SVU' celebrates Season 25 premiere with Mariska Hargitay

NEW YORK ― In a TV franchise turning out several hit dramas, each with the trademark “dun dun” sound ringing in viewers’ ears, NBC’s “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit” has stayed the course.

And if star and executive producer Mariska Hargitay let the emotional “dam open” four years ago — when the stalwart police procedural hit a television milestone as the longest-running drama series — the 25th anniversary is proving just as cathartic.

“Well, now the dam’s really open,” she says with a laugh, though no waterworks are in sight as Hargitay and her castmates embrace and share smiles at an anniversary event celebrating the show’s latest feat. “Everything keeps getting deeper, and so that’s why I’m still here and hooked and sort of madly in love with the experience of playing this character.”

Hargitay’s Capt. Olivia Benson returns for Season 25 Thursday (9 EST/PST) as the longest-reigning character in primetime TV, an empathetic advocate for sexual assault survivors and a complex heroine leading the ensemble of characters including Sgt. Odafin “Fin” Tutuola (Ice-T) and ADA Dominick “Sonny” Carisi (Peter Scanavino).

“The mother’s mothering, that’s what the kids call it,” Hargitay jokes, as the inherently fierce mother (double entendre intended) on and offscreen.

“There’s such intimacy in this group of people that only builds over a long period of time,” Hargitay tells USA TODAY Tuesday on an aptly NYPD blue carpet, full of “SVU” and Dick Wolf universe actors. “Such mad respect, but also such love, and everyone has an incredible sense of humor, and there’s so much trust in freedom, that it’s a magnificent experience.”

The family dynamic is clear in small moments as former stars Dann Florek, who played the hard-nosed squad leader Capt. Cragen, and Tamara Tunie, whose Dr. Melinda Warner was as thorough as she was wisecracking, join in a tight embrace (“This brother right here!” Tunie exclaims). Ice-T beams for the cameras with Hargitay and Scanavino. As Hargitay makes her way down the press line, her towering husband and former “SVU” actor Peter Hermann (Trevor Langan) quickly checks in, mouthing “Are you OK?”

Mariska Hargitay reveals in powerful essay she was raped in her 30s, talks ‘reckoning’

The cast agrees on one thing: creator Wolf’s genius in building the “Law & Order” worlds, keeping them timely and mostly timeless. The resuscitated original “Law & Order” (8 EST/PST) and newer spinoff “Organized Crime” (10 EST/PST) also return Thursday for Seasons 23 and 4, respectively.

“Sexual assault is very hard to talk about,” says Raúl Esparza, who plays Assistant District Attorney Rafael Barba. “These stories are not cut and dry. They inhabit a gray area that is profoundly moving and also really upsetting and can be very satisfying.”

Wolf hoped for the celebratory moment when the show hit its record-breaking 21st season in 2019. “Hopefully the next landmark could be 25,” Wolf said in an interview at the time.

‘Law & Order: SVU’: Mariska Hargitay, Dick Wolf reflect on TV milestone as series turns 21

‘SVU’ cast shares memories of late Andre Braugher, Richard Belzer

Despite the turnout of stars past and present, two of New York’s finest were missing in action: “Homicide: Life on the Street” and “SVU” actors Richard Belzer and André Braugher, who died in 2023.

Stars grew sentimental talking about Belzer’s Det. John Munch and Braugher’s defense attorney Bayard Ellis.

Michelle Hurd, who played Det. Monique Jeffries in the show’s first two seasons, called Belzer “sort of the quintessential conspiracy theorist in the best way. We’d be in conversations and bring up some topic and he’s like, ‘Well, you know…’ and he would launch into that. So like Munch and Belz, they sort of merged into one person. He was a good man.”

Remembering Richard Belzer: Comedian and TV detective John Munch on ‘Law & Order’ dies at 78

Scanavino says he’s a “huge fan of André Braugher’s work, and he was always so good, and I remember I got to meet him. We had one … episode, and my character was really in awe of him. His character is a lawyer, and I got to do the whole scene like, ‘Oh wow, Bayard Ellis, wow!’ And that was me in real life, too, meeting André Braugher,” he says. “So that was easy to do, and I cherish that.”

“André Braugher is one of the best actors I’ve ever seen or was able to work with. In my last ‘SVU’ I think I did, he was in it, and I had a funny little question for him,” Florek says, recounting a storyline of two dogs named Dan and Richard on Braugher’s Fox and NBC sitcom “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.” “I asked him later, ‘Was that Belzer and me?’ and He said, ‘I don’t know.’ But I just hoped it was.”

Analysis: We didn’t deserve André Braugher

Mariska Hargitay remembers early ‘SVU’ days, Michelle Hurd recalls rollerblading to set

There’s a day in 2012 Esparza remembers “very vividly,” when he was still a guest star and not yet a season regular as Barba. Hurricane Sandy had hit, the transportation department lost its trucks and he was in a car with Ice-T returning to set.

“He goes, ‘They’re going to make you a regular. And I said, ‘Why do you say that?'” Esparza recounts. “He’s like, ‘I just know. Because you know how to rob a bank. All you want is for people to show up and know what they’re doing, and boy, do you know what you’re doing.'”

Tunie recalls working with Chris Meloni, fresh off HBO’s brutal prison drama “Oz,” and “I was a little terrified of him. I couldn’t look him in his piercing blue eyes for the first several months, but then I got over it.”

Ari’el Stachel thanks former executive producer Warren Leight for his role as officer Hasim Khaldun. “He really worked hard to make sure that my heritage was inside of my character and he gave me a lot to play with on my first episode,” says Stachel, who is Arab American. “It was one of the first time that someone allowed me to play American and also honor my heritage.”

Hurd counts “rollerblading to work” as “pretty dang cool.” A recent college grad when she started, Hurd rolled “through the night like, ‘Yeah, I’m going to do a TV show!'”

Hargitay recalls just “trying to keep up and understand it all” in the early days.

“That’s why I think that now this is a perfect feminist story,” Hargitay says. “To see this woman who was trying to figure out this world — a man’s world and with these cops — and now she’s taken her space and grown into this fearless lion, and a fearless mother and a fearless leader. Effortlessly, but with cost and yet earned, and now she oozes out with clarity, love and compassion, light, empathy and what the world needs.”

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