Law & Order Has Spotlighted the Greatest Talents of Our Generation

There’s a quote attributed to Dick Wolf, creator of the ubiquitous Law & Order franchise, which says in essence that if you weren’t on one of his shows within a year of being a New York actor you probably just weren’t any good.

For nearly 20 years, Law & Order (and its spin-offs, Special Victims Unit and Criminal Intent) has provided regular work for tens of thousands of actors – most of which never appear in the title credits. This fall, the show kicks off its 20th season with more unknowns, and some knowns (SVU, I love ya, but you’re starting to resemble the Love Boat over there, so dial it down). But if you go back to the early 1990s, when the “Mothership” show was just starting out, it was clear: They were making casting decisions with an uncanny accuracy – those first few seasons are just packed with future Oscar and Emmy winners. All they needed were a few good roles.

Here’s a trip down memory lane, as we look at 10 of L&O’s brightest lights over the years – when their bulbs were still in a warm-up phase. Without the ka-chung of Law & Order, who knows where they’d be today?


10. Cynthia Nixon

The Perp: Laura Di Biasi (“Subterranean Homeboy Blues,” 1990)

The Crime: A replay of the Bernard Goetz subway shooting crime of a few years earlier, Nixon’s dancer Di Biasi let some rowdy kids have it on the ride home.

The Scene: Nixon had been wandering the acting corridors for 10 years before this, and would have 8 more years of spotty roles before HBO picked her up for Sex and the City’s Miranda, but even at this stage the pale, frail, very-youthful Nixon was still getting her name known. The L&O franchise has been good to her: She won her second Emmy in a Law & Order: SVU guest role in 2008.


9. William H. Macy

The Lawman: Asst. U.S. Attorney John McCormack (“Everybody’s Favorite Bagman,” 1990)

The Crime: Macy’s lawyer didn’t have much to do other than issue a few orders on a stakeout; he was back two years later in unctuous official mode in 1992’s “Sister of Mercy,” too.

The Scene: Like Nixon, Macy had about 10 years of TV and film acting under his belt before signing on to the series’ pilot (which ended up airing as episode six; don’t ask). But his resume was studded with soap operas and Afterschool Specials (plus an early film pairing with collaborator David Mamet in House of Games), and he was far from his 1997 Oscar nomination for Fargo.


8. Patricia Clarkson

The Perp: Laura Winthrop, “By Hooker, by Crook” (1990)

The Crime: Clarkson’s Winthrop was all high class, family came over on the Mayflower, yada yada – but she’d turned her Calvinist work ethic to an unusual field – running an upscale prostitution ring.

The Scene: Though Clarkson is one of those ethereal faces you feel like you’ve known forever, her talent took a long while to materialize in the public consciousness. Prior to this role she had played Kevin Costner’s wife in The Untouchables, but hadn’t otherwise made much impact; 1999’s The Green Mile, however, put a new spin on her career.


7. Samuel L. Jackson

The Perp: Louis Taggert, “The Violence of Summer” (1991)

The Lawman: Jackson’s Taggert reps a particularly noxious rapist, who nearly goes free for the crime.

The Scene: Yeah, Jackson had gotten plugged in Goodfellas already, but he was still a few years away from ordering that Royale with Cheese in 1994’s Pulp Fiction. How do you like this for an episode, though: It’s got Jackson in it – and he’s not even the lead actor! (See below for more.) Side note: Jackson’s wife, LaTanya Richardson, also stepped into the L&O batting box early in her career, in 1992’s “Sisters of Mercy” (see W.H. Macy above) and 1991’s “Life Choice.”


6. Phillip Seymour Hoffman

The Perp: Steven Hanauer, “The Violence of Summer” (1991)

The Crime: Hoffman’s Hanauer upstaged Jackson’s Taggert here, as a creepy gang rapist who almost manages to elude prosecution.

The Scene: Hoffman! Jackson! Together, at last! Well, together at first: The two worked together just one other time, in 1996’s Hard Eight. These days, Hoffman tends to play squishy or intellectual in a tightly-wound way, but he’s never been scarier, more amoral or more memorable than in “Violence.” And, as we all know, he went on to win an Oscar for playing squishy, intellectual, terrifying Truman Capote in 2006.


5. Michelle Trachtenberg

The Victim: Dinah Driscoll, “God Bless the Child” (1991)

The Crime: Trachtenberg played a dying child whose parents refused medical care on religious grounds.

The Scene: She was barely into grade school (and actually goes uncredited for the role) when Trachtenberg had to die on camera in her very first role; since then, she’s grown up on camera in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and more recently, Gossip Girls.


4. Sam Rockwell

The Perp: Randy Borland, “Intolerance” (1992)

The Crime: Fishmonger Borland has a brilliant brother – but doesn’t like that he’s being upstaged by a Chinese classmate, so it’s time for a little chop suey, if you know what I mean.

The Scene: Yeah, Rockwell had a few film roles – including being a thug in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – but when he appeared as a surly dockworker on L&O, he was still essentially unknown (he came back the following year to appear in 1993’s “Manhood,” too.) L&O wasn’t a magic bullet for his career, but just like Clarkson, an appearance in The Green Mile helped put the gas into his resume.


3. Claire Danes

The Perp: Tracy Brandt, “Skin Deep” (1992)

The Crime: Never tell an aspiring hormonal model her legs are too heavy. That’s what a fashion photographer learns the hard way.

The Scene: Two years before she, like, became Angela Chase on My So-Called Life, Danes was bringing her quivery dimpled chin and luminescent eyes to bear on L&O – and she’s impressive even in her limited screen time. It’s hard to imagine she’s barely a teenager in the role, and no surprise her career skyrocketed not long after.


2. Amanda Peet

The Perp: Leslie Harlan, “Hot Pursuit” (1995)

The Crime: In a semi-replay of the Patty Hearst kidnap scenario, a young woman is taken by a ruthless robber, who is shot during a subsequent crime … in which she appeared to be a willing accomplice.

The Scene: She’s been one of People magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People of 2000, landed some solid film roles (including Syriana and the second X-Files film) and even picked up a few regular TV series – but Peet is one of those actresses eternally on the bubble. Her shot on L&O was just the second she’d ever done, and may have been the most memorable appearance she’s had to date.


1. Peter Sarsgaard

The Bystander: Josh Strand, “Paranoia” (1995)

The Crime: Information about a woman’s brutal murder gets posted online, which leads detectives down a few wrong corridors in pursuit of the actual perpetrator.

The Scene: This L&O appearance by Sarsgaard can hardly be said to be career-making – it was his first-ever role, after all – but since it’s virtually the only television appearance he’s ever made, let’s give it some credit for boosting him into the film stratosphere (he’ll star in October’s An Education, a likely Oscar contender). Along with Hoffman, he’s one of a younger generation of actors who bring a realistic sincerity to the screen – even if in this role he’s not terribly memorable.

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