Mariska Hargitay (born Mariska Magdolna Hargitay; January 23, 1964) is an American actress, best known for her role as New York City sex crimes Detective Olivia Benson on the NBC television drama Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, a role that has earned her multiple awards and nominations, including an Emmy and Golden Globe.
The daughter of actress Jayne Mansfield and actor/bodybuilder Mickey Hargitay, Hargitay is a former beauty queen who made her film debut in the 1985 horror-comedy film Ghoulies, and her major television debut in the 1986 adventure drama series Downtown. She appeared in numerous roles in film and television shows throughout the late 1980s and 1990s before being cast as Olivia Benson, a role that led to her founding the Joyful Heart Foundation, which provides support to women who have been sexually abused.
Hargitay was born at St. John's Hospital in Los Angeles, California, the daughter of actress and 1950s-era sex symbol Jayne Mansfield. Her father was the Hungarian-born former Mr. Universe Mickey Hargitay. Her first and middle names are Hungarian and refer to Mary Magdalene (Mariska is a diminutive of Mary). Her family name means "of Hargita". Hargitay was raised Roman Catholic. She has a half-sister, Jayne Marie Mansfield; two brothers, Miklós and Zoltán Hargitay; and a half-brother, Antonio Ottaviano (also known as Tony Cimber), a former director whose works include the female wrestling show Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling.
Hargitay's parents had divorced in May 1963, but a judge later found their Mexican divorce invalid. They had reconciled a few months before Hargitay's birth in January 1964, but soon separated again; in August 1964, the Mexican divorce was ruled legal. A few weeks later, Mansfield married the director Matt Cimber, who had directed her in a 1964 production of the William Inge play Bus Stop. On June 29, 1967, Mansfield was killed in an automobile accident on a stretch of U.S. Highway 90 between New Orleans and Slidell, Louisiana. Her boyfriend, Sam Brody, and the driver were also killed. Asleep in the back of the vehicle, Hargitay, then three and a half years old, was left with a zigzag scar on one side of her head. Her brothers Miklós and Zoltán were also in the car, but escaped with minor injuries. After the death of their mother, the three siblings were raised by their father and his third wife, Ellen Siano. Hargitay dislikes comparisons with her famous mother and at age 18 said, "My dad was Mr. Universe," she says, "so it would be fun for me to be Miss Universe."
While a student at her Catholic secondary school Marymount High School, Hargitay was active in cheerleading, student government, athletics and the theater program. She enjoyed acting and enrolled at UCLA after graduation from high school in 1982. That same year, Hargitay was crowned Miss Beverly Hills USA. By the time she was a freshman in college, Hargitay had an agent and several small roles to her credit. She attended UCLA School of Theater Film and Television (where she was a member of Kappa Kappa Gamma) until she left before graduating, when she began her acting career. Hargitay attended Groundlings theatre company in Los Angeles, CA. Her improv teacher was Kathy Griffin. Griffin stated in an interview, "We started class, and in the Groundlings curriculum, one of the first exercises you do is the cliched 'trust' game. I made everyone stand in a circle, with me in the center, and I said, being onstage, you have to trust your fellow actors, especially when you're an improviser. You're going to be there for each other, and they're going to be there for you. For example, I'm going to fall back, knowing that you'll catch me. Then I let myself fall backward, and sure enough, I was caught. Everyone gets out some nervous laughter, and then they all took turns doing it. By the time it got around to Mariska Hargitay, we'd already done it with ten or eleven students, and they had clearly gotten the point. Then it was Mariska's turn. 'Okay, Mariska, cross your arms in front of you and gently fall back,' I said. She fell back and nobody caught her. She fell flat on her ass. I was horrified. This had never happened in one of my classes before."
In 1982, after Hargitay was crowned Miss Beverly Hills USA, she then competed in the Miss California USA pageant the following year, placing fourth runner-up to Julie Hayek who was later crowned Miss USA. In 1984, she appeared in Ronnie Milsap's music video for She Loves My Car. A year later she had a small role in the horror film, Ghoulies. Hargitay said in 1986 that she never thought about doing television until a role for the one-hour adventure drama series Downtown was offered. In 1988, she had a recurring role as Carly Fixx in the soap opera Falcon Crest. She portrayed police officer Angela Garcia in the 1992 series Tequila & Bonetti, and appeared in an episode of the fourth season of Seinfeld. Two years later, Hargitay portrayed Didi Edelstein, the sexy next-door neighbor, in the 1995 sitcom Can't Hurry Love, which starred Nancy McKeon. In 1997, Hargitay played detective Nina Echeverria on the drama series Prince Street, and had a recurring role as Cynthia Hooper during the fourth season of ER.
Hargitay has appeared on numerous other television programs, including: Freddy's Nightmares; Ellen; All American Girl; Baywatch; Cracker; Gabriel's Fire; In the Heat of the Night; The Single Guy; Wiseguy, and thirtysomething. Her voice is featured on the 2005 video game True Crime: New York City. Hargitay also had a minor role in the 1995 film Leaving Las Vegas, and briefly replaced Gabrielle Fitzpatrick in Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie, although the scene was removed from the film.
In January 2007 she and her son, August, appeared in a Got Milk? advertisement.
Law & Order: Special Victims Unit
Casting for the lead characters of NBC police procedural television drama series Law & Order: Special Victims Unit occurred in the spring of 1999. Dick Wolf, along with officials from NBC and Studios USA, were at the final auditions for the two leads at Rockefeller Center. The last round had been narrowed down to six finalists. For the female lead – Detective Olivia Benson – Samantha Mathis, Reiko Aylesworth, and Hargitay were being considered. For the male role – Detective Elliot Stabler – the finalists were Tim Matheson, John Slattery, and Christopher Meloni. Meloni and Hargitay had auditioned in the final round together and after the actors left, there was a moment of dead silence, after which Wolf blurted out, "Oh well. There's no doubt who we should choose – Hargitay and Meloni." The duo, who Wolf believed had the perfect chemistry together from the first time he saw them together, were his first choice. Garth Ancier, then head of NBC Entertainment, agreed, and the rest of the panel assembled voiced their assent. Hargitay trained as a rape crisis advocate to prepare for the role of Benson.
During the last months of her pregnancy in 2006, she took maternity leave from SVU, and was temporarily replaced by Connie Nielsen.
In May 2009, after the show's tenth season, Hargitay and Meloni's contract expired when they were reportedly making $375,000–$385,000 per episode. During negotiations in April for a new contract, the duo attempted to go after back-end profits as other high-profile Law and Order actors had done in the past. It was rumored that NBC threatened to replace Hargitay and Meloni if they persisted in their demands. However two months later it was officially reported that both their contracts had been renewed for two more years. Hargitay returned for a twelfth season and began filming her first scenes in June and July 2010. On May 14, 2011, Hargitay closed a new deal for her thirteenth season. Initial reports indicated that she would appear in only the first 13 episodes, but NBC chairman Bob Greenblatt clarified later that August that she would be in every episode of the season.
Hargitay has said she would return to the show for its 14th season, stating to Harry Connick, Jr., "I can't leave this show, I'm having too much fun."
Hargitay speaks English, Hungarian, French, Spanish, and Italian.
On August 28, 2004, in Santa Barbara, California, Hargitay married Peter Hermann, an actor and writer whom she met on the set of Law & Order: SVU, on which Hermann plays the recurring role of Defense Attorney Trevor Langan. On June 28, 2006, Hargitay gave birth to their son, August Miklos Friedrich Hermann, by an emergency caesarean section. She appeared in the January 2007 issue of Self magazine where she stated that the 15-hour work days on the set of SVU – combined with the stress of an increase in episodes filmed each week – caused her to resort to food for comfort and by her third trimester, she had gained 54 pounds and developed gestational diabetes. She explained in the interview, "I was overwhelmed by my lack of energy. All I could do to survive was to eat". In April 2011, Hargitay and Hermann adopted a baby girl, Amaya Josephine. In October 2011, she and her husband adopted a baby boy, Andrew Nicolas Hargitay Hermann, who had been born in mid-2011.
Upon winning her Emmy on August 27, 2006, Hargitay made a point of thanking her father for everything he had done for her in her life. Just 17 days later, on September 14, 2006, her father died from multiple myeloma in Los Angeles, California, at age 80.
In late December 2008, Hargitay suffered a partially collapsed lung after taking a fall during a stunt on the set of SVU. She underwent surgery in January and returned to work shortly after. On March 3, 2009, she was hospitalized after suffering chest pains related to the injury. It was disclosed that she would probably need more surgery. Despite this, she missed only one episode on SVU's tenth season.
Hargitay is founder and president of the Joyful Heart Foundation, an organization that was set up in 2004 to provide support to survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse. According to Hargitay, she was inspired by an encounter with a school of dolphins that surrounded her while she was swimming off the coast of Hawaii at the age of 15. The encounter, which had ignited profound spiritual feelings within her, was one that Hargitay hoped to share with others. As of November 2010, the Joyful Heart Foundation has sent over 5,000 women and children on therapeutic programs in New York, Los Angeles and Hawaii, which combine yoga, meditation, massage, maintaining journals and swimming with dolphins. According to Hargitay, "I started getting fan mail from survivors who felt a connection to Olivia. In many of these letters, people would disclose their personal stories of abuse — some for the very first time. I remember getting the sense that many were living in isolation with so much shame, but the shame belonged to the perpetrators. I wanted to help find a way to help people reclaim their lives and live them with a renewed sense of possibility and hope. And that's what we work to do every day at Joyful Heart." According to Hargitay, the Foundation has raised $20 million and helped approximately 5,000 survivors as of April 2011. Reference to the Joyful Heart Foundation was worked into episodes of Special Victims Unit, via a necklace containing two pendants representing the Foundation that Hargitay's character began wearing in the show's 13th season.
Hargitay appeared in the 17th season of NBC's "The More You Know" public service announcement in 2006, and again in the spring of 2009. She is an honorary board member director of the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation.
On September 27, 2011, Hargitay donated $100,000 to her alma mater, the UCLA School of Theater Film and Television for scholarship.