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How ‘SVU’ Star Mariska Hargitay Got Her Start and The Advice That Keeps Her Going: ‘Get Up and Try Again’

She has played Olivia Benson on 'SVU' for 24 years — and she's not done yet!

Many have come and gone, but Olivia Benson has been in the squad room since 1999. For more than two decades, actress Mariska Hargitay has played Benson on the hit NBC drama, Law & Order: SVU. The role of the empathetic detective-turned-lieutenant has provided deep satisfaction to Mariska for over two decades, and the gritty crime show has become the longest running drama series (bypassing Gunsmoke). Plus, Hargitay has been awarded both an Emmy and Golden Globe for her role. Here, we take a look at the actresses fascinating life and some of our other favorite Mariska Hargitay movies and TV shows.

Tragedy strikes early in Mariska’s life

Born Mariska Magdolna Hargitay in Santa Monica, California to sex symbol Jayne Mansfield and Hungarian-born former Mr. Universe Mickey Hargitay, Mariska is a tried-and-true L.A. girl.

Jayne Mansfield, Mariska Hargitay, 1964
Jayne Mansfield with her daughter Mariska Hargitay in 1964.Archive Photos/Getty Images

On June 29, 1967, Mansfield was in an automobile crash that instantly killed her and her boyfriend, but asleep in the back of the car was Mariska, then just three and a half years old. The accident left Mariska with a zig zag scar on the side of her head as a permanent reminder of the incident. Her brothers Miklos and Zoltan were left with minor injuries.  After Mansfield’s death, Mariska and her brothers were raised by their dad. 

Mickey Hargitay, Jayne Mansfield, Zoltan, Mikos and Mariska, 1966
Mickey Hargitay, Jayne Mansfield, Zoltan, Mikos and Mariska, 1966Bettmann/Contributor/Getty Images

I think I learned about crisis very young, and I learned very young that s— happens and there’s no guarantees, and we keep going. And then we transform it,” she told Glamour. “That’s been kind of my superpower, and the gift of having trauma early in life. I’ve spent…years sort of trying to figure out what happened and why, and what am I supposed to do with it?”

Mariska Hargitay movies and TV shows

Mariska attended Marymount High School in Los Angeles and enjoyed their theater program, so upon graduation, she enrolled at UCLA’s School of Theater Film and Television. Around this time, Mariska was crowned Miss Beverly Hills USA and by the time she was a college freshman, she had her own agent and several small roles to her credit in various movies and TV shows. 

MUST-READ: ‘SVU’ Star Mariska Hargitay Partners With Stress-Relieving Stuffed Animal Brand Hugimals for a Cause Close to Her Heart

When the first country music video aired on MTV, Mariska could be spotted cavorting around in Ronnie Milsap’s “She Loves My Car.” Other small roles came for Mariska Hargitay in movies and TV shows like the horror film, Ghoulies, followed by TV programs like A Nightmare on Elm Street: The Series, Baywatch, In the Heat of the Night, thirtysomething and Wiseguy.  She also began a recurring role in 1988 as Carly Fixx in the hit nighttime soap opera, Falcon Crest.

Mariska Hargitay, 1988 mariska hargitay movies and tv shows
Mariska Hargitay, 1988Ralph Dominguez/MediaPunch via Getty Images

As Seinfeld was being conceived, Mariska read for the role of Elaine Benes, which ultimately went to Julia Louis-Dreyfus. However, Mariska made such a strong impression that she was cast in the two-part season finale episodes.

In spite of these various roles, it took her almost 15 years in Hollywood to establish herself as an actress. In fact, she paid her bills by working long shifts at the trendy L.A. bookstore, Book Soup. “I could have quit acting a million times but my dad drilled into me that our family doesn’t quit,” she told Parade.  “So if you don’t get it, it means you’re not ready and you have to get up and try again.”

Mariska credits her family for her success

Although Mariska’s father passed away in 2006, he still remains a driving force in her life.  “My dad gave me so much advice and shored me up so young. He achieved so many unattainable goals and did it by beating to his own drum,” she said to Parade. “My dad taught me that good health is all about living in gratitude.”

Mariska Hargitay, Mickey Hargitay, 2003
Mariska Hargitay with Mickey Hargitay, 2003J. Countess/WireImage for Universal Television Productions

Getting her big break

At the age of 34, Mariska’s life took a turn. She was cast as a desk clerk who romanced Anthony Edwards’ character on ER, and it was around the time that Mariska joined Law & Order: SVU. Casting for the lead in the police procedural, creator Dick Wolf, along with NBC officials, were auditioning a few more actresses for the Benson role. 

(Read about the cast of the original Law & Order, then and now!)

For the female lead, Hargitay was being considered along with Samantha Mathis. For the male lead of Detective Elliot Stabler, the finalists were Tim Matheson, John Slattery and Christopher Meloni. 

When Meloni and Hargitay auditioned together, Wolf turned to the others and said there was no doubt who he would cast in the leads.  And finally, after three auditions, Hargitay won the role. From the start, the two rather unknowns had instant chemistry and remain good friends to this day. In fact, Mariska is godmother to Sophia, one of Meloni’s children.

Chris Meloni and Mariska Hargitay, 1999 mariska hargitay movies and tv shows
Chris Meloni and Mariska Hargitay, 1999Jason Green/Getty Images

Moving beyond just acting

Law & Order: SVU proved to be a stepping stone both professionally and personally for Hargitay. She is now executive producer of her hit police procedural, and also takes turns behind the camera as director. Mariska has also used her fame to become founder and former president of the Joyful Heart Foundation, an organization established in 2004 to provide support to survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence, child abuse and human trafficking. 

Mariska Hargitay, 2017
Mariska Hargitay, 2017Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Joyful Heart Foundation

She produced the documentary I Am Evidence, raising awareness about the statistics of untested rape kits.  “The lack of testing is the clearest and most shocking demonstration of how we regard these crimes in our country,” she said.

Meet Mariska Hargitay’s husband

Mariska met her match with handsome actor Peter Hermann, who began playing defense attorney Trevor Langan in early 2002. She and Peter went on their first date in June 2002 and later wed in Santa Barbara, California two years later. Mariska was 40 at the time.  “Everyone was getting married in their 20s or 30s but in my mind, I knew I had to figure out what I was doing in my life,” she told Parade. “I didn’t want anyone to shape me, and I knew that I had my own path to walk. Not to say I wasn’t sad or impatient.”

Peter Hermann, Mariska Hargitay, 2018 mariska hargitay movies and tv shows
Peter Hermann, Mariska Hargitay, 2018John Lamparski/WireImage/Getty Images

With a long and happy marriage, they now have three children and the family calls New York City home.

Andrew Hermann, Peter Hermann, August Hermann, Mariska Hargitay and Amaya Josephine Hermann, 2013 mariska hargitay movies and tv shows
Andrew Hermann, Peter Hermann, August Hermann, Mariska Hargitay and Amaya Josephine Hermann, 2013Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images

“My kids change my cellular makeup energy, and I’m so grateful for that balance. That’s not to say everyday is a calm one, free of chaos and multi-tasking. Sometimes I feel like an octopus being pulled in so many directions,” Hargitay says. “I have so many different joys. I’m acting, I’m producing, I’m directing episodes and I’m having meetings for my foundation. Then I’m a wife and a mom and you have to keep watering that garden. Relationships don’t just stay great.” 

Per her dad’s persistence on never giving up, Mariska lives her life according to one thing: “Gratitude is my mantra.” And we’re grateful to see her on screen.

For more stories about our favorite female leads, read below!

Jan Brady is Grown Up — You’ll Be Surprised By What Actress Eve Plumb is Doing Today

Marilu Henner on Dating John Travolta, Tony Danza and Finally Finding the Love of Her Life

Emilie Ullerup Overcame a Health Scare Before Becoming a Hallmark Sweetheart

Jan Brady is Grown Up — You’ll Be Surprised By What Actress Eve Plumb is Doing Today

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