Celebs You Forgot Made Guest Appearances On Law And Order

When "Law & Order" premiered in 1990, nobody could have predicted just how successful it'd be. The flagship series aired 457 episodes, and there have been six spin-offs with the "Law & Order" branding and several other in-universe shows that didn't carry the title. "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" has aired more than 500 episodes and is still on the air, while "Criminal Intent" lasted for ten years. Even NBC's "One Chicago" shows technically take place in the "Law & Order" universe!

This all means that thousands of actors have been employed by the "Law & Order" brand over the decades. As a clever promo for a "Law & Order" marathon on SundanceTV put it, "In the world of 'Law & Order,' the guest stars fit into two separate but equally-important groups: those who fade into obscurity, and those who go on to be somebody." While the "Law & Order" brand made superstars out of lead actors including Jerry Orbach, Mariska Hargitay, and Chris Meloni, plenty of actors with smaller roles went on to have massively successful careers, too.

Though the original show ended in 2010, it was revived for a 21st season in 2021. "There are very few things in life that are literally dreams come true," creator Dick Wolf told Deadline. "This is mine." It's exciting to imagine whose careers could have been launched by the franchise. Read on for a roundup of stars you forgot were on "Law & Order" before they were famous.

Law & Order helped Julianna Margulies achieve her dreams

In her memoir "Sunshine Girl," Julianna Margulies wrote that she had given herself until the age of 25 to make a living in acting. If she wasn't able to support herself as a working actor by then, she wrote in her journal in college, "then I will go back to school and become something else, a lawyer maybe?"

Luckily, Margulies was able to find enough work by her self-imposed deadline, including bit parts on "Homicide: Life on the Street" and "Murder, She Wrote." The year before she found fame for playing Nurse Carol Hathaway on "E.R.," Julianna Margulies appeared in an episode of the original "Law & Order" in what was only her second-ever acting gig. In the Season 3 episode titled "Conduct Unbecoming," Margulies played Lieutenant Ruth Mendoza, a Naval officer who is asked to testify about having spoken to a murder victim shortly before the victim died. Fittingly, Margulies acted opposite "L&O" star Chris Noth, who would play her husband years later on "The Good Wife."

Margulies enjoyed working with Noth again, telling Cigar Aficionado, "He's a jokester. His character on the show is very serious — his character on 'Law & Order' was, too — but he is a lot more lighthearted than that. He always has a joke for you." Margulies' character on the long-running CBS procedural was a lawyer, ultimately fulfilling the plan she'd made for herself in her journal long ago...just in a different way than she expected.

Rooney Mara's feelings on her SVU role caused controversy

Before she fell in love with Cate Blanchett in "Carol" and gave Mark Zuckerberg a legendary telling-off in "The Social Network," Rooney Mara appeared on a Season 7 episode of "Law & Order: SVU" called "Fat." Credited at the time as "Tricia Mara," she played a girl named Jessica who attacks an overweight fellow student. "At the end of the show you find out that I used to be obese and I hate fat people," she said to Allure.

Mara didn't seem to be a fan of her storyline, or the show in general. "It was so awful. So stupid. People are obsessed with that show. I don't get it," she said. About her character's actions, she told Allure, "It's ridiculous. Who would ever do that?"

Later, after her comments about the show went viral, Mara clarified her stance in a HuffPost interview. She said her appearance on "SVU" was one of her first acting jobs and "couldn't have been more exciting." She added that she felt her remarks had been taken out of context. "If anything, I didn't mean that the storyline was ridiculous; I meant that humanity is ridiculous," she said. "I know that 'Law & Order' makes their episodes out of real things that are happening in the city, so to me, by 'ridiculous' I meant that humanity is ridiculous. People are awful to one another."

Viola Davis loved playing a villain on Criminal Intent

"One of my favorite roles I ever played was a serial killer," Viola Davis told The Hollywood Reporter's Oscars Actress Roundtable in 2011, when she was up for an award for her work in "The Help." She was talking about her role in an episode of the first season of "Law & Order: Criminal Intent," called "Badge." In the episode, Davis played a woman named Terry Randolph, who Shadow and Act notes was an ex-cop who wound up killing a city comptroller and his family. Noting the racialized aspects of the story — the fact that Randolph is a Black woman who killed a white family — Shadow and Act asked her if she had any regrets about taking the role. She told them she did not, and in fact, that she took the role explicitly because it's rare to see a Black woman play a serial killer, and she wanted the challenge.

Davis would go on to play Defense Attorney Donna Emmett on seven episodes of "SVU" between 2003 and 2008, getting her bearings as a TV lawyer years before stepping into what would become her most famous role, Annalise Keating on "How to Get Away With Murder."

"I appreciated killing a whole family with a baseball bat," the actor said at The Hollywood Reporter roundtable. "You know, sometimes one person's junk is another person's treasure."

Adam Driver was Jeremy Sisto's favorite guest star

Adam Driver broke out as Hannah's boyfriend Adam on "Girls," but in the years leading up to that part, he made appearances on two different "Law & Order" franchises. First, he played Robby Vickery in a Season 20 episode of "Law & Order;" two years later, his character Jason was suspected of an on-stage rape in "Law & Order: SVU."

"Law & Order" star Jeremy Sisto recalled during an event at the 92nd Street Y that Driver was, in fact, the best guest star he'd worked with on the show. "He was a very strange dude," Sisto said. "Sweet, but kind of just had a lot going on." He recalled that Driver would "take over the space" while he acted, impressing him in a way that made him later go back and watch Driver's work.

In behind-the-scenes footage of his "SVU" appearance, Driver said he didn't need to do a lot of research for that character, because he himself was "inherently creepy in life." He clarified that he understood the character's social awkwardness, and that unlike his character, "I didn't stalk anybody. I thought that would be a little bit creepy for the part." We can see what Sisto meant!

Laverne Cox's SVU role helped her in a big way

Many actors look back on their time with the "Law & Order" family fondly, but Laverne Cox says she has an extra reason to be grateful for her guest-starring role on "SVU." Her Season 9 episode, "Closet," marked the role that got her a Screen Actors Guild card, she told Entertainment Tonight. "'SVU' was my first big job. It was the job that made me — I had to join SAG to actually do the job after I booked it. So, that meant a lot to me," she recalled.

Furthermore, after actors make an appearance on a show in syndication, they get paid residuals whenever the episode is shown again on television. The extra money was extra-important to Cox at that point in her life. "I actually got paid double because it was a holiday, and that episode re-aired so many times that it financed a major part of my transition," she said. "Thank you, 'Law & Order!'"

Also in 2008, Cox appeared on an episode of the original "Law & Order," called "Sweetie." The cast was star-studded, both with already-famous celebs and people at the start of their careers; Cox acted alongside guest stars Vivica A. Fox, Colman Domingo, and Billy Magnussen.

Sarah Paulson credits her career to Law & Order

Before she joined Ryan Murphy's stable of actors, Sarah Paulson got her start as a teenager on "Law & Order." In the Season 5 episode "Family Values," Paulson played Maggie, a young girl who was being abused by her mother's new husband.

Looking back, Paulson credits her audition for "Law & Order" as the reason why she has a career today. "It's the right pair of eyes watching you ... to determine whether you have a successful career or not," she told Collider

She described a producer taking a liking to her in the audition room, allowing her to try again. "In this episode I was gonna have to cry a lot," she said, pausing for a moment as she realized how "Law & Order" relates to her later career. "There is something you can find for a connectivity for the rest of my working life thus far. I'm dying to do a comedy," she joked, referring to the fact that her frequent crying on "American Horror Story" has become a meme.

She went on to tell Collider that she was unable to cry during the audition, but a producer took one extra moment to encourage her to really feel her humiliation at having failed so far. He let her try it again; she cried and got the part, and it made her career.

Timothée Chalamet got his start on the 'mothership'

Timothée Chalamet has skyrocketed to fame as an adult, thanks in part to buzzy film roles in "Little Women" and "Call Me By Your Name." Fans of his work may not know that the "Dune" star has been acting since he was a child; in particular, he got his start on television with a role on the original "Law & Order," playing a little kid named Eric who just wants to play video games.

When Chalamet appeared on "The Ellen Show" in 2019, Ellen DeGeneres surprised him by showing a clip of the episode to the audience. In the short scene from 2009, Chalamet's adorable character wants to play XBOX, but his nanny tells him he can't, and that she'll make him milk and cookies instead.

"That's my first acting job ever," Chalamet said, grinning. "'Law & Order' is like the mothership. ... That gives everybody their start, kind of, in acting." He asked the host if she, too, had been on the show.

 "I'm the only person who's never been on 'Law & Order,'" DeGeneres said. "That's my claim to fame."

Samuel L. Jackson played Philip Seymour Hoffman's lawyer

By the time he appeared in the first season of "Law & Order" in 1991, Samuel L. Jackson already had a number of notable roles under his belt, including his work in "Do The Right Thing," "Mo' Better Blues," and a small part in "Goodfellas." When he appeared on "L&O" as Defense Attorney Louis Taggert, he had yet to truly have his breakout moment, which came later that year in Spike Lee's "Jungle Fever."

In the "Law & Order" episode, called "The Violence of Summer," Jackson's character defends a drug dealer accused of rape. The drug dealer was played by a young Philip Seymour Hoffman in his first acting role; the two would work together again five years later, in Paul Thomas Anderson's "Hard Eight."

Jackson's role as a lawyer was particularly fitting, given that he told Australian news show The Project (via the Daily Mail) that he would have been a lawyer in real life if he wasn't an actor. "I could probably lie as well as most lawyers," he said. 

Chris Messina completed a Law & Order threepeat

A lot of actors of have been on "Law & Order." Few actors, though, have been on "Law & Order" three times, as three separate characters, like Chris Messina has.

"I think the first time I did 'Law & Order,' I died," he told The A.V. Club. "'Help' was my line, but I didn't get it out. I died before I even said it." He explained to BuzzFeed, "I came out of the bar, and I fall to the ground." That would have been the Season 6 episode "Rebels." Messina also appeared on an episode called "Homesick" later that season in an entirely different role, and then, he returned again seven years later to play a third character altogether.

"I did another episode where I was eating a hot dog at a hot dog stand," he told The A.V. Club. "I remember telling my girlfriend at the time, 'Yeah, it was a great day. I got the hot dog, cameras were rolling, and nobody told me to eat the hot dog, but I ate a bunch of hot dogs!'"

Echoing a theme expressed by many celebs who have gotten a career boost from the long-running procedural franchise, Messina added that he considers his time on "Law & Order" a "rite of passage."

Jennifer Garner starred in a 'tour de force' episode

Years before she wowed audiences as Sydney Bristow on "Alias," Jennifer Garner was just another actor hoping to make it in the business. This meant taking on small roles in shows including "Spin City" and "Fantasy Island," and yes, "Law & Order." In the Season 6 episode "Aftershock," Garner played a character named Jamie, a young woman who has an affair with Benjamin Bratt's character, Detective Curtis. SpoilerTV notes that "Aftershock" was a "tour de force" episode that broke from the procedural format of "Law & Order," making it the first episode to follow the characters as they dealt with the psychological aftermath of a case, rather than detailing its investigation.

Strangely enough, Garner would go to play the lead in another project called "Aftershock" a few years later. "Aftershock: Earthquake In New York" was a miniseries about an earthquake striking New York City, a two-part TV movie that Variety called "roundly insipid." Yikes.

Nowadays, Jennifer Garner is as A-List as they come, but that doesn't mean she's forgotten her roots. During the COVID-19 pandemic, as film and television production came roaring back while Broadway was still shut down, Jennifer Garner proudly shared news to her Instagram Story (via CinemaBlend) that "Law & Order" would be hiring as many out-of-work Broadway actors as they could. Alongside the headline, she shared three simple yet effective red hearts.

Lauren Graham and Scott Cohen met years before Gilmore Girls

Before she played Lorelai Gilmore on "Gilmore Girls," Lauren Graham starred in a three-episode arc on the original "Law & Order" in Season 7. As The Paley Center for Media notes, the three-part story centered on Lenny Briscoe (Jerry Orbach) and Reynaldo Curtis (Benjamin Bratt) traveling to Los Angeles to investigate the case of a murdered Hollywood producer. Graham played Lisa Lundquist, the Vice President of Production who shows the detectives around the backlot.

The episodes also starred Scott Cohen, who would later recur as Lorelai's love interest-slash-fiance (and Rory's teacher), Max Medina, on three seasons of "Gilmore Girls." Cohen told co-star Scott Patterson on his podcast "I Am All In" that he initially wasn't planning to take that part. "I actually said no, for a long time ... and then I saw Lauren at some kind of publicity thing ... and she was just so fantastic and fun. And I was like, 'You know what, I think this could be really fun to do.'"

For her part, Graham told Republic World that she wanted to stick to comedies, and that she doesn't mind if a bit of Lorelai Gilmore shows up in her other roles. "If I was trying to get away from [Lorelai] entirely, I feel that [I] could never do anything comedic again," she said. "I would ... have to only do 'Law & Order' type of stuff. That's just not me, not who I am."

Courtney B. Vance was on Law & Order before Criminal Intent

Courtney B. Vance's breakout television role came when he was cast as Assistant District Attorney Ron Carver in "Law & Order: Criminal Intent," a role he played from 2001-2006. Before he joined the spin-off, though, Vance had two roles on the flagship series. His first role, in Season 1's "By Hooker, By Crook" (with an early-in-her-career Patricia Clarkson!) was so small that he wasn't even credited. In Season 5, though, he played the killer in an episode called "Rage" that TV Guide said was "classic." 

Vance told TV Guide that joining a "Law & Order" series in an ongoing role was a difficult decision, partially because he didn't want to be known as a TV actor after working in film. However, he acknowledged, "...we go back, the show and I." Ultimately, series creator Dick Wolf convinced him to join the series. Vance remembers, "He just said it would be something that we would all be pretty proud of ... It's been a wonderful ride. The people working on the show are really extraordinary."

Elizabeth Banks' parents were 'very proud' of her SVU role

Elizabeth Banks is a multi-hyphenate writer, director, actor, and producer. Back in 2001, though, she was a virtual unknown when she starred alongside a post-"Saved By The Bell" Mark-Paul Gosselaar in an episode of "Law & Order: SVU." She later described the episode to Jimmy Kimmel, telling him, "I played a porn star with a sick kid whose entire life goal was to get in a gang-bang so that I could get on the 'Howard Stern Show' to make more money and get to Vegas."

Teasing her, Kimmel asked if that episode was "the last time [she'd seen her] father cry." "I believe that my parents were very proud," Banks laughed.

Several years after playing an adult film star on "SVU," Banks would go on to play the titular role of Miri in Kevin Smith's "Zack and Miri Make a Porno" opposite Seth Rogen. About that movie's controversial title, Banks told Collider, "I think there are much bigger problems in our world today than the word 'porno.'" She went on to imply that parents should tell their children, "'Hey, kid, it's not for you.' That's it."

John Krasinski played basketball on Criminal Intent

The year before he won the hearts of fans everywhere by looking directly into the camera on "The Office," John Krasinski was a mostly-unknown actor taking what jobs he could find. His pre-"Office" credits included a role on a Season 3 episode of "Law & Order: Criminal Intent." He was a basketball player named Jace whose teammate was murdered.

It was a fitting role for Krasinski, a former high school basketball player who told the Patriot Ledger that he had planned to play at Brown University, until one day he decided to try out for a sketch comedy group instead. He didn't play for Brown, but he got to put his basketball skills to good use on "The Office" in the classic early episode where the Dunder Mifflin office employees challenge the warehouse workers to a game of hoops. Krasinski was really elbowed in the face while filming, according to co-star David Denman, the man who did the elbowing. "That's all real blood," he told WBUR. "I don't think John liked me the first couple of years."

Krasinski seems to at least look back on his "Law & Order" stint fondly. When a fan on Twitter mentioned having spotted him in the role, Krasinski quote-tweeted them and added a line from the classic franchise intro: "These are their stories... DUN, DUN!"

Sam Rockwell played a racist long before Three Billboards

Sam Rockwell garnered attention well into his career for taking roles where he plays racists. In the space of two years, he was a Nazi in "Jojo Rabbit," a Ku Klux Klan leader in "The Best of Enemies," and a cop involved in a racially-motivated incident of police brutality in "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri," a role for which he won an Academy Award. He told Dazed in 2018, "I've actually been playing a lot of racists recently, and it's an interesting world." A year later, though, Rockwell said in The Hollywood Reporter's Emmys roundtable, "I could take a break from racists. A long break."

However, none of these film roles were Rockwell's first time playing a racist. In the early "Law & Order" episode "Intolerance," he played a white student suspected of murdering a Chinese-American classmate with whom he was competing for a scholarship. "Gilmore Girls" star Kelly Bishop played his mother, and ultimately, his family was implicated in the crime and cover-up. 

His "Three Billboards" role shares connective tissue with another "Law & Order" character. As occasionally happened on the long-running series, guest stars wind up playing multiple roles, and Rockwell was no different. He told The Playlist that he had done research for the "Three Billboards" role because "I had never really played a cop before, [although] I played a cop on 'Law & Order,'" referring to his Season 3 role in an episode called "Manhood."