One of the most amazing things about the Law and Order franchise is its plethora of guest stars. They’ve run the gamut from TV favorites to Hollywood A-listers and even a few Oscar winners.
It’s also notable to see the scores of faces who do a guest star appearance when they’re nobodies only to become major stars down the road. It’s also a good way for some actors to break free of past roles.
That’s especially true for former teen stars who want to show they can handle more adult fare. Interestingly, most of them end up on Law and Order: SVU as the darker material of that show allows them to flex their acting muscles for a more gripping performance.
It’s amazing how former stars known for funny and bright roles end up showing darker, if not outright sinister, vibes on a Law & Order series. These are ten former teen stars who proved they could handle the Law & Order world much better than fans expected.
Mischa Barton (SVU, Season 11, Episode 14, “Savior”)
Better known for some real-life problems, Mischa Barton had a memorable role as a ghost girl in the hit thriller The Sixth Sense. She then exploded to fame on the Fox soap The O.C.
In the SVU episode, Savior, Barton is much grittier, playing a prostitute who may be the target of a serial killer.
After the man is arrested, Barton’s character is reluctant to testify. It’s also revealed she’s pregnant and, given her years of addictions, the baby could be in trouble.
Barton was gripping in the part of a woman who couldn’t see a way out of her troubled life, even to help her child. It has a darker ending than expected to show that not everyone on SVU can escape their own problems.
Ralph Macchio (Criminal Intent, Season 9, Episode 15: Inhumane Society)
Right now, fans can catch Ralph Macchio reprising his iconic The Karate Kid role in the hit Netflix series Cobra Kai.
Macchio made a stop in Criminal Intent in Inhumane Society, obviously based on real-life events.
A famous boxer (a then-unknown Michael B. Jordan) is released from prison after operating a dog-fighting ring. When one of his former co-workers is found dead, he’s a prime suspect.
Macchio’s role was small as one of the suspects but good as he’s a classic “red herring” who seems to have a bigger role before the usual twists come in.
Given his fame as a karate kid, it’s amusing seeing Macchio in a boxing-themed storyline.
Luke Perry (SVU, Season 10, Episode 1: Trials)
Before his untimely passing in 2019, Luke Perry was well-regarded as having moved from teen heartthrob in Beverly Hills 90210 to a popular TV actor, including Riverdale.
Among his stops was the tenth season premiere of SVU. When a young boy crashes a car, the detectives discover he was suffering the effects of a drug trial gone wrong.
This leads to his foster parents (Perry and Julie Bowen), with the boy’s recovering addict mother (Sara Gilbert) also involved.
At first, Perry seems like a good father figure struggling to get by. But a shocking twist reveals his true dark nature, leading to a powerful conclusion.
It showed how good an actor Perry was and made his loss all the sadder for his fans.
Hayden Panettiere (SVU, Season 2, Episode 11: Abuse and Season 6, Episode 15: Hooked”)
After breaking out as the football-loving kid in Remember the Titans, Hayden Panettiere was on the last season of Ally McBeal. She’s also in the club of actors to appear on SVU as different characters.
In Season 2, the detectives believe a famous singer’s neglect of her kids contributed to a tragedy. Panettiere played the younger daughter, who was clearly afraid of speaking out against her parents.
She got a meatier role in Season 6 as the friend of a murdered teen. The detectives found the victim was into a seriously twisted secret lifestyle with Panettiere soon drawn into the case.
While young, she showed good chops in the role, leading to a powerful final scene. The next year, Panettiere got her star-making turn in Heroes and later Nashville as SVU pushed her face majorly on TV.
Jennifer Love Hewitt (SVU, Season 12, Episode 3: Behave)
Starting out in the old Kids Incorporated show, Jennifer Love Hewitt became famous with Party of Five and the hit thriller I Know What You Did Last Summer.
That latter role no doubt helped Hewitt’s performance in this dark SVU episode. It opens with Stabler and Benson investigating an assault on Hewitt, who refuses help.
It turns out the woman has been stalked and attacked by the same man since she was 16 years old.
This has made her a virtual shut-in who refuses to leave her home. Benson has to talk her into breaking out of her shell to finally bring her attacker to justice.
Hewitt tones down her look to sell the agony of this trauma. It does end on a hopeful note with her coming out of hiding to face down her attacker and move on with her life.
Melissa Joan Hart (SVU, Season 9, Episode 3: Impulsive)
A veteran child star, Melissa Joan Hart first broke out with the Nick show Clarissa Explains It All. She then moved to her more famous role on the long-running Sabrina the Teenage Witch.
Like other former child stars, Hart’s role in SVU was daring. It begins with a teen student claiming he got sick after his teacher took advantage of him. When Stabler and Benson arrest her, Hart claims the student was the one who attacked her.
This kicks off a complex case made worse when Hart is revealed as being pregnant and makes a troubling decision about the baby. The boy then confesses to the assault as he has some mental problems.
Hart takes pity on him to not press charges, so he’s sent to a teen facility. But when he’s assaulted there, Novak realizes the place is worse than an actual prison.
While her role wasn’t as big as it seemed, it was intriguing seeing the chipper Hart turning in a far darker performance.
Fred Savage (SVU, Season 4, Episode 22: Futility)
Fred Savage was one of the youngest actors ever to be nominated for an Emmy for his star-making turn in the classic comedy The Wonder Years.
Kevin Arnold would have been horrified at Savage’s character in the SVU episode titled Falling. It opens with the cops arresting him for assault and him actually punching Olivia in the face.
What looks like an open-and-shut case takes some turns when the man is able to get out on bail to intimidate his victims into not testifying against him.
Savage is terrifying simply because he appears too friendly and brushes off the stalking as “coincidence.” When he represents himself at trial, his charisma threatens to sway the jury to his side.
Although not the way the cops wanted, justice is done as Savage made for one of SVU’s worst perps.
Mark-Paul Gosselaar (SVU, Season 3, Episode 9: Sacrifice)
While he’s moved to a good career as an adult TV actor, Mark-Paul Gosselaar is still best known as Zack Morris on the classic teen comedy Saved By The Bell.
Gosselaar was one of the first former teen stars to show his skills on Law & Order: SVU. In the episode titled Sacrifice, he’s a man found shot outside a nightclub. His refusal to cooperate with the detectives raises suspicions.
They soon discover that the man and his wife (Elizabeth Banks) are now working in the adult film industry to pay for their sick daughter’s medical care. When their producer turns up dead, Gosselaar is the prime suspect.
Leaving Zack behind big-time, Gosselaar keeps the audience off-balance as this man who’s trapped in a tough life. A final twist shows how his attempts to help his family made him a tragic case for SVU.
Michelle Trachtenberg (Criminal Intent, Season 6 Episode 10: Weeping Willow)
After breaking out in Harriet the Spy, Michelle Trachtenberg became famous as innocent Dawn on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Like many young stars, she left innocence behind on Criminal Intent.
In Weeping Willow, Trachtenberg played a popular online vlogger kidnapped during a live video. While suspecting this might be a ploy, the detectives investigate as the girl is held for ransom.
It’s a race against time, and even when the girl is rescued, the question remains if she was truly abducted or if this is just a huge publicity stunt.
Trachtenberg is good in the role, making viewers wonder if she’s the victim or in on the whole thing to keep the audience guessing. In the end, she gets her wish of fame while still up in the air about what kind of person she truly is.
Hilary Duff (SVU, Season 10, Episode 19: Selfish)
Hilary Duff was a winner with teenage girls as the beloved Lizzie McGuire on the Disney Channel series and movie. But she showed a much different side in the SVU episode Selfish.
Gail O’Grady plays a woman concerned that her daughter (Duff) has done something to her own daughter. It becomes clear Duff is a flighty gal more into partying than caring for her kid (which she seems to have inherited from her mother).
It ends with a tragic turn that appears to be Duff’s fault. This being SVU, there’s a twist that leads the cops on a bigger case.
Duff was stunning as a woman who refused to accept her role in a tragedy and put her Lizzie past behind her majorly.
Law and Order, Law and Order: SVU and Law and Order: Criminal Intent all streaming on Peacock.