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Christopher Meloni’s Journey to ‘Law and Order: SVU’ and Back Again: A Look at His Life and Career

At this stage of the game, there is no surprise that Dick Wolf’s massively successful Law & Order continues ever onward and still manages to evolve in new directions — which it’s done since the concept was introduced to viewers 30 years ago. What probably is surprising, though, is that Christopher Meloni, who played Detective Elliot Stabler alongside Mariska Hargitay‘s Olivia Benson for 12 seasons on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, is returning to his own branch of L&O. The show is untitled, but it will focus on the organized crime unit and which will see the actor reprising the role of Stabler.

The reason this is unexpected is that one of the reported reasons for his original departure was that he had taken the character as far as he felt it could go. That being said, over the intervening years Christopher has appeared in a wide variety of projects that have undoubtedly added to his arsenal as an actor, and it’s that experience that he will be bringing into the new show. “He went on to do quite a few things,” suggests Randee Dawn, co-author with Susan Green of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit Unofficial Companion. “I think that actors have a hard time figuring out what the right thing to do is in the sense of do you stay in the safe, but somewhat constrained, box of a regular series? That certainly gives you benefits; you can live in a city you want to live in, you can have more time with your family and things are probably more stable. Or do you, instead, strike out and say, ‘I think I can do better/different with something that’s fresh?’ I’d like to think that when he left, he felt he could probably do a little bit bigger and better.'”

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“If you look at some of the stuff that he picked to do afterward,” she adds, “obviously True Blood was pretty straight forward in terms of drama, but he did more comedy with Wet Hot American Summer and Happy!. He played on his ability to mix comedy and drama, which is probably where he feels most at home. I don’t think he ever wanted to only be the square-jawed hero, which is where some action stars end up going. I mean, does Tom Cruise play anything else? Making that choice, though, may have meant shorter, less stable roles, but more variety and more options opening up. And the fact is, whenever he turns up, he comes with his own brand at this point, because the audience knows they’re going to get a good performance.”

As an example, she points to his role on Hulu’s Handmaid’s Tale, a small part yet one that makes the audience sit up and take notice whenever he’s on screen. “Their first thought,” says Dawn, “is, ‘What’s going to happen with this guy?’ Now you can contrast all the different things he’s done with Mariska, who clearly made the decision, ‘This is where I’m going to plant my stake in the ground and this is the thing that is going to be me.’ She really kind of identified with the whole show. So it’s interesting to see how they both went in different directions. But I don’t know that Christopher would have necessarily thrived on SVU much longer.”

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