Inside Mariska Hargitay's Tragic Real Life Story

Actress Mariska Hargitay has starred on NBC's Law & Order: Special Victims Unit since 1999. She has created such an iconic TV character in Detective Olivia Benson that Taylor Swift named one of her cats "Olivia Benson." As of this writing, Hargitay has a happy home life with her husband, actor Peter Hermann, and their three children, but it didn't come easily. She's had her share of tragedies, starting when she was just 3 years old. Here's a look at the real-life dramas she's faced. 

Mariska Hargitay's mother died in a tragic car wreck

Mariska (pronounced Marishka) Hargitay's mother was classic Hollywood actress Jayne Mansfield, known for her roles in The Girl Can't Help It and Playgirl After Dark. Her father was Mickey Hargitay, a bodybuilder, actor, and former Mr. Universe. According to The New York Times, the couple met in 1956 when Mansfield, having noticed Hargitay in Mae West's nightclub act, told a server, "I'll have a steak and the man on the left."

Despite that cheeky beginning, her parents had a rocky marriage and split up shortly after her birth. Tragedy struck in 1967, when Mansfield and two adult passengers died in a car accident. Mariska and her two older brothers Mickey and Zoltan, who were in the backseat sleeping, were injured but miraculously survived.

While Hargitay doesn't remember the accident, she told Redbook in 2009 that "losing [her] mother at such an early age is the scar of my soul." She added, "But I feel like it ultimately made me into the person I am today. I understand the journey of life. I had to go through what I did to be here."

Mariska Hargitay felt the loss for a long time, in many ways

Long after her mother's tragic death, Hargitay struggled with "anxiety" and "low self-esteem," according to a 2010 Good Housekeeping interview. The outlet reported, "In her finding-out-who-she-was late teens and early 20s, Hargitay acutely felt the pain of not really having known her world-famous mother." She would even skip fun events like parties. "I thought, What's the point? They won't even notice that I'm not there," she said. Fortunately, Hargitay came out of this period stronger, with the realization that "you have to show up for your life."

Perhaps part of the reason it took her so long to come to terms with the loss of her mother was the fact that she didn't have many maternal keepsakes around. Speaking with Inside the Actor's Studio in 2014, Harigtay said that "most of [her mother's] belongings" were stolen during a burglary at the famous actress' house after her passing. Many years later, collectors approached Hargitay and asked her if she wanted to buy any of the items. She said she did, and now wears her mother's charm bracelet, which had a charm with her name and a ballerina on it.

Mariska Hargitay's stepmother nearly died, too

When she was three years old, Hargitay's father Mickey married Ellen Siano, a flight attendant. The couple stayed together until Mickey's death in 2006. Siano, who helped raise her after her mother's tragic passing, was a great stepmother, Hargitay told E! True Hollywood Story. In fact, Hargitay told Good Housekeeping in 2012, "I called her Mom. She really claimed us."

But the family had a big scare in 1973, when a plane Siano was flying in hit terrible turbulence. "One passenger was killed, and four other people were hospitalized, including flight attendant Ellen," according E! True Hollywood Story. "She hit the floor and the ceiling something like 56 times," Hargitay said on the show, adding, "she was horrifically injured."

Of Ellen's very long recovery time, Hargitay said, "Those are tough emotions for kids to deal with, especially that specifically, to have that, you know, almost happen twice is — I don't know if there are words for it, but it was really scary for us." The program said that in response, "Mariska threw herself into school and became an overachiever."

Mariska Hargitay rang up lots of debt in her early years

It took a long time for Hargitay become a big star. She didn't get the role in Law & Order: SVU until she was 35 years old. So that meant a lot of rough moments financially, as she tried to make her way in the world on her own, something she talked to Good Housekeeping about it in 2010. Because she didn't have a steady paycheck for a long time, "she racked up six-figure debts," according to the article.

"I had a house and car I didn't want to lose," she said, "and I had a lot of credit card debt." At one point, her boyfriend was paying her expenses, but "when we broke up, he said I owed him 60 grand." She made good on that though. "I'm a payer-backer. So as soon as I could, I paid him off."

Today, she is much more careful with her money. "I have learned to hang on to it," she said. "I have a nest egg, and I don't buy above my means."

Mariska Hargitay's father died of colon cancer

Not only did Hargitay's starring role in Law & Order: SVU start in her mid-30s, but she also married late as well. She met future husband Peter Hermann on the set of the show in 2001. They fell in love, got married in 2004 when she was 40, and had their first child together, August, in June 2006, when she was 42. She also won an Emmy the same year in what should have been a peak-life moment. 

However, when Hargitay was about to give birth to her child at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, tragedy struck when her father was admitted into the hospital at the very same time. His diagnosis was cancer, according to her E! True Hollywood Story. Thankfully, he got to meet his newborn grandson, but the cancer was very aggressive, and he died by that September.

Hargitay's dad also got to witness her Emmy win, which she acknowledged in her tearful acceptance speech. "He's the reason I'm standing here today," she exclaimed. "I can't wait to celebrate this with you." 

The scary on-set accident that led to serious surgery

Hargitay suffered a big health scare that started with a scene on Law & Order: SVU. In 2008, she told Redbook she was "doing a stunt chasing a bad guy." She said she "landed wrong" and felt something weird. It turned out that a "microscopic bleed began in her lung tissue." Three months later, she felt a pain in her chest that she described as "sort of like someone had stabbed me." She was naturally freaked out, of course. "I had a procedure hoping to stave off more serious surgery, but it didn't work, and I ended up in surgery about two weeks later."

She thought everything was okay after that, as the doctors claimed there was only a "one out of 1,000" chance of re-injury, but that's exactly what happened. Fortunately, she made a full recovery. "I get to be the one in 1,000 in so many positive ways, it balances out," Hargitay said. "I have so many blessings, and I've learned from all of my experiences and my losses. I think you learn to feel grateful when you are exposed at such a young age to the fact that bad things can happen."

Mariska Hargitay's adoption heartbreak

After having her daughter August in 2006, Hargitay and her husband wanted to expand their family, but she had issues getting pregnant again. However, she told Good Housekeeping in 2012 that she and her husband both "envisioned this big family" and that adoption "was always part of the plan." The couple eventually adopted two children a few months apart in 2011 — a girl, Amaya, and a boy, Andrew. But before that, the couple had a lot of heartache when it came to bringing a child into their home. Or as Hargitay put it to Good Housekeeping, "Adoption is not for the faint of heart."

One particularly rough moment was in 2010, when after just two days with a different adopted daughter, her birth mother "changed her mind" and took back her parental rights. Hargitay called it "devastating," but confessed "this is what I've come to understand about life: It was probably the greatest, happiest ending." She added, "I mean, it was so painful for us, but it was deeply joyful and deeply right for her." It also made it all the more sweet when they were able to adopt the children they did.

The TV detective was once on the other side of the law

Although this admittedly doesn't level up to a tragic life event, but would it surprise you to learn that Detective Olivia Benson was once arrested? Of course, it wasn't for anything she went after perps on Law & Order: SVU for — it was something a little more mundane.

According to her E! True Hollywood Story, when Hargitay was a sorority girl at UCLA, taking acting classes, working the audition circuit, and even collecting tips as a waitress, she got an acting role in Ronnie Milsap's music video "She Loves My Car." She told E's THS of the gig, "I was so excited even though I got arrested that night." Wait, what?

Jennifer Barker, her college roommate, explained that Hargitay "got a lot of parking tickets, because she would just park wherever she wanted. And she didn't pay them." Barker said, "They put her in the back of the car and took her to jail." Mariska was wearing her sexy video outfit when she got tossed in the clink. Her roommate said, "She was in there with all the ladies of the night and, uh, but she was fitting right in." Fortunately, "Hargitay only spent a few hours behind bars," but maybe seeing what life was like in the Graybar Hotel was good preparation for her future career.

Mariska Hargitay remains positive throughout it all

Mariska Hargitay has a very life-affirming personality now, thanks in no small part to her father. She told Good Housekeeping, "The message I got from my father was that life is hard, but you just don't quit," Hargitay says. "I am grateful that I didn't let fear get the best of me. It only holds you back from possibilities and greatness. You've got to kick fear to the side, because the payoff is huge."

She also said, "I don't focus on what I can't control," saying. "If I can't control it, let's move on. I think that we have all been swallowed up in 'shoulda-woulda-coulda.' You figure it out and you walk tall and go through it. Some days it's chicken, and some days it's feathers." Smart advice.

Mariska Hargitay used the tragedy and pain for good

Beyond just believing that God had a plan for the pain that she endured from experiencing tragedy at such a young age, Mariska Hargitay opted to take action and use it for good. During a 2021 interview with Glamour, Hargitay confessed that for many years following her mother's death, she was stuck in something she referred to as "the frozen place." She added, "I clearly was in that frozen place for a lot of my childhood — of trying to survive, actually trying to survive," she divulged. "My life has been a process of unpeeling the layers and trust and trusting again." 

But then Hargitay had an idea. After reading countless fan letters from others who had experienced those same feelings of loneliness and shame following traumatic events in their own lives, including domestic violence and sexual assault, she resolved to create a foundation. "Joyful Heart was my response. That's what the foundation has been about — giving back possibility." Along with the foundation's mission to "transform society's response to sexual assault, domestic violence, and child abuse, support survivors' healing, and end this violence forever," Hargitay's ultimate goal is to be of service and help others heal. "That's important to me," she declared. Bravo, Hargitay!