Actors Who Appeared On Law & Order Before They Were Stars

The original Law & Order aired for 20 seasons from September 13, 1990, until May 24, 2010. The show spawned several spin-offs including Special Victims Unit, Criminal Intent, Trial By Jury, LA and True Crime, which have each had varying levels of success. For a franchise that has been around for so long, it’s no surprise that many actors got their start on the show — but some of these future stars played characters you would never expect! Check out this list of actors who appeared on Law & Order before they were A-listers.

Did you know that before Stephen Colbert dominated late night he was a struggling actor who made an appearance on Law & Order?

Jennifer Garner Tried To Seduce Detective Curtis


Very early on in her acting career, Jennifer Garner appeared on the show’s sixth season finale. She played the romantic foil to Detective Curtis (Benjamin Bratt), who was happily married. The episode was notable because it didn’t follow the traditional “first comes law, then comes order” format. The episode centered on what happened after people witnessed an execution at the prison Attica. After playing several more bit parts, Garner landed the lead role in the series Alias, playing spy Sydney Bristow. She later segued to film, appearing in movies such as Catch Me If You Can, Elektra and Valentine’s Day.

Philip Seymour Hoffman Played A Man Accused Of Rape


The late Philip Seymour Hoffman made his on-screen debut in the first season of the crime drama (he’s credited as simply Philip Hoffman). He appeared in the 1991 episode, “The Violence of Summer.” Hoffman played one of three men accused of gang-raping a TV news reporter. He appeared alongside another up-and-coming star who we’ll get to next. No one could have predicted that 15 years later Hoffman would win an Academy Award (he won the Oscar in 2006 for Capote). One year following his L&O appearance he starred in The Scent of a Woman opposite Chris O’Donnell, and his career steadily grew bigger before his death from a drug overdose in 2014.

Samuel L. Jackson Was A Grandstanding Attorney


Samuel L. Jackson isn’t one to shy away from acting projects, including Law & Order. He appeared on the first season of the show alongside Philip Seymour Hoffman. He played lawyer Louis Taggert on “The Violence of Summer.” He landed the role in between a bit part in Goodfellas and a role on Jurassic Park. These days he’s known for several films, including Pulp Fiction, Django Unchained, Unbreakable, Snakes on a Plane, Iron Man, and the Star Wars prequel trilogy. Jackson has appeared in more than 100 films over the course of his 45-year-plus career.

Claire Danes’ Character Got Caught Up In The Wrong Business


Claire Danes blew onto the scene in 1994 in the teen angst drama My So-Called Life. But two years prior to that she got some small-screen experience on Law & Order. She appeared on the episode “Skin Deep.” Detectives Logan and Cerreta were tasked with investigating the death of a fashion photographer. They zoned in on a divorced mom as a potential suspect and were eventually led to her teenage daughter, Tracy, played by Danes. You can guess who the perpetrator was. Danes went on to star in numerous films before landing her current role as a CIA agent in Showtime’s Homeland.

Julianna Margulies Played A Naval Officer


Most people know Julianna Margulies from her roles on The Good Wife and ER. But like many aspiring actors, she did small parts on her way up the Hollywood ladder. She appeared in the season three episode “Conduct Unbecoming” as Navy Lieutenant Ruth Mendoza. She witnessed the murder of a Naval officer at a party. Her future Good Wife co-star Chris Noth played Detective Logan, who with his partner Detective Briscoe search for the truth while the Navy attempts to keep the killer’s identity a secret. Margulies’ character ends up being the key to solving the case.

Stephen Colbert Did Angry Really Well


Before Stephen Colbert dominated late night television, he was a struggling actor who made an appearance on Law & Order in 2004. He played counterfeiter James Bennett, who nearly took down a Catholic charity. Bennett appeared to be a congenial man but was really a psycho. The character was allegedly based on real-life criminal Mark Hofmann, who forged historical documents relating to the Church of Latter Day Saints. The role is intriguing because it shows Colbert in a very different light. He can be quite intimidating if necessary! These days, he’s the popular host of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

Office lovers, did you know before he was playing Jim Halpert, John Krasinski was on an episode of Law & Order?

William H. Macy Appeared In The Pilot Episode


William H. Macy starred in the pilot episode of the series entitled “Everybody’s Favorite Bagman.” He played Assistant U.S. Attorney John McCormack. Credited as W.H. Macy, the role wasn’t very memorable, but he showed up again in the second season in a completely different, much more interesting role. He played Jack Powell in “Sisters of Mercy” in which he’s the director of a teen shelter who’s accused of abusing his charges. Macy went on to star in several films, including Fargo, which jump-started his career but caused him to be typecast. He currently stars in Shameless, Showtime’s longest running TV series to date.

Viola Davis Played Recurring Defense Attorney Donna Emmett


Like many before her, Viola Davis took roles that would help her gain experience in Hollywood. She appeared in several episodes of Law & Order as recurring character Donna Emmett. She played the defense attorney who was tasked with working with some of the show’s more unsavory criminals, pitting her up against the Manhattan district attorney’s office. The role required very little. She would defend her clients with whatever argument she could muster. She also appeared in SVU and Criminal Intent. Davis later earned a Tony, Emmy and Academy Award. She’s known these days for her hit series How To Get Away With Murder.

Bradley Cooper Was A Creepy Lawyer/Rapist


Before being nominated for four Oscars, Bradley Cooper played psychotic lawyer Jason Whitaker on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and Law & Order: Trial By Jury. During his stint on the series, he was a suspect in a series of rapes. Cooper played the smarmy character quite well and did whatever he could to keep his crimes secret, including enlisting the aid of his mother. Cooper later had breakout roles in films such as Wedding Crashers, The Hangover, Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle and American Sniper. His acting is so good, he received an Academy Award nomination three years in a row.

Ellen Pompeo Made Her Screen Debut On L&O


When you think of Ellen Pompeo, you can’t help but think of her on the medical series Grey’s Anatomy. But she also earned her acting chops on Law & Order, which was her screen debut. She played a woman who survived an attack that killed her mother and brother. Her father is sent to prison, yet eventually, investigators start looking at her involvement in the crime. Pompeo appeared on the show again four years later in a different role. The episode centered on sororicide, the act of killing one’s sister. Pompeo has also appeared in a handful of films.

Edie Falco Returned To The L&O Franchise In 2017


Edie Falco played attorney Sally Bell on several episodes of Law & Order. During her stint on the show, she also appeared in a few independent films, including The Unbelievable Truth and Trust and Laws of Gravity. Falco later said her guest spots on TV shows helped pay for her rent. In 1999 she landed the role of a lifetime as mob wife Carmela Soprano on The Sopranos, which many consider one of the greatest TV shows of all time. She later came full circle by joining the NBC true crime anthology series Law & Order True Crime, subtitled “The Menendez Murders.”

John Krasinski Played A Violent Drug Dealer


John Krasinski is best known for playing Jim Halpert on The Office. But one year before he landed that breakout role, he made a memorable appearance on Law & Order: Criminal Intent in the episode “Mad Hops.” The actor played high school athlete Jace Gleesing, who had a bit of a violent streak and was a drug dealer. Detective Robert Goren investigated Gleesing for his possible involvement in the death of a private investigator. The role is interesting because it’s much different from Krasinki’s happy character on The Office. It proves that he has a lot more range than meets the eye.

Elizabeth Banks Played An Adult Film Star


Elizabeth Banks appeared in an episode from the third season of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit alongside Saved By The Bell star Mark-Paul Gosselaar, who played Wesley. She played Jaina Jansen, Wesley’s wife. After Wesley is attacked outside a gay club, Detectives Benson and Stabler discover the couple was making adult films to pay the medical expenses for their daughter, who had cystic fibrosis. After one of the film’s producers is killed, Wesley is the prime murder suspect; however, fans of the show know the real killer is usually not the person you originally think it is.

Allison Janney Made Two Appearances On L&O Before Landing Her Gig On West Wing


Many people know who actress Allison Janney is. Her acting resume is quite large. But like everyone else she had to start somewhere, and for her, that was a small role in a 1992 episode of the show. The episode revolved around the murder of a soap star. She returned two years later and played a witness against the Russian mob. Just five years later she landed one of her most famous parts: the role of C. J. Cregg on the NBC drama The West Wing. These days she stars on Mom alongside Anna Faris. She also made a splash in the Tonya Harding biopic I, Tonya.

Amanda Seyfried Falsely Accused Army Cadets Of Rape During Her Episode


When Amanda Seyfried appeared on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit she had already shown off her acting chops alongside Lindsay Lohan in Mean Girls. Her characters couldn’t have been more different. She played teenager Tandi McCain in the episode “Outcry.” Her character was found beaten and duct-taped in a dormitory. She initially accuses three Army cadets of rape, but it’s later revealed her stepfather’s boss is the culprit. He is acquitted, but then another victim comes forward, which changes everything. Seyfried later went on to appear in several films, including Les Miserables, Mamma Mia! and Ted 2.

Sam Rockwell’s Character Avoided Helping A Gay Colleague


Sam Rockwell spent years dabbling in minor roles before landing bigger parts in Hollywood. One of his guest spots in the early ’90s was the episode “Manhood” during Law & Order season three. The detectives become involved in the investigation of the death of a police officer. They find that his fellow officers hesitated to help because he was gay. Rockwell played Officer Weddeker, one of the offending officers who eventually admits to the crime following interrogation. His character is acquitted. Rockwell later went on to appear in films such as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Moon.

Jessica Chastain’s Stint On L&O: Trial By Jury Was Short-Lived


Jessica Chastain appeared on a few TV shows such as ER and Veronica Mars before landing what she probably thought was a great gig on Law & Order: Trial By Jury. She played Assistant District Attorney Sigrun Borg in a recurring role. The show only lasted 13 episodes before it was canceled. Fortunately for Chastain, she went on to appear in several other projects, including the films Zero Dark Thirty, Interstellar, The Martian, and Crimson Peak. She’s received two Oscar nominations and in 2012 was voted one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world.

Emmy Rossum Was Just A Kid When She Appeared On The Show


Emmy Rossum was only 11 years old when she landed one of her first on-screen roles in 1997 on Law & Order. The subject matter was pretty heavy. It involved an Egyptian family’s fight over whether the young girl should be circumcised. She went on to appear in several other TV shows, including a couple of made-for-TV films. Her film resume includes Mystic River, The Day After Tomorrow, The Phantom of the Opera, and Beautiful Creatures. But she’s probably most known for her role as Fiona Gallagher in the television series Shameless. The actress has also released two albums.

Rooney Mara Beat Up Fat People In Her Memorable Episode


Rooney Mara starred in a 2006 episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit titled “Fat,” but she didn’t look back on the experience very fondly. During an interview with Allure magazine, she said the role was “so stupid” and explained: “Me and my boyfriend — although I [didn’t] look old enough to have a boyfriend — went and beat up these fat people, and at the end of the show you find out that I used to be obese and I hate fat people. It’s ridiculous. Who would ever do that? Who would beat someone up because they’re fat?”

Kate Mara, Rooney’s Sister, Also Appeared On The Show


Rooney Mara isn’t the only member of her family who worked on Law & Order early on in her career. Her sister Kate appeared on the show in 1997 as Jenna Erlich, whose bail bondsman father is murdered. Mara went on to appear in several more TV shows, including Cold Case, Boston Public, CSI: Miami and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. While she worked steadily in Hollywood, she didn’t really make her mark until she landed the role of Zoe Barnes in Netflix’s House of Cards and computer analyst Shari Rothenberg in FOX’s 24. She has also appeared in American Horror Story: Murder House.