her mother ministered. After Simone died on April 21, 2003, she was memorialized at the same sanctuary.

3. SHE WAS BOOK SMART...

Simone, who graduated valedictorian of her high school class, studied at the prestigious Julliard School of Music for a brief period of time before applying to Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music. Unfortunately, Simone was denied admission. For years, she maintained that her race was the reason behind the rejection. But a Curtis faculty member, Vladimir Sokoloff, has gone on record to say that her skin color wasn’t a factor. “It had nothing to do with her…background,” he said in 1992. But Simone ended up getting the last laugh: Two days before her death, the school awarded her an honorary degree.

4. ... WITH DEGREES TO PROVE IT.

Simone—who preferred to be called “doctor Nina Simone”—was also awarded two other honorary degrees, from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Malcolm X College.

5. HER CAREER WAS ROOTED IN ACTIVISM.

A photo of Nina Simone circa 1969

Gerrit de Bruin

At the age of 12, Simone refused to play at a church revival because her parents had to sit at the back of the hall. From then on, Simone used her art to take a stand. Many of her songs in the '60s, including “Mississippi Goddamn,” “Why (The King of Love Is Dead),” and “Young, Gifted and Black,” addressed the rampant racial injustices of that era.

Unfortunately, her activism wasn't always welcome. Her popularity diminished; venues didn’t invite her to perform, and radio stations didn’t play her songs. But she pressed on—even after the Civil Rights Movement. In 1997, Simone told Interview Magazine that she addressed her songs to the third world. In her own words: “I’m a real rebel with a cause.”

6. ONE OF HER MOST FAMOUS SONGS WAS BANNED.

Mississippi Goddam,” her 1964 anthem, only took her 20 minutes to an hour to write, according to legend—but it made an impact that still stands the test of time. When she wrote it, Simone had been fed up with the country’s racial unrest. Medger Evers, a Mississippi-born civil rights activist, was assassinated in his home state in 1963. That same year, the Ku Klux Klan bombed a Birmingham Baptist church and as a result, four young black girls were killed. Simone took to her notebook and piano to express her sentiments.

“Alabama's gotten me so upset/Tennessee made me lose my rest/And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam,” she sang.

Some say that the song was banned in Southern radio stations because “goddam” was in the title. But others argue that the subject matter is what caused the stations to return the records cracked in half.

7. SHE NEVER HAD A NUMBER ONE HIT.

Nina Simone released over 40 albums during her decades-spanning career including studio albums, live versions, and compilations, and scored 15 Grammy nominations. But her highest-charting (and her first) hit, “I Loves You, Porgy,” peaked at #2 on the U.S. R&B charts in 1959. Still, her music would go on to influence legendary singers like Roberta Flack and Aretha Franklin.

8. SHE USED HER STYLE TO MAKE A STATEMENT.

Head wraps, bold jewelry, and floor-skimming sheaths were all part of Simone’s stylish rotation. In 1967, she wore the same black crochet fishnet jumpsuit with flesh-colored lining for the entire year. Not only did it give off the illusion of her being naked, but “I wanted people to remember me looking a certain way,” she said. “It made it easier for me.”

9. SHE HAD MANY HOMES.

New York City, Liberia, Barbados, England, Belgium, France, Switzerland, and the Netherlands were all places that Simone called home. She died at her home in Southern France, and her ashes were scattered in several African countries.

10. SHE HAD A FAMOUS INNER CIRCLE.

During the late '60s, Simone and her second husband Andrew Stroud lived next to Malcolm X and his family in Mount Vernon, New York. He wasn't her only famous pal. Simone was very close with playwright Lorraine Hansberry. After Hansberry’s death, Simone penned “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” in her honor, a tribute to Hansberry's play of the same title. Simone even struck up a brief friendship with David Bowie in the mid-1970s, who called her every night for a month to offer his advice and support.

11. YOU CAN STILL VISIT SIMONE IN HER HOMETOWN.

Photo of Nina Simone
Amazing Nina Documentary Film, LLC, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

In 2010, an 8-foot sculpture of Eunice Waymon was erected in her hometown of Tryon, North Carolina. Her likeness stands tall in Nina Simone Plaza, where she’s seated and playing an eternal song on a keyboard that floats in midair. Her daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, gave sculptor Zenos Frudakis some of Simone’s ashes to weld into the sculpture’s bronze heart. "It's not something very often done, but I thought it was part of the idea of bringing her home," Frudakis said.

12. YOU'VE PROBABLY HEARD HER MUSIC IN RECENT HITS.

Rihanna sang a few verses of Simone’s “Do What You Gotta Do” on Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo. He’s clearly a superfan: “Blood on the Leaves” and his duet with Jay Z, “New Day,” feature Simone samples as well, along with Lil’ Wayne’s “Dontgetit,” Common’s “Misunderstood” and a host of other tracks.

13. HER MUSIC IS STILL BEING PERFORMED.

Nina Revisited… A Tribute to Nina Simone was released along with the Netflix documentary in 2015. On the album, Lauryn Hill, Jazmine Sullivan, Usher, Alice Smith, and more paid tribute to the legend by performing covers of 16 of her most famous tracks.

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