Hargitay, Mariska

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Mariska Hargitay


Born Mariska Magdolina Hargitay, January 23, 1964, in Los Angeles, CA; daughter of Mickey Hargitay (a bodybuilder) and Jayne Mansfield (an actress); married Peter Hermann (an actor), August 28, 2004. Education: Studied theater at the University of CaliforniaLos Angeles.

Addresses: Contact—c/o Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, National Broadcasting Co. (NBC), 30 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10112.


Actress on television, including: Falcon Crest, 1984, 1988; Downtown, 1986-87; Finish Line (movie), 1989; Tequila & Bonetti, 1992; Blind Side (movie), 1993; Can't Hurry Love, 1995; The Single Guy, 1996; ER, 1997-98; Prince Street, 1997; Night Sins (movie), 1997; Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, 1999—; Plain Truth (movie), 2004. Film appearances include: Ghoulies, 1985; Jocks, 1987; Mr. Universe, 1988; The Perfect Weapon, 1991; Bank Robber, 1993; Leaving Las Vegas, 1995; Lake Placid, 1999; Perfume, 2001. Won Miss Beverly Hills 1982 pageant.

Awards: Golden Globe award for best performance by an actress in a television series, Hollywood Foreign Press Association, for Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, 2005.


Despite a pedigree that stretches back to Hollywood's golden era, Mariska Hargitay had difficulty finding work in film and on television actor before her star turn in the popular NBC series Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Her portrayal of tough, seen-it-all sex-crimes investigator Olivia Benson on that show even won her a Golden Globe award in 2005. It marked the first time that Law & Order: SVU had won the Hollywood Foreign Press Association honor, and it was a first for Hargitay, too—though her late screen-siren mother, Jayne Mansfield, had been a co-recipient of the "Most Promising Newcomer" Golden Globe back in 1957. A decade later, Hargitay's mother died in a horrific automobile crash that left her three-year-old daughter and Hargitay's two brothers relatively unscathed. "I just always felt robbed, " she told Kate Coyne in a Good Housekeeping interview. "Everyone else in the world had such strong feelings about this woman that I should have known the best. But I never got to know her at all."

Hargitay was born in Los Angeles in 1964, the third child and first daughter of Mansfield and Mickey Hargitay, a Hungarian-born professional figure skater-turned-bodybuilder who won the 1955 Mr. Universe title. With her platinum hair and famous curves, Mansfield could be best described as the Pamela Anderson of her era. The films she made were sub-par, but she was rarely out of the gossip columns or missing from a newsstand's row of magazine covers. She successfully carried off a "dumb blonde" image, but spoke several languages and had an impressively high I.Q., or intelligence quotient. Hargitay's father was Mansfield's second husband, and reportedly the love of her life; at their Beverly Hills home, Hargitay had "I Love You Jayne" tiled at the bottom of a heart-shaped swimming pool.

The marriage faltered, however, and Mansfield married a movie director, with whom she had a son. She later took up with the Los Angeles attorney who had handled her divorce, and she was with him, Hargitay, and Hargitay's two older brothers in a Buick traveling in the pre-dawn hours from the Gus Stevens Supper Club in Biloxi, Mississippi, to a scheduled radio interview in New Orleans on June 29, 1967, when the limousine plowed into the back of a trailer truck. Hargitay and her brothers suffered just minor injuries, and she remembers nothing of the crash or its immediate aftermath. An enduring legend about the accident was that both her mother and Sam Brody, the boyfriend, were decapitated, but this came from witnesses seeing one of Mans-field's blond wigs on the dashboard. The reality was bad enough: Hargitay's mother's skull was crushed. Hargitay was three years old at the time, and has a zigzag-shaped scar on her head from the accident. Deeper scars were equally hard to find, however. "Sometimes I can't believe I'm not a drug addict or an alcoholic, " she told Coyne in the Good Housekeeping interview. "I would lapse into catastrophic thinking a lot, where I was just convinced that the worst thing would happen. But I worked hard to stop those patterns, because I realized, If you think something's going to end badly, sweetheart, it will."

Hargitay went to live with her father, who had remarried by then, and grew up in Beverly Hills. Sometimes she spent her summer breaks with her maternal grandparents in Colorado, but other times she was shipped to Hungary to visit her father's family there. It was a Communist bloc country at the time, and offered a drastically different view of life from her Beverly Hills environment. Back at Marymount High School, a Roman Catholic girls' school, Hargitay was a top swimmer and elected senior-class president. Until she was cast in a school play, she had little interest in acting, but was surprised to discover that she loved it. After winning the Miss Beverly Hills 1982 beauty pageant, she studied theater at the University of California at Los Angeles, and made her television debut in an episode of Falcon Crest in 1984. She also worked part-time in less-glamorous fields to pay for the UCLA apartment she shared with three other students, holding down jobs as a waitress and in a clothing store. In a 1985 People interview that was one of the first instances of media exposure for her, she told writer Debra Zahn, "I'm proud to work. I just know too many spoiled rich kids who are full degenerate losers."

Hargitay made her feature-film debut that same year in Ghoulies, and eventually left UCLA before completing her degree. She did admit that she seemed to have had a delayed reaction to her mother's death, around the age of 22, when she sunk into a deep depression and cried constantly. After that, she vowed to stop speaking about her late mother in the press, and concentrated on her own career instead. She had a difficult time finding work for several years, however. There was a short-lived CBS series in 1986, Downtown, about a Los Angeles halfway house for ex-convicts and which also featured a young Blair Underwood, and then the movie Jocks a year later, a typical teen flick of the era about a losing college tennis team. Hargitay returned to Falcon Crest in 1988 for a recurring role, but could not land any film work for three years. "When I was younger, I used to deliberately avoid sexy roles, and even lost a part once when I refused to dye my hair blonde, " she confessed to Sue Corrigan for the British newspaper Mail on Sunday. "The producer sacked me, but I wanted to stay away from sexual roles. I shied away because of my mother. I played lots of tomboys wearing flannel shirts and boots."

Hargitay's career continued to sputter through the 1990s. There was another quickly cancelled television series, Tequila & Bonetti, which starred Jack Scalia as a transplanted New York City cop and a French mastiff as his partner in crime-fighting; Hargitay played his new Los Angeles Police Department colleague, but obviously it was a secondary role to the voice-over thoughts of Tequila, the dog. Critics were merciless in their derision, and the show lasted just six episodes. Hargitay also made some television movies, including Blind Side and Night Sins, and had a brief walk-on in the 1995 Nicolas Cage film Leaving Las Vegas as a prostitute. Steadier work came when she was hired for the hit hospital drama ER as Cynthia Hooper, the meek desk clerk who has a crush on Anthony Edwards's character during the show's 1997-98 season.

Hargitay occasionally considered giving up the endless rounds of auditions and meetings. Her father was proved unflagging in his encouragement, however. "When I wanted to quit, my dad was the one who said, 'No, you don't. Get back out there and just do it better. Work harder, '" she told Good Housekeeping's Coyne. Finally, in 1999, she was cast in Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, a spin-off from the immensely successful Law & Order show, on the air since 1990. Set in a hard-bitten New York City world of cops, crime, and the court system, the Law & Order franchise was the creation of hit-making producer Dick Wolf, and quickly scored with viewers and critics alike. SVU was the first Law & Order spin-off.

Hargitay was cast as Olivia Benson, a New York City detective who investigates sex crimes. Topics such as torture and pedophilia regularly drove the SVU story lines, which quickly became known as the "racy" Law & Order. Her co-star was Christopher Meloni, best known for his role as Chris Keller in the HBO prison drama Oz. In later seasons story lines revealed that some of Detective Benson's fierce attitude stemmed from the fact that she herself was the product of a sexual assault. The show scored consistently high ratings, even outperforming the original Law & Order at times. "The subject matter is compelling, and the chemistry between the leads even more so, " noted Allison Hope Weiner in Entertainment Weekly. "The soulful, brooding Meloni looks like he kept enough of his Oz persona to rough up anyone who looks at him cockeyed, and nothing in Hargitay's resume prepared viewers for the fact that Jayne Mansfield's daughter can engage in some serious, sassy butt-kicking."

In 2005, Hargitay even won a rare Golden Globe award for best performance by an actress in a television series from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. The honor was a first for Law & Order: SVU, which had never even been nominated for a Golden Globe at all in seven seasons—though the parent series had been nominated several times and then failed to win. Hargitay belongs to the cast of one of the most successful television series in history, with a total of four Law & Order shows generating about $1 billion a year. Not surprisingly, the gritty crime drama is popular around the world, too, and Hargitay's face is seen by viewers in 200 countries.

Hargitay rarely ventures into feature films any more, with an arduous SVU taping schedule making other commitments all but impossible. Her last two big-screen roles were in Lake Placid in 1999 and Perfume two years later. Viewers seemed to identify so strongly with her portrayal of Olivia Benson that Hargitay even receives letters from victims of sexual abuse or assault; their harrowing real-life stories haunt her worse than any script, and so Hargitay decided to train and volunteer as a rape crisis counselor. She also established the Joyful Heart Foundation to provide recovery help for victims of sexual abuse.

Since taking the SVU job, Hargitay has made New York City her home. She headed west, however, for her 2004 wedding to actor Peter Hermann in Santa Barbara, California. They met on the set of SVU, and Hargitay recalled that she had been instantly smitten, and said on their first real date that "I just about passed out when I saw him, " she told InStyle journalist Sarah Stebbins. "I thought, That's my husband." She turned 41 a few months later, the same month she won the Golden Globe, and hopes to become a mother. She no longer harbors a fear that she will die young, as she for many years before she turned 34—the age her mother was when she died. She did, however, endure a motorcycle accident that same year, but emerged from it with nothing more than a sprained ankle. "That's when I told myself, You're not going to die; you're not your mother, " she explained to James Servin in another InStyle interview. "That's when my whole life changed."


Entertainment Weekly, March 4, 2005, p. 26.

Good Housekeeping, October 2004, p. 162.

InStyle, June 1, 2000, p. 374; January 4, 2005, p. 318.

Mail on Sunday (London, England), December 19, 1999, p. 6; April 3, 2005, p. 25.

Parade, February 13, 2005, p. 16.

People, March 4, 1985, p. 59; April 6, 1992, p. 105.

Virginian Pilot, March 22, 2002, p. E1.