Law & Order hit our TV screens 25 years ago. For 20 seasons, the show was every struggling actor's dream. Each episode focused on a different case featuring new characters, which meant lots of opportunities for performers to land guest spots. Read any actor's bio and you're bound to find a Law & Order (or two) in their past.
The diverse range of performers who found their way onto Law & Order included the likes of Claire Danes, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Edie Falco and Jim Gaffigan. For many of these performers, the show provided them with one of their early breaks.
Let's take look at some of Law & Order's most memorable villains, victims, lawyers and witnesses.
Before she played Miranda on Sex and the City, Cynthia Nixon appeared on the first season of Law & Order in 1990. She played a young woman who shoots two African American men on a subway in the show's second episode entitled "Subterranean Homeboy Blues." But was the shooting self-defense or homicide? While Nixon later became known as a feisty redhead on Sex an the City, she shows her true blond roots here on Law & Order. Remarkably, Nixon went on to win an Emmy Award in 2008 for another guest appearance on the related spin-off Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.
Philip Seymour Hoffman
Later that first season, another actor on the rise made an appearance on Law & Order. Philip Seymour Hoffman, then listed as simply "Philip Hoffman," played a troubled teen on the show's fourteenth episode, "The Violence of Summer." His character, Steven Hanauer, is accused of being involved in a gang rape. This Law & Order guest spot marks one of Hoffman's earliest TV credits. This episode also featured other stars in the making. Samuel L. Jackson plays a lawyer and Gil Bellows of Ally McBeal fame plays one of the rape suspects.
One of Claire Danes's first professional TV gigs was as a Law & Order guest star. She appeared in the third season's "Skin Deep" as a teen who gets tangled up in the murder of a fashion photographer. Danes looks so young in the episode!
Two years later, Danes would make a bigger splash on the small screen with her starring role in the teen series My So-Called Life.
Edie Falco was another future star who made her Law & Order debut in the third season. She first appeared as defense attorney Sally Bell in "Mother Love." Over the next few years, Falco reprised the role several more times. She also had a recurring role on another crime-related show, Homicide: Life on the Streets, playing the wife of a wounded cop. In 1999, Falco switched over to the wrong side of the law for her career-making turn as Carmela, wife of a mob boss, on The Sopranos.
Comedian Jim Gaffigan started out with a guest spot on Law & Order's ninth season in "Flight." He became a repeat offender in 2009's "Reality Bites" as a husband suspected of killing his wife over a reality show. In addition to the original Law & Order, Gaffigan has worked on nearly every spin-off from this long-running show. He had roles on both Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and Law & Order: Criminal Intent over the years. In an interview with the AV Club, Gaffigan explained that "It’s kind of a rite of passage as a New York actor to do Law & Order. It’s a really fun show to do because you know there’s going to be some twists and turns."
Future Gossip Girl star Leighton Meester had a less-than-posh role on the 1999 Law & Order episode "Disciple." She played Alyssa Turner, a teen living in a shelter, who knows the episode's murder victim, a fellow student at her school. It wouldn't be until 2007 that Meester's career would really begin to take off with the debut of the popular Gossip Girl.
In addition to being a launching pad for struggling actors' careers, Law & Order also gave established stars a chance to flex their dramatic muscles. This was the case with rom-com queen Julia Roberts with her appearance in "Empire" in ninth season. And it probably didn't hurt that she was dating Benjamin Bratt, who played Detective Rey Curtis on the series. Roberts picked up the first Emmy Award nomination of her career for her turn as a very sinister "pretty woman."