Over the course of its long life, it’s no shock that Law & Order has seen quite a few future famous faces pop up. It’s almost a game to catch a return and marvel at how some guest star goes on to achieve much bigger fame down the road.
Thus, it’s not surprising L&O has seen a few Academy Award winners showing up over the years. Many were earlier in their careers, before they hit the big time. Some were already stars yet not ready to win those Oscars just yet.
As L&O built up, some Oscar winners would guest star on the show. Whoopi Goldberg had a notable SVU cameo, and Patricia Arquette was still filming her Oscar-winning turn in Boyhood when she guested on SVU.
It’s better when some Oscar winners make multiple appearances either before or after winning their statues. There have been plenty of them, but these stand as the best appearances by Oscar winners on the L&O franchise and fun to see these big-screen stars on a hit TV drama.
Julia Roberts (L&O season 9, episode 20, “Empire”)
Back in 1999, it was rare to see a major A-list Hollywood star on a network TV show. That made Julia Roberts on Law & Order a big deal.
The story has Briscoe and Curtis investigate the death of a corporate mogul trying to build a new stadium. Roberts is Katrina, a supposed witness who appears worried over her safety.
Curtis watches over her at the hotel room, where Katrina suddenly turns on the charm, trying to tempt him (Roberts and Benjamin Bratt were dating at the time).
Eventually, the cops realize Katrina is actually tied in to the murder but can’t prove it.
It’s striking with Roberts playing against type as a femme fatale and turning down her usual star wattage for the small screen. It has to rank as one of the biggest stars to ever appear in the franchise.
Marlee Matlin (SVU, Season 5, episode 22 “Painless,” season 6, episode 22, “Parts”)
Since making history as the first deaf actress to win an Oscar, Marlee Matlin has made a great career in movies and television.
In “Painless,” Matlin played Amy Solway, an in-vitro specialist seeking to cure the types of genetic conditions that rendered her deaf. The team realized that Amy had also been helping terminal patients end their own lives.
The usually sardonic Munch felt sympathy for Amy, especially when it turned out she was dying herself from her genetic issues. A jury agreed to cut her a deal.
Amy returned in “Parts,” now suspected of helping a black-market organ donor operation. Despite her pain, she was willing to help others, making it difficult to hate her.
Matlin was great selling one time the “perp” wasn’t that bad a person.
Philip Seymour Hoffman (Law & Order season 1, episode 24, “The Violence of Summer”)
This is a time Law & Order was truly historic for a major Hollywood career.
This first-season Law & Order episode actually begins with a trial where the case against three men attacking a reporter falls apart. The cops have to find new evidence to get them to turn on each other.
It’s notable for Samuel L. Jackson as the trio’s lawyer. But it’s also how one of the defendants is the first-ever acting credit for Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Hoffman would go on to a terrific career as a character actor, including winning the Oscar for Capote before his untimely death in 2014. So the series is able to boast helping launch one of the most respected actors of his time.
Mahershala Ali (SVU season 11, episode 1, “Unstable”)
Before he became a two-time Oscar winner, Mahershala Ali had a promising television career with appearances in numerous shows. A Law & Order stop was inevitable.
In “Unstable,” the detectives investigate a brutal assault on a woman. They realize it’s the same MO as a man who’s been in prison for ten years.
They track down Foster (played by Ali) as they realize he committed that original crime and let an innocent man go to jail. Ali is vicious, playing games before openly admitting to the crime, knowing the cops don’t have enough evidence.
There’s a final tragic turn to the case, and it’s stunning how an actor who’s played some warm-hearted characters on screen could be one of SVU’s most twisted perps.
Jeremy Irons (SVU, season 12, episode 13 “Mask” and episode 20,”Totem”)
Jeremy Irons isn’t the type of actor one would expect on any network TV show, let alone Law & Order. That’s what made his appearances so notable.
The British actor first appeared in SVU season 12’s “Mask” as Captain Jackson, a psychologist whose daughter was attacked. There’s long-held tension due to something Jackson believed he did to his daughter in a troubled phase in his life.
As it turns out, Jackson was innocent of that crime and helped the team crack the case. He later returned in “Totem” to aid them in a dark murder case, using his own experience for insight into a troubled suspect.
Irons was compelling in the role with his deep voice, and interesting how his character evolved into a good aide. He sadly never took up the unit’s offer for more work but made the most of his two appearances.
Ellen Burstyn (SVU season 10, episode 3, “Swing”)
Ellen Burstyn added an Emmy to her long list of accolades thanks to SVU.
In “Swing,” Stabler realizes his daughter Kathleen is undergoing severe mood swings that land her in legal trouble. Stabler has to face the fact Kathleen has bipolar disorder.
Told it’s hereditary, Stabler seeks out his long-estranged mother, Bernadette, played by Burstyn. It brings up some of the issues that have pushed Stabler’s infamous temper and his own attitude.
Burstyn showed amazing work wrestling with her own condition and her failures as a mother but still helping both her son and granddaughter with their problems.
The actress won an Emmy for the performance, and surprisingly she was never asked for a return appearance given her wonderful chemistry with Christopher Meloni.
Robin Williams (SVU season 9, episode 17 , “Authority”)
Robin Williams was always known for his wildly funny comedic roles. He could show off his dramatic chops well. One of the most harrowing was on the SVU episode “Authority.”
He plays Merrit Rook, a man who poses as a police officer to trick people into committing criminal acts. Williams’ usual gift for mimicry is used in a dark way, fooling others and sending the cops on a harrowing chase.
Rook is a twisted man who takes Benson hostage and nearly kills both detectives. He appears to have met his end falling into a river, but they wonder if he somehow survived.
It’s proof of how Williams could provide as many scares as laughs in his career.
Viola Davis (SVU & Criminal Intent, multiple episodes)
It took a while for Viola Davis to finally reach the top as an Emmy and Oscar winner. That makes her multiple appearances in Law & Order more notable.
Davis first appeared playing a police officer in the first season of Criminal Intent, “Badge.” Her more famous role was on the opposite side of the courtroom.
Throughout four seasons, Davis appeared in seven SVU episodes as defense attorney Donna Emmett. While her on-screen appearances were brief, Davis was brilliant as this attorney expertly arguing against the detectives in court and holding her own against both Cabot and Novak.
Davis was always striking in the role and made the most of her time. Her multiple appearances alone make her among the most notable SVU guest stars ever.
Marcia Gay Harden (SVU, “Raw,” “Informed,” “Penetration,” and “Secrets Exhumed”)
While her fall was sad, Marcia Gay Harden was a good presence on SVU in multiple appearances.
The actress first appears in “Raw” as seemingly a member of a radical racist group. When a gunman attacked a courtroom, she shot him down to reveal she was Dana Lewis, an undercover FBI agent.
Dana returned to recruit Olivia for a secret operation. She also wanted the team to help her investigate who attacked her.
An amusing touch was how every appearance somehow led to poor Stabler ending up in the hospital.
Dana’s last appearance was shocking as she aided the team in investigating a 25-year old murder. It turned out Dana was just covering up she was the actual killer.
It was a harsh end for a popular character but worked with Harden’s strong performance.
J.K. Simmons (Multiple episodes of L&O, SVU, Criminal Intent)
After years as one of those “hey, it’s that guy” actors, J.K. Simmons finally reached the top, winning the Oscar for Whiplash. His character in that movie was a brutal and abusive music teacher.
That’s a far cry from Simmons’ Law & Order role of psychologist Emil Skoda. All told, he played the character in 51 episodes of the mothership, SVU and Criminal Intent.
Skoda was often called on to interview troubled suspects and be an expert witness in court. He could sometimes throw off the prosecution by arguing a suspect was not fit to stand trial or even push their innocence.
He could be unorthodox, even insulting someone to get at the truth but also a warmer side. It wasn’t just perps as Skoda could offer advice to the cops and lawyers too.
Simmons made the role so great, he was almost a part of the regular cast. While he played a white supremacist in a crossover with Homicide, Skoda is the role L&O fans know Simmons best by.
Law & Order and SVU streaming on Peacock, SVU seasons 1-22 on Hulu.