Actors Who Spent The Most Time On Law & Order

"In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups: the police, who investigate crime, and the district attorneys, who prosecute the offenders. These are their stories." That iconic intro opened 456 episodes of "Law & Order," the mega-hit NBC procedural crime drama that enjoyed a 20-season run from 1990 until 2010, one of television's longest. 

As it turned out, you just can't keep a good show down; in September 2021, NBC announced plans to revive the show for a 21st season — a decade after the original was cancelled. Truth be told, the revival wasn't surprising, given that the original spawned numerous spin-offs — two of which ("Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" and "Law & Order: Organized Crime") are still on the air at the time of this writing. In fact, the cops-and-lawyers format created by television impresario Dick Wolf is aging like a fine wine, remaining popular with viewers more than 30 years after the first episode made its debut. 

Over the course of all those years, there have been a lot of actors cast in "Law & Order" and the other shows to have spun off from "the mothership," the nickname Wolf coined for the original. While some stuck around for a few seasons, others remained part of the franchise for many more — some for decades. Keep reading to find out all about the actors who spent the most time on "Law & Order."

A contract dispute led Chris Noth to exit Law & Order after five seasons

Chris Noth was a relative unknown when he was cast as Det. Mike Logan, making his debut in the very first episode of "Law & Order" in 1990. As the show's popularity grew, so did Noth's stardom; by the fifth season, he quit "L&O" in search of greener pastures. At the time Noth announced his departure, series creator Dick Wolf told the AP that the actor's quote had simply grown too big; with Noth's contract now up, it would take a "huge" salary bump to keep him around, something Wolf admitted "would be impossible to grant, given the age of the show."

It didn't take Noth long to find another role — and an even more iconic one to boot: Mr. Big in "Sex and the City," the on-again, off-again love interest of Sarah Jessica Parker's Carrie Bradshaw (which Noth reprised in two "SaTC" movies, also signing on for the 2022 "Sex and the City" HBO Max revival, "And Just Like That..."). Among his many post-"L&O" roles, Noth again struck gold with "The Good Wife," playing the unfaithful politician husband of Julianna Margulies' Alicia Florrick throughout the critically acclaimed drama's seven-season run.

Noth didn't entirely say goodbye to Logan when he exited "Law & Order" in 1995. He returned to the role in the 1998 "L&O" TV movie "Exiled," and again in the spin-off "Law & Order: Criminal Intent," playing Logan from 2005 until 2008. 

Jesse L. Martin departed after nine seasons to return to the stage

Jesse L. Martin joined "Law & Order" in 1999 following a high-profile recurring role on "Ally McBeal." As Martin told Entertainment Weekly, he felt that "L&O's" procedural format, focusing on the crime of the week while ignoring characters' personal lives, suited his acting style. "To me, that's the best part of acting, just getting the story across," he said. "I think you learn more about a character through the telling of the story. I don't think you need to spend a whole lot of time getting into what the character does at home or into his relationships."

Martin departed in 2008 following nine seasons. As he explained in a different interview with Entertainment Weekly, the one-time Broadway star (he originated the role of Tom Collins in "Rent") was eager to return to treading the boards. "I need to get back on stage before I get too scared to do it again," he said. "And with that schedule, it would be really difficult for me to ever really get to do anything like that." True to his word, Martin returned to Broadway in 2010, starring alongside Al Pacino in a production of Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice." 

Subsequent screen credits include the TV series "The Philanthropist," "Smash," and "The Flash." Meanwhile, fans await Martin's portrayal of music legend Marvin Gaye in the biopic "Marvin Gaye: Sexual Healing."

Steven Hill was already a stage and screen veteran before his 10-year stint on Law & Order

From the very first season of "Law & Order," Steven Hill was an instant fan favorite thanks to his portrayal of fast-thinking District Attorney Adam Schiff. As Hill's IMDb page demonstrates, he was no acting novice, with television credits extending back to the earliest days of the medium — his first TV credit, in fact, was way back in 1949.

Thanks to the success of "Law & Order," Schiff not only became Hill's most notable screen role, but it was also his final one; after exiting the show in 2010, he never appeared on screen again. He died in 2016 at age 94. "Steven was not only one of the truly great actors of his generation, he was one of the most intelligent people I have ever met," "Law & Order" creator Dick Wolf told Variety, noting that Hill was "the only actor I've known who consistently tried to cut his own lines."

In a 1996 profile in The New York Times, Hill explained that "Law & Order" — both the show and the underlying philosophy behind those words — was something he could get behind on a personal level. "There's a certain positive statement in this show," he explained. "So much is negative today. The positive must be stated to rescue us [from] pandemonium. To me it lies in that principle: law and order."

Kelli Giddish joined SVU in 2011 — and never left

Kelli Giddish joined "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" in 2011, taking on the role of Det. Amanda Rollins at the start of the show's 13th season. However, her "Law & Order" journey actually began a few years earlier; when she guest-starred in 2007 episodes of "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" and the original "L&O," clearly making an impression. As of 2021, Giddish was still a full-fledged "SVU" cast member, marking her 11th season.

Prior to joining the "L&O" juggernaut, Giddish had already established her television bona fides, first in daytime with a 115-episode run on "All My Children," and then as the lead actor in such primetime series as "Past Life" and "Chase." 

In a 2011 interview with TV Guide, shortly after joining "SVU," Giddish explained why an actor used to being No. 1 on the call sheet jumped at the opportunity to be part of an ensemble cast. "I've been saying, 'Oh my god, this is so nice being on 'SVU' where it's not all on my shoulders.' With this show, I'm becoming a part of a team that's established and that's certainly a great feeling," she said. "I would be envious of me if I was anybody else. Just in terms of absorbing what these people have to give and having been on the show for 12 years — it's a really cool thing."

Jerry Orbach became the heart and soul of Law & Order during his 12-season run

No character in the "Law & Order" universe is more beloved than Det. Lennie Briscoe, portrayed by the late Jerry Orbach. While Orbach wasn't there at the beginning — he joined in the third season after portraying a defense attorney in Season 2 — Orbach was an instant fan favorite. His 12-season run ended with his 2004 death from prostate cancer at age 69.

A New York theater veteran who starred in long-running musical "The Fantasticks," Orbach also originated the "Chicago" role of Billy Flynn, one of many notable stage roles. On the silver screen, he's best remembered as the father of Jennifer Grey's Baby in "Dirty Dancing." 

In a 2004 interview with The Boston Globe (now archived), Orbach theorized about why the rigid "Law & Order" story structure resonated with viewers. "It's almost like a ritual," he explained. "You know there's going to be a body found, and we're going to look for who did it, and then there's going to be some twist at the trial. People tune in. They know what's coming and they like it that way." He also revealed that playing Lennie made him a favorite of the NYPD, a fanbase that came with some sweet perks. "If it's raining and I can't get a cab, sometimes a squad car will come by and they'll say, 'Where you going?' I say, 'I don't want to get you guys in trouble.' They say, 'Get in the back. We'll pretend you're under arrest.'"

Christopher Meloni revived his SVU character in Organized Crime

When it comes to television duos, Olivia Benson and Elliot Stabler of "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" are about as iconic as it comes. Played by Mariska Hargitay and Christopher Meloni, the onscreen partnership came to an abrupt end in 2011 when Meloni left the show after 12 seasons, with Stabler written off "SVU" when the actor's contract negotiations went south. Speaking with People, Meloni recalled the way "things fell out — and the word I'll use is that it was inelegant."

After his exit, Meloni wasted no time in moving on, appearing in numerous TV series including "True Blood," "Surviving Jack," "Underground," and "Happy!" In spring 2020, Deadline reported that Meloni would be returning to the fold, reprising Stabler in a new spin-off, "Law & Order: Organized Crime." Originally slated for NBC's 2020 fall lineup, the show eventually debuted in early 2021, thanks to pandemic-related delays. 

The show proved to be a hit with viewers and was renewed for a second season. Speaking with Entertainment Weekly, Meloni explained why he decided to resurrect Stabler a decade later. "I was intrigued for a variety of personal reasons," he said. "If you have, at least from my perspective, a very well-known and beloved TV character who left abruptly and, I would argue, unceremoniously... there's a built-in recognizability, a thing that needs to be satiated with a sense of closure. Those are all very attractive things."

Sam Waterston spent 16 seasons in the Law & Order courtroom

Sam Waterston is another "Law & Order" long-timer, joining the show at the start of its fifth season. Playing principled and idealistic Executive Assistant District Attorney Jack McCoy — eventually bumped up to District Attorney — Waterston played the role until the final season of "Law & Order" in 2010. After 16 seasons as McCoy, would Waterston be returning for the revival? No official announcement was initially made, but the door remained open for Waterston to appear in some fashion. He's continued to maintain a busy acting schedule, most recently in Netflix hit "Grace and Frankie" — and he returned to the "L&O" fold when he reprised the role of Jack McCoy for "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" in 2018.

Discussing his return to playing McCoy with USA Today, Waterston noted the legacy of "Law & Order," and the key role he played in the series. "People remember it, and I'm glad that they do," he said of the show. "It continues on in reruns, one network after another. It's probably the longest-lasting thing I've ever had anything to do with."

In 2010, he opened up to CBS News about the impact that he's had thanks to "Law & Order." "I can't tell you the number of people who have come up to me on the street and said, 'I'm a lawyer because of you,'" he marveled.

BD Wong spent 14 years as SVU psychiatrist Dr. George Huang

BD Wong became the toast of Broadway thanks to his Tony-winning performance in "M. Butterfly," and he went on to become part of TV history as FBI psychiatrist Dr. George Huang on "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit." Making his first appearance in its second season, Wong left "SVU" after 10 seasons in order to star in a new series called "Awake."

When "Awake" was quickly cancelled, Wong returned to "SVU" in 2012. He made one appearance per year on the show until his final one in 2015 — playing the character, albeit sporadically, for a total of 14 years and many seasons. Since then, Wong has appeared in numerous TV series, including "Awkwafina is Nora from Queens," "Mr. Robot," "Gotham," and "American Horror Story."

In an interview with KQED, Wong admitted he wasn't thrilled about the way his "SVU" character was revealed to be gay right before his exit, admitting that "it felt a little cheap to [him]." According to the openly gay actor, he "was also kind of torn because, you know, it's positive ... But it did feel a little convenient or kind of lazy or, you know, kind of not particularly the best way that you want to come out as a character. It wasn't like Ellen coming out. It wasn't a great thing that was really impactful and funny or human or whatever; it was just kind of a minor point made."

S. Epatha Merkerson spent 17 seasons as Lt. Anita Van Buren

Sam Waterston's 16 seasons on the original "Law & Order" weren't enough to claim the record for the show's longest tenure. That honor goes to S. Epatha Merkerson, who joined the series one season before Waterston (in Season 4), and wound up sticking around for 17 seasons as NYPD Lieutenant Anita Van Buren.

When the series was cancelled by NBC in 2010, Merkerson left the world of "Law & Order," but she didn't stray too far. Just a few years later, in 2015, she was cast in "Chicago Med," from "Law & Order" creator Dick Wolf. This time out, she played Sharon Goodwin, head of patient and medical services at Gaffney Chicago Medical Center. 

In 1998, Merkerson spoke to The Washington Post about her "Law & Order" role, after completing production of her fifth season on the show. According to Merkerson, her passion remained in theater, and the "Law & Order" schedule allowed her to stay in touch with her stage roots. As she told the Post, filming a typical episode of "Law & Order" took two or three days, with an emotional output she characterized as "superficial." As she explained, "I rehearse, they put my wig on, I get dressed, we rehearse again, maybe twice, and we shoot."

Richard Belzer's 17 seasons as Det. Munch are part of his character's TV legacy

Richard Belzer had a singularly unique path to joining "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," portraying Det. John Munch since the spin-off's first episode in 1999. Munch had previously been a fixture in a completely different TV crime drama, "Homicide: Life on the Street." In fact, Belzer holds the record for the most appearances in other shows by a single television character, thanks to John Munch appearing in "The X-Files," "The Wire," "Arrested Development," "The Beat," "30 Rock," "The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt," "Sesame Street," and other programs.

"Presently I am the longest-running character in the history of primetime television," said Belzer in a 2013 interview with the New York Post, having played Munch for 20 years at that point. Jokingly lamenting that he'd been a TV cop for so long the public had forgotten he was actually a standup comic, Belzer expressed gratitude for being able to inhabit the conspiracy-loving detective for so long. "You know, the part is a gift from God," said Belzer. "To be able to work for 20 years as an actor in an industry that is not so predictable, I'm grateful every day. I'll do it till I drop, I guess — or drop out." 

As it turned out, Belzer opted for the latter; he exited the show later that year, during Season 17, with Munch written out in an episode celebrating his retirement from the NYPD.

Dann Florek starred in two different Law & Order series

Dann Florek was a member of the original cast of "Law & Order" when it premiered in 1990, portraying NYPD Capt. Don Cragen. Florek parted ways with the show in 1993 when series creator Dick Wolf axed him and co-star Richard Brooks (Asst. District Attorney Paul Robinette) to make way for two new female characters, S. Epatha Merkerson's Lt. Anita Van Buren and Assistant District Attorney Claire Kincaid, played by Jill Hennessy.

Wolf brought Florek back for a single 1995 episode, and again in 1998 for the "L&O" TV movie "Exiled." In 1999, the actor joined the cast of "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit." This time, Don Cragen stuck around, with Florek playing the role until he departed the series in 2014 (he would return for episodes in 2015 and 2021). Tallying up his "L&O" and "SVU" time, the Cragen character can boast an impressive 25 consecutive years in the "Law & Order" universe. Dann Florek's 2021 return to "SVU" (for the 500th episode) is equally exciting.

The explanation for Florek's departure was reportedly his age in relation to the NYPD's actual mandatory retirement policy by age 63. "The reason NYPD does it is because you can't have 65-year-old guys running after guys. It is a hard and fast rule," "SVU" showrunner Warren Leight told Zap2It (via E! News). 

Ice-T has been TV's unlikeliest cop for more than two decades

When rapper Ice-T was cast as Det. Fin Tutuola in the second season of "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," the role wasn't intended to be a permanent one. "I went on the show to do four episodes, man," he revealed in a 2021 appearance on "Straight Up Steve Austin" (as reported by E! News). "Here it is, we're starting the 22nd season. I can't really explain it, man."

Ice-T portraying a cop has always been steeped in irony, given the intense controversy surrounding his 1992 track "Cop Killer" and his own run-ins with the law when he was a young man. "Who would ever have thought a kid from South Central who was in serious trouble would end up on television playing a cop?" he told NPR in 2011.

In a 2019 interview with TV Insider, Ice-T admitted that, after playing a detective for two decades, his opinion of police was more nuanced. "I know they work hard and they're underpaid. But I also know, when you play a cop, you realize there is a blue wall. They do cover for each other, and it's kind of like them against the world, and the world against them," he said. As for why he's stuck around "SVU" for so long, he explained: "Everyone on the show is very cool, no one has harsh words and Dick Wolf's checks clear, so it's nice work."

Tamara Tunie has been a part of SVU since the second season

If there's anyone who can be described as an unsung hero within the "Law & Order" franchise, it's actor Tamara Tunie. Since the second season of "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," the actor has portrayed medical examiner Dr. Melinda Warner. By fall 2021, in fact, Tunie had appeared in a staggering 226 episodes. Since she's not a series regular on "SVU," Tunie has been free to appear in other series — and she's done it a lot. In fact, since her first "SVU" appearance, she's appeared in such TV shows as "24," "The Red Road," "Blue Bloods," and "Better Caul Saul," in addition to playing Jessica Griffin on nearly 1,300 episodes of daytime soap "As the World Turns" between 1987 and 2009.

In addition to her television work, Tunie has also carved out a career onstage in New York City. A founding member of Black Theatre United, she's also headlined her own cabaret show, "Yes, I Sing!" 

Interestingly enough, Tunie landed her "SVU" role without having to audition, telling DuJour in 2012 that when she received the offer, she had another acting job and wasn't able to make the audition. "So, I said to my agent, 'Come on! I've done all the shows. So, they know me,'" she explained. "It was supposed to be one episode, possibly recurring. And it evolved into 16 years of Dr. Warren."

With 23 SVU seasons under her belt, Mariska Hargitay is Law & Order's MVP

When it comes to "Law & Order" longevity, one name stands above all others: Mariska Hargitay, who's portrayed Olivia Benson since the first episode of "SVU" in 1999, and demonstrates no signs of stopping. "The show is challenging, it's exhausting, it's a marathon. And there are hard days and there are days when I'm like, 'You know what? I might be done. I'm so tired, I can't see straight.' And then there are days when I get on my knees and I say, 'Thank you, God,'" Hargitay said during a 2019 interview with The Hollywood Reporter.

What's also kept her around so long, she added, are the behind-the-camera opportunities the show has given her. "I'm directing; producing is a whole new world. I grew into boss lady, and I like it. I like it and I'm good at it," Hargitay explained to The Hollywood Reporter. "There were some changes that I wasn't on board with or I felt like, 'Oh, I don't know if we're going in the exact right direction.' Now I love the show," she shared.

As for how long fans might see her as Olivia Benson, Hargitay trusts her intuition. "When I'm done, I'll know it," she said. "When I'm like, 'Okay, there's no more to mine here and now I'm phoning it in and I've got to go.' But I'm not yet."