Actress Mariska Hargitay landed the role of Olivia Benson on NBC’s Law & Order: Special Victims Unit in 1999, and still plays the character to this day. In many ways, the strong, feminist, and troubled character of Detective Benson is similar to the actress who portrays her. Hargitay might have a happy life now but she’s had to deal with a lifetime of tragedies. Take a look at all the ups and downs of Mariska Hargitay’s life.
She Was Born Into Hollywood Scandal
Mariska was born on January 23, 1964, to none other than the curvaceous pin-up star Jayne Mansfield. If having a famous mother wasn’t enough, Mariska’s father was a bodybuilder and former Mr. Universe Mickey Hargitay. The couple met in 1956, married two years later, but filed for divorce in 1962.
Not long after the divorce, Mansfield learned she was pregnant with Mariska, her third child. Since having a child out of wedlock would have been scandalous, the two pretended not to be divorced for the sake of their daughter.
Mariska Was Only Three When Tragedy Struck
On June 29, 1967, Mansfield and boyfriend Sam Brody was killed in a tragic car crash along Route 90. Mariska and her two brothers Miklos and Zoltan were asleep in the back of a car at the time of the crash. Miraculously, all three of them escaped the crash with only minor injuries.
Mariska was only three years old at the time and has admitted she can hardly remember the crash. Her only reminder is a zigzag scar that is along the side of her head.
After The Crash, She Began Resenting Her Mother
After Mansfield’s untimely death, Mariska was raised by her father and his third wife Ellen Siano. Still, she was thrust into the spotlight and often compared to her late mother, which she hated. When she was 18 she even tried to move the focus away from her mother. She started claiming instead of being an actress, she might become “Miss Universe” instead.
Losing her mother also left Mariska with “anxiety and low self-esteem” that took her years to recover from.
Her Stepmother Was Almost Killed Too
Mariska’s stepmother Siano almost met the same untimely death as Mansfield. Siano, who was a flight attendant, was on board a plane in 1973 when it hit turbulence. Everyone on the plane was thrown up in the air and Siano “hit the floor and the ceiling something like 56 times.”
One passenger was killed and four others, including Siano, were hospitalized with “horrific injuries.” While Siano eventually recovered, Mariska recalled that her step-mother’s near death was “really scary” because she had to deal with death and those emotions twice in her early life.
Someone Broke Into Her Home And Stole All Her Mother’s Possessions
As if losing her mother at age three wasn’t hard enough, it was even harder for Mariska because she had no physical mementos of Mansfield. Not long after the tragic car accident, burglars broke into the house Mariska and her mother lived in and stole all of her jewelry and other belongings.
Over the years, she’s been able to locate certain pieces from collectors. She actually ended up having to buy back her mother’s charm bracelet at an auction. It was worth it though, and the actress still wears it today.
She Was Arrested In 1984
Thanks to her royal Hollywood roots, Mariska was extremely reckless when it came to her finances as a young adult. In the early 1980s, she began studying at UCLA and despite the financial burden, bought a car and would often park wherever she wanted, whenever she wanted.
Her reckless parking habits led her to rack up some serious debt in parking tickets. In 1984, Mariska was eventually picked up by the cops and arrested for the tickets.
One Of Her First Gigs Was In A Music Video
After hiring an agent, one of the first acting gigs that Mariska landed was as an actress in a music video. She starred in Ronnie Milsap’s video for the song “She Loves My Car.” Ironically, it was while shooting the music video that the police were looking to arrest her for those unpaid parking tickets.
When Mariska arrived home and got arrested, she was still in her provocative outfit from the music video. She had to spend a night in jail with other women dressed surprisingly similar to her.
Her Spending Habits Just Got Worse
You’d think that being arrested for unpaid parking tickets would teach Mariska a lesson but her spending habits didn’t change one bit. While she was working as an aspiring actress, Mariska says she “racked up six-figure debts.” The actress said she had a house and a car that she refused to give up.
One boyfriend at the time ended up footing the bill and when the two broke up, she owed him 60 grand! When Mariska eventually got her big break, she said she paid him back.
Her Name Has Biblical Origins
You might be wondering how an iconic American actress ended up with a very European-sounding name. Her full name is Mariska Magdolna which is the Hungarian diminutive of Mary Magdalene.
Mariska’s father Mickey was born in Budapest, Hungary and wanted to give his child a distinctly Hungarian name. Mariska’s two older brothers, Miklós and Zoltán also have Hungarian names. Unsurprisingly with her biblical name, she and her brothers were raised to be devout Roman Catholics.
She Acts Like A Cop In Real LIfe
Mariska has played Olivia Benson for two decades so it’s not exactly shocking to hear that she struggles to know “where Mariska ends and Olivia starts.” Now, that doesn’t mean she walks around New York City with a gun taking own the bad guys, but in 2010 she came pretty darn close.
In 2010, after seeing a pregnant woman faint on the sidewalk, Mariska sprung into action by bracing the woman and directing others to call 911. Basically, she’s a real-life hero too.
She Met Her Husband On The Show
In 2004, Mariska married actor Peter Hermann. The two had met three years earlier on the set of Law & Order: SVU when he had been playing the recurring role of Defense Attorney Trevor Langan. Apparently, their first meeting wasn’t all that cozy though and he “didn’t think she was funny.”
Months later, they tried to connect again and after realizing they were both religious, decided to attend church together. After seeing him in church, Mariska admitted she thought, “that’s my husband.”
She Speaks Five Languages
Not only is Mariska a talented actress but she’s more worldly than we thought. Alongside her native English, she can also speak Hungarian, Italian, French, and Spanish. The Hungarian was learned from her father but the other three languages were self-taught.
Mariska has shown off her language skills multiple times on Law & Order: SVU. Olivia Benson has had to interrogate suspects in other languages, which just goes to show that Mariska and Olivia are basically the same person.
She’s Part Of Taylor Swift’s Squad
Artist Taylor Swift loves Mariska’s Law & Order: SVU character so much she named a cat after her. Well, that fan appreciation led to a real-life friendship. Mariska notably appeared in Swift’s “Bad Blood” music video as part of her infamous girl gang. She even appeared as a guest on Swift’s 1989 world tour.
The two are actual friends though and after winning a settlement against DJ David Mueller, Swift donated a “generous” amount of the lawsuit to Mariska’s Joyful Heart Foundation.
Her Father’s Death Hit Her Hard
While he lived a long and happy life, Mickey Hargitay died on September 14, 2006. He died from cancer of his white blood cells. The death was especially hard for Mariska because she and her father were admitted to the hospital at the same time. He was dying while she was going into labor.
Thankfully, Hargitay got to meet his grandson before his passing. Mariska paid tribute to her dad in a tearful acceptance speech at the 2006 Emmys.
She’s Had Her Own Health Struggles
In December 2008, Mariska suffered a collapsed lung on the set of Law & Order: SVU. The actress told Redbook that she was doing her own stunt “chasing a bad guy” when she “landed wrong.” Something felt funny but she thought nothing of it and went on her way.
Three months later, she felt a pain in her chest “like someone had stabbed me.” She went into the hospital and found out the stunt fall had left her with a “microscopic bleed” and her lung was slowly collapsing. Luckily, she was able to fully recover.
The Adoption Process Almost Broke Apart Her Marriage
Mariska gave birth to her first child in 2006 but struggled afterwards getting pregnant again. Both she and her husband “envisioned this big family” and so they turned to adoption to do so. They began the adoption process in 2009 and had many gut-wrenching failures. In 2010, the couple was two days away from adopting a baby girl when the birth mother suddenly changed her mind.
While they were eventually successful and were able to adopt two children a few months apart in 2011, Mariska said that the path was “nothing short of devastating” for the couple.
She Advocates For Sexual Assault Survivors
Olivia Benson has really rubbed off on Mariska because in 2004 she started her own non-profit organization to help victims of sexual assault. The Joyful Heart Foundation provides support and in only six years managed to help approximately 5,000 survivors.
Mariska says she was inspired to start the foundation after receiving fan mail from survivors who “felt a connection to Olivia.” The real-life stories of abuse changed Mariska and she wanted to “find a way to help people reclaim their lives.”
She’s Even Testified Before Congress On Behalf Of Victims
Mariska doesn’t just talk the talk with her Joyful Heart Foundation. She’s also walked the walk and appeared before Congress to advocate for the survivors. In 2010 and in 2017, she testified at Capital Hill in order to increase justice for victims. Mariska said that many sexual assault evidence kits sit untested and the assailant is rarely prosecuted.
Her testimony has helped increase the public awareness about the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative to reduce the backlog.
Her Character Has Inspired Others
Mariska has said she’s humbled that Detective Olivia Benson has allowed sexual assault, domestic violence, and child abuse survivors to finally speak out. In an era long before #MeToo, Mariska was receiving hundreds of letters from viewers who were opening up about their troubled past.
Some women even wrote to Mariska saying they would have never felt confident leaving an abusive situation without being inspired by Detective Benson. It just goes to show how a powerful female role model can change lives.
She’s A Former Beauty Queen
Before she entered Hollywood, Mariska tried her hand at being more like her father. While she wasn’t going to try and build muscle to become the #1 body builder in the world, she had hopes of becoming Miss Universe. She was crowned Miss Beverly Hills USA in 1982. Mariska went on to compete in the Miss California USA pageant but lost out.
While she found moderate success as a pageant queen Mariska quickly realized it wasn’t for her and she decided to pursue acting.
She Makes A Lot Of Money
Being the lead character on an extremely popular television series that’s lasted two decades means Mariska has negotiated an impressive paycheck. In the first season, Mariska made a couple of thousand dollars per episode. By season 10, she was reportedly making $385,000 per episode.
Since then, Mariska has become an executive producer for the show and was able to negotiate a salary of $450,000 per episode. That salary makes her the second-highest-paid actress on television!
Mariska Studied Before Joining Law & Order: SVU
After landing the role of Detective Olivia Benson, Mariska made sure that she knew what she was getting into. Before shooting began, the actress trained as a sexual assault crisis advocate. The 40-hour training session equipped Mariska with the ability to talk to and relate to survivors of assault.
While those on the show are also actors, Mariska has said the training helped her acting and made her realize how important it is to listen to the victims of assault.
Kathy Griffin Was Her Improv Instructor
Once Mariska realized acting was her true calling, she attended the Groundlings Theatre and School. While at the school, her improv teacher was none other than comedian Kathy Griffin. The two have remained friends over the years since meeting when Mariska was young!
Groundlings troupe is one of the most famous comedy groups in the world and has spawned many careers. Actors like Will Ferrell, Lisa Kudrow, Melissa McCarthy, and Maya Rudolph got their start in the troupe.
She Almost Starred In Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie
Before Mariska got her big break on Law & Order: SVU, she landed small roles in movies. One of her big breaks came in 1995 when she was cast to play Dulcea after the original actress, Gabrielle Fitzpatrick, came down with a sickness. Mariska filmed all the scenes for the character but they were eventually cut after Fitzpatrick recovered.
Most of us would like to forget that Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie ever happened. It definitely wasn’t good, and the ensemble cast has basically fallen into oblivion. Luckily, Mariska didn’t fall to that fate.
She’s A California Girl At Heart
Olivia Benson might run the streets of New York City but Mariska is a California girl through and through. She admits that if she can avoid wearing makeup, she will. The actress also prefers kicking back than going out. She’ll even drive barefoot rather than with shoes.
That California girl lifestyle also includes spending a lot of time in the water. It’s not as easy to find in New York, but when she can Mariska spends time with her kids in the ocean.
She Can’t Stop Winning Awards
It’s not surprising that after spending two decades on a successful television series that Mariska has got to take home some impressive hardware. In 2005, Mariska took home the Golden Globe Award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Television Series. The next year, she took home the Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress.
In more recent years, Mariska has dominated categories at the People’s Choice Awards, proving that Detective Olivia Benson is as popular as ever.
She Didn’t Want Sexualized Roles
Mariska didn’t get her big break until she was 35 and she credits that to the fact she turned down roles that over-sexualized her. She confessed that when she was younger, she would “deliberately avoid sexy roles” and even lost out on a part because she wouldn’t dye her hair blonde.
The reason Mariska refused the parts was because she didn’t want to be like her mother. To avoid that, Mariska often showed up to auditions in flannel shirts and boots.
Her Audition Left Producers Speechless
Mariska was one of the last actresses to audition for the role of Olivia Benson. The Law & Order: SVU producers were ready to cast Samantha Mathis for the role when Mariska walked in. She auditioned with actor Christopher Meloni and by all accounts the two knocked it out of the park.
After they finished the audition, there was a moment of silence, and then producer Dick Wolf blurted out “Oh well, there’s no doubt who we should choose—Hargitay and Meloni.
Her First Pregnancy Was Difficult
Mariska’s first child—a baby boy named August—arrived happy and healthy but the pregnancy was scary for her. She developed gestational diabetes during her third trimester. This was especially dangerous because when a woman is pregnant, she already builds up some amount of insulin resistance.
With gestational diabetes, the body rejects insulin even more and it can lead to unhealthy glucose levels that can be dangerous to the baby. Luckily, she was able to combat diabetes and her son was delivered safely.
She’s Did Odd Jobs To Feel Normal
While she was attending UCLA, Mariska wanted to feel like she wasn’t a spoiled brat. She worked part-time to pay the rent rather than ask her father for the money. While sharing an apartment with three other girls, she worked as a waitress and as a salesperson in a clothing store.
When reflecting on it later, Mariska said she was “proud to work” because she knew “too many spoiled rich kids who are degenerate losers.”