He became famous playing NYPD Detective Elliot Stabler on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit for 12 seasons, but it would be a crime to typecast actor Christopher Meloni as just a TV cop. In a career spanning nearly 35 years, including dozens of movies and TV shows, the 62-year-old has shown remarkable range, deftly portraying characters in dramas and comedies on both big and small screens. Here, we take a closer look at the life and career of Christopher Meloni, and his amazing journey as he rose in the Hollywood ranks and created some of his best movies and TV shows.
How Christopher Meloni got his start
You might assume Christopher Meloni was a native New Yorker based on how convincingly he played Detective Stabler in SVU. But Meloni was born in Washington, DC, and raised in Alexandria, Virginia, where he distinguished himself as his high school’s quarterback, leading the team to a perfect season his senior year – a feat that would play a role in his future as an actor.
Meloni discovered acting at the University of Colorado-Boulder, but didn’t get serious about it as a career until he was 23. After graduation, he moved to New York and continued to study acting, supporting himself by working in construction and as a bouncer and fitness coach.
Like many actors, Meloni got his start in commercials: He estimates he did around 50 of them, including one for Burger King and another for McDonald’s, and lived off the residual checks early in his career.
Christopher Meloni movies and TV shows
Meloni spent nearly a decade climbing his way up the acting ladder, working steadily in short-lived or unforgettable shows. He put his athletic ability to good use to score his first role as a professional football player in HBO’s first sitcom, 1st and Ten (1989). A succession of other quickly cancelled shows followed, including The Fanelli Boys (1990), The Boys (1993) and Misery Loves Company (1995).
1996 turned out to be Meloni’s breakout year. That’s when, he told Outsider, the momentum started to change. “After that, the tumblers started falling.”
He was hired to play a criminal in an eight-episode arc of NYPD Blue, the hot-headed son of a mafia boss in the crime thriller Bound (1996), and he played Julia Roberts‘ fiancé in the screwball rom-com Runaway Bride (1999). “You don’t believe it, but you tell yourself to stay focused,” Meloni told People of his success.
Then in 1999, he landed roles on both the groundbreaking prison drama Oz and SVU, the first spinoff of the NBC franchise Law & Order. The contrast between the characters Meloni began playing couldn’t have been greater: On Oz, he played a bisexual serial killer serving an 88-year sentence. On SVU, Stabler and his partner, Detective Olivia Benson, played by Mariska Hargitay, worked in the Special Victims Unit, a specially trained squad of detectives that investigates sexually related crimes.
To say Meloni had struck acting gold with this dramatic duo was an understatement. “In the midst of shooting SVU and Oz at the same time, it wasn’t lost on me that I was the luckiest actor to be working, definitely in New York City, but possibly anywhere, to my mind,” says Meloni. “I couldn’t believe it.”
The immense success of SVU cemented Christopher Meloni as one of the most recognizable and popular figures in movies and tv shows. He was nominated for an Emmy in 2006 as Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series; Mariska Hargitay, his partner-in-crime-solving, won that year for Outstanding Lead Actress.
Of course, his piercing blue eyes and chiseled physique didn’t hurt his popularity. Meloni says he’s worked out since he was 13. “It’s my church, my psychotherapy, as well as my alone time,” he told People magazine. It’s no surprise that the magazine named him one of its Sexiest Men Alive in 2006.
If it also had an award for most intense men alive, Meloni’s character on SVU would be a shoo-in: Personal demons fueled Stabler’s anger issues and led him to be openly aggressive, no doubt making his a demanding role to play day in and day out.
So, not surprisingly, whenever possible during the SVU years, Meloni seemed to take the opportunity to showcase what turned out to be formidable comedic chops. For instance, on the big screen, he portrayed Gene, a bearded, bandana-sporting summer camp chef in the 2001 cult classic Wet Hot American Summer.
Three years later, in the stoner comedy Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, Meloni – aided by hours of prosthetic makeup – took on the role of Freakshow, a truck driver covered in oozing boils. Once his agent told him the character’s name, Meloni told the University of Colorado alumni magazine, “I was, like, that’s absolutely perfect, I don’t even need to read the script.”
Christopher Meloni’s life after SVU
The show was still at the height of its popularity when Meloni shocked fans by abruptly leaving SVU at the end of the 12th season in 2011. His character was written out as having put in his retirement papers following a self-defense shooting.
Meloni explained to The New York Post that his departure was due to a failure to reach a new contract, but also a desire to “tell stories from a different angle – whether comedic or inhabiting a new world or doing it on different platforms.”
After his exit from SVU, Meloni did just that, really mixing it up in terms of genre and character, and even trying his hand at directing and executive producing. On TV, he fanged up as a powerful 500-year-old vampire on True Blood (2012), “worked out” with Selina Meyer on Veep (2015), gave a nuanced portrayal of a slave catcher in Underground (2016), partnered with an animated flying unicorn in Happy! (2017), played a sugar daddy in Pose (2018), and joined the dark world of The Handmaid’s Tale (2019).
On the big screen, he took a supporting role as Colonel Hardy in the Superman reboot Man of Steel (2013). That same year, he played Brooklyn Dodgers manager Leo Durocher in the historical baseball feature 42.
Meloni won rave reviews for his portrayal of a caring and humorous ex-stepfather in the dramedy The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015), and then got goofy again in 2017 with Snatched, playing a delusional explorer who attempts to lead a hapless mother-daughter duo (Goldie Hawn and Amy Schumer) out of the Amazon.
Stabler’s return in Law & Order: Organized Crime
As much as we love seeing Meloni in all his many roles, there’s no denying the special place we hold in our hearts for Detective Stabler. So, fans positively swooned when, after nearly a decade, Meloni announced in early 2020 that he’d be reprising his role of Detective Stabler in the Law & Order franchise on a spin-off show titled Law & Order: Organized Crime.
The show centers around a new task force that takes on NYC’s most powerful crime syndicate. To fans’ delight, since his return, both Law & Order: OC and SVU have been exploring Benson and Stabler’s feelings for each other (the almost-kiss from earlier this season!), which have been percolating now for 24 years.
Christopher Meloni today
In case you’re wondering, that brewing on-screen romance with Hargitay isn’t real. In fact, Meloni has been married to artist Sherman Williams since 1995, and they have two adult kids, a daughter, Sophia, and a son, Dante. He and Hargitay, who’s also married, are just very good friends, and she’s the godmother to his daughter.
What is also very real is that Christopher Meloni is second act, not only is he acting in more movies and TV shows and in his sixth decade no less, he’s become a sex symbol, or in the 21st century vernacular, a “Zaddy.” To the unfamiliar, Meloni explains that “Zaddy means an elderly gentleman with a certain patina of sexiness to them.”
Credit, at least in part, the cheeky plugs for fitness company Peloton, where he bared it all in 2022 (though selectively pixelated) while doing various exercises, along with some impressive photos of his backside that were posted by fans on social media. The renewed attention has Meloni riding high, and we’re happy to go along for the ride.
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