In light of the fact that ‘Law & Order: SVU’ was renewed for its 21st season, making it the longest-running primetime live-action series in television history, we thought it would be the perfect opportunity to showcase the star of the show, Mariska Hargitay. Mariska Hargitay has simply become synonymous with Olivia Benson. Having been the star of ‘Law & Order: Special Victims Unit’ since 1999, she stole the show with her iconic character Detective Olivia Benson. Even Taylor Swift named one of her cats “Olivia Benson.”
Hargitay may be happy now, but if you could rewind her life back to when she was young, you wouldn’t predict such a successful outcome. The woman has had her share of tragedies, and it all started when she was just 3 years old. From death in the family to major pitfalls in her personal life, she’s risen up to become a successful actress, married to her co-star and raising three beautiful children. Mariska has become her own star on her own accord, but she was still a part of one of Hollywood’s most remarkable stories. Here’s a look into the real-life drama of Mariska Hargitay.
The Daughter of Famous Parents
Mariska Hargitay’s mother was the classic Hollywood actress Jayne Mansfield, who was known for her roles in ‘The Girl Can’t Help It’ and ‘Playgirl After Dark.’ She was the embodiment of the “blonde bombshell.”
Her father was also well-known – Mickey Hargitay, a bodybuilder, actor, and a former Mr. Universe. Mickey and Jayne met in 1956 when she noticed him in Mae West’s nightclub and apparently told a server, “I’ll have a steak and the man on the left.”
A Rocky Marriage
The two got married, being the second marriage for each of them and each already had one child. Jayne had only been divorced for about a week from Paul Mansfield when she got married to Mickey. The couple went on to make four movies together and had three children, sons Mickey Jr., and Zoltan and their youngest, daughter Mariska.
Mariska’s parents had a rocky marriage, which ended divorcing in 1964 after a couple of years of indecision and shortly after Mariska’s birth.
And only a few years later, tragedy struck…
Three Adults, Three Kids, and a Tragic Car Accident
Tragedy struck in 1967 when Mansfield and two other passengers died in a car accident. Amazingly, Mariska, who was three years old at the time, and her two older brothers Mickey and Zoltan, were in the backseat sleeping. They were injured but miraculously survived.
On June 29, 1967, riding in the back of a Buick Electra with her brothers, her mother, her mother’s boyfriend (attorney Sam Brody), and their driver Ronnie Harrison. They were heading on Route 90 from Mississippi, where Jayne had just performed in a nightclub act, to New Orleans.
An Untimely Death
It was around 2 AM when the car plowed into the back of a truck that happened to be spraying mosquito repellent. Somehow, the children were spared, and only the adults were killed. Jayne Mansfield was 34 at the time of her untimely death.
The police presumed that Harrison (the driver) might not have been able to see well due to the thick chemical fog that the truck was emitting from the spray. Authorities said that Jayne died instantly. And Mariska still has an evident a scar on the side of her head from the accident.
Mariska then had to figure out how to live without a mother…
Dealing With Her Loss
Hargitay doesn’t remember the accident, but she did say that “losing [my] mother at such an early age is the scar of my soul.” She added, “But I feel like it ultimately made me into the person I am today. I understand the journey of life. I had to go through what I did to be here.”
In an interview, Mariska explained how she dealt with her loss later on in her life: “The way I’ve lived with loss is to lean into it. As the saying goes, the only way out is through. In my life, certainly, I’ve tried to avoid pain, loss, feeling things. But I’ve learned instead to really lean into it because sooner or later you have to pay the piper…I’m not saying it’s easy, and it certainly hasn’t been for me. There’s been a lot of darkness. But on the other side things can be so bright.”
A Half-Full Family
Hargitay has five siblings, including her half-sister Jayne Marie Mansfield from her mother’s first marriage and half-brother Tony Cimber from the third marriage to Matt Cimber, and another half-sister Tina Hargitay from Mickey’s first marriage to Mary Birge.
After her mother died, Mariska was raised by Mickey and his third wife, Ellen, who was a flight attendant who he stayed married to for the rest of his life.
The memory of her mother, however, was going to have a huge impact on Mariska for years to come…
Like Mother, Like Daughter
“My mother was this amazing, beautiful, glamorous sex symbol—but people didn’t know that she played the violin and had a 160 IQ and had five kids and loved dogs,” Hargitay spoke of her mother. “She was just so ahead of her time. She was an inspiration, she had this appetite for life, and I think I share that with her.”
In 2014, Hargitay nearly broke the Internet when she posted an image of half of her face next to half of her mother’s face, with the two blending into one. Mariska left no comment on her post, but none was needed. It was laid out loud and clear how much the two looked like.
In Her Words
Jayne Mansfield once stated that “To establish yourself as an actress, you have to become well known. A girl just starting out, I would tell her to concentrate on acting, but she doesn’t have to go around wearing blankets.”
Mariska may have taken her mother’s words to heart as she eventually became her own star, turning into the most famous and loved female detective on television.
As you will see, her stardom wasn’t necessarily due to being the daughter of famous parents.
Embarking on an Acting Career
Though Mariska lost her mom at such an early point in her life, she was still an influential presence in her daughter’s life. Mariska decided to embark on her own acting career, starting in the mid-1980s.
She began studying theater at UCLA, getting all the gigs a wannabe actress usually lands: a horror movie, pilots that didn’t succeed, TV shows you don’t remember, cheesy made-for-TV movies, and even a spot on ‘Seinfeld’ and ‘ER.’
From Paycheck to Paycheck
It took a long time for Mariska to become a star. It wasn’t until she was 35 that she landed her role as Olivia Benson. Before that, she was struggling to make her way in the world. Because she wasn’t getting a steady paycheck for a long time, she “racked up six-figure debts.”
“I had a house and car I didn’t want to lose,” she said, “and I had a lot of credit card debt.” Her boyfriend at the time was paying her bills, but “when we broke up, he said I owed him 60 grand.” But she was good for it. “I’m a payer-backer. So as soon as I could, I paid him off.”
But things were about to start looking up…
Things Started to Change
“I played lots of tomboys, wearing flannel shirts, jeans, and boots,” Hargitay said in an interview in 2000. “On some unconscious level, I was shying away from those sexual roles because of my mother. But as I got older, I changed my mind. I now look forward to doing all kinds of parts, including those that are sexual and sensual.”
She recalled her audition for ‘Law & Order,’ having told the creator Dick Wolf at her first callback, “‘You gotta be kidding! What’s with the other women? This is my part, sweetheart. Tell them to go home.‘”
Things Were Going in the Right Direction
Mariska still had to do the read for the part on the show, but then she got the call to go to New York for the screen test. She had actually already decided to move to New York to pursue theater. “In Hollywood, you turn 35, and it’s over. In New York, it’s a different world,” she said.
Little did she know that she was about to start a 20-year-plus journey on television and make history. ‘Law & Order: SVU’ has become a cultural hallmark, as a serious true-crime drama and a totally binge-able series. And as of 2018, Hargitay was No. 4 on Forbes’ list of highest-paid actresses on TV, earning $13 million.
Her Role as Olivia Benson
“Olivia is an extremely independent and professional woman who is seeking some kind of sense of fairness in the world,” Mariska described her character as. “Olivia is completely empathetic and feels things deeply. I think she may be an unprecedented woman detective on TV. She’s allowed to be female and gentle in a man’s world.”
She won two Golden Globes, one Emmy, and in 2018, she received the People’s Choice award for ‘Favorite Drama TV Star.’ She has also been nominated for 14 awards, including the Emmy’s, SAG, People’s Choice, and the Golden Globes.
She even has a hand in the behind-the-scenes division of the show…
She Didn’t See It Coming
Mariska has directed a handful of episodes and even became a producer in 2014. Then became an executive producer in 2016. Clearly, landing the role as Detective Benson was the move of her career and her life. But Mariska herself didn’t see it coming.
“I had a few rough years in New York because I’d lived in L.A. my whole life, and felt ripped from the womb when I moved here,” Hargitay said in 2007 about her new life in New York. “It was difficult to maintain relationships working 14 hours a day. As an actor, you dream and pray to have steady work, so I felt guilty that I wasn’t happy. Then I met Peter and everything changed.”
And Then She Met Peter
‘Younger’ star Peter Hermann made the first of his many appearances on the show as defense attorney Trevor Langan in 2002. And as they say – the rest was history. The two must have really hit it off because they eventually tied the knot.
She was 40 by the time she and Hermann got married in August of 2004. She recalled, “I had been engaged before, but what I felt for Peter I had never felt before—it was knowing that someone else put you first and that you put him first. A lot of people have doubts about their wedding day, but I was never so sure and happy. We were going into the unknown together and were taking care of each other the way you’re supposed to when you are married.”
The two had a special bond…
Bonding Over Faith
Mariska and Peter bonded over faith and shared values, which may have been evident on their first date, which was at his church. Hargitay was raised Catholic but said she considers herself a Christian who “tends to make other plans on Sundays.”
“I find faith to be a more private thing. For me, it’s about my personal relationship with God. I think God has a plan and a big one. I try to live in gratitude and awe and to get to know Him better and pray that He helps guide me in the decisions I make.”
And it’s that faith that helped her through some difficult times…
Her Father’s Passing
As an example of bad timing, when Hargitay was about to give birth to her baby, her father Mickey was admitted into the hospital. He was diagnosed with cancer. But thankfully, he got to meet his newborn grandson. His cancer, however, was very aggressive, and he died that September.
Hargitay’s father also got the chance to witness his daughter’s Emmy win, which she acknowledged in her tearful acceptance speech dedicated to him. “He’s the reason I’m standing here today,” she exclaimed. “I can’t wait to celebrate this with you.”
Her Power, Her Strength
“It was huge to lose this person who was my everything, my strength, my power, the person who believed in me. But I got to say goodbye, and I remember it was very calm, and he just looked at me, and he said, ‘Mariska… Always.’”
“I was the most like him, and the gift that I got, in addition to being able to say goodbye, was knowing that he was in me. I already carried his fire, the lessons that he taught me, his compassion, his love, his kindness. Now I do feel that he’s with me. Even though he’s not here physically, I carry him.”
Although he’s physically gone, his children keep his memory alive…
His Memory Lives On
Mickey Hargitay remains a visible feature in L.A. Mariska’s brother and his son, Mickey Jr., who was 8 when their mother died, owns a West Hollywood nursery, Mickey Hargitay Plants. And it sees a number of celebrities among its loyal clientele.
Mariska recalled her upbringing: “My parents’ friends were not in [show] business, and we spent a lot of time, especially in the summers, traveling. We went to Hungary and Italy when my dad was still appearing in spaghetti Westerns.” Hargitay is multilingual like both her parents, speaking Hungarian, Italian and French.
His Last Role
Amazingly, Mickey’s last acting role was on ‘Law & Order: SVU.’ It was during a scene-setting beginning of an episode in 2003. It was three years later when he died, at the age of 80.
But when one door closes, another door opens. Her father passed, but their son was born. Later, in 2011, Mariska and Peter adopted two children: daughter Amaya and son Andrew.
Mariska wasn’t always ready and willing to be a mother, though…
Her Feelings Changed
“I wasn’t ready to be a wife or mother before now. And my character on Law & Order: SVU has become a huge role model; I don’t think I could’ve handled that before my forties.”
Then in 2009, a stunt she did on the show took her health into a downward spiral. While shooting a scene where she ran after a suspect and had to jump, Hargitay suffered a tear in her lung tissue which ultimately caused her lung to collapse, and it required multiple surgeries to repair.
She Didn’t Realize at the Time
“I didn’t know for three months that something was really wrong. At first, I seemed to get better. But then two weeks later I had chest pains and shortness of breath. My grandfather died of a heart attack at 34, and my mom died at the same age. At first, I worried it was a heart attack. Then someone pointed out that my heart was on the other side!”
Eventually getting an x-ray showed her doctors that one lung was half-collapsed. She had a procedure which was meant to stave off surgery, but it didn’t work. She needed to get the operation.
And she prayed to get better and back to work…
One in a Thousand
“I just thought, Please make me better, please make me better. I got really scared that maybe something else was wrong. All those old fears about my mom and my grandfather came shooting up. Having a child changes everything. All of a sudden you have so much to lose, so much to live for. Sometimes things in life happen that allow us to understand our priorities very clearly. Ultimately you can see those as gifts.”
The doctors claimed that there was only a one out of 1,000 chance of re-injury. But fortunately, she made a full recovery. “I get to be the one in 1,000 in so many positive ways, it balances out,” she said. “I have so many blessings, and I’ve learned from all of my experiences and my losses. I think you learn to feel grateful when you are exposed at such a young age to the fact that bad things can happen.”
Giving Back to Those in Need
Mariska’s faith has helped her believe in miracles and the need to give back. She turned her extracurricular attention to creating and running a foundation called the Joyful Heart Foundation, which provides support for victims of domestic abuse and sexual violence.
The foundation aims to educate people about what they can do to stop the cycle of abuse and essentially help survivors. When you think about it, very few actors’ real-life passions are so closely related to the characters they play onscreen.
Mariska explained why she chose to start the foundation…
She Started Getting Letters
Hargitay explained how her fan mail was something of a catalyst to her foundation, which she established in 2004. “Normal fan mail is, ‘Can I get an autographed picture?’ But the letters I started receiving was a very different kind of fan mail.”
“I started getting letters in which women actually disclosed their stories of abuse…the fact that they were writing to this actor on TV, this fictional character, showed me how alone they felt. The themes in the letters were all the same—they talked about shame and isolation.”
She Was Competing With Herself
“I have all these amazing friends—Hilary Swank, Carrie-Anne Moss, Maria Bello,” Hargitay said in 2007. “About 10 years ago, they were all just hitting it, movie after movie after movie. I loved these women, but I couldn’t help but feel like the loser of the group. But one thing my dad taught me was, there’s only one person to compete with—yourself.”
“If you had asked me 10 years ago, ‘Are you going to start a foundation for victims of sexual assault?’ I would’ve said, ‘No, I’m an actor, I just want to be in movies.’ I’m really grateful my job has led me down this road.”
Mariska has taken her role to the next level…
Going to Capitol Hill
After Mariska heard that there were thousands of untested rape kits collecting dust in police labs due to a lack of funding and general bureaucratic inefficiency, Hargitay took a stand and testified on Capitol Hill in 2010. She wanted to advocate for the rights of sexual assault victims.
Joyful Heart’s efforts are helping the city of Detroit to get its backlog of kits processed. It’s all featured in the 2018 HBO documentary ‘I Am Evidence,’ which Hargitay actually produced.
Advocating for Women
“I couldn’t believe that people weren’t talking about it, that people didn’t know,” she said in an interview. “The fact that these kits weren’t tested means, to me, that [these authorities] are saying that women are not of value.”
She also said, “One thing that this film is going to do is restore faith in the criminal justice system because people will realize that there are people out there who are willing to right the wrongs, even if we have to go back 40 and 45 years to do it.”
But aside from all the seriousness of life, Mariska manages to stay positive and enjoys a sense of humor…
Leaving Room for Some Fun
“Comedy and humor have always been a part of who I am,” she stated. “Humor is about perspective, and hanging out with people who see life through a similar lens is so important.” She even nicknamed her family’s home in the Hamptons the “Happy House.”
“Happy House” was not just a nickname – it was printed on the guest towels. Her preferred method of relaxation is spending time with Peter and the kids. She’s a true California girl, so she loves swimming and being by the water.
It Took a Long Time
Mariska has learned to relax and enjoy life, but it wasn’t an easy process. For a long period after her mother’s death, Hargitay struggled with anxiety and low self-esteem. She felt the pain of not really having known her world-famous mother.
She would skip fun events, like parties, thinking, “What’s the point? They won’t even notice that I’m not there,” she said. Fortunately, she came out of it all stronger, with the realization that “you have to show up for your life.”
It took her a long time to heal for a reason…
Part of the reason it took Mariska a long time to heal was that she kept many of her mother’s keepsakes around. Hargitay said that most of her mother’s belongings were stolen during a burglary at her house after her passing.
Years later, collectors asked Hargitay if she wanted to buy any of the items that actually belonged to her mother. She still wears her mother’s charm bracelet, which has a charm with her name and a ballerina on it.
A Vision of a Large Family
After their daughter August was born in 2006, Mariska and Peter wanted to expand their family, but she was having issues getting pregnant again. But their vision of having a big family wasn’t going to end so easily. Adoption was apparently always part of the plan.
“August wanted siblings, and Peter and I both envisioned this big family because we both come from that. Plus, we just had so much love to give. I was really letting the chips fall as they might because I do think so much is up to God. I always said, ‘I don’t know how this is going to end up. I don’t know if I’m going to get pregnant and have twins. I don’t know … if somebody’s going to leave a baby on my doorstep.’ But I really did think that down the line, Peter and I would adopt … That was always part of the plan.”
There was one particularly rough moment in 2010…
Not For the Faint-Hearted
The couple went on to adopt Amaya and Andrew. But it wasn’t such an easy process. The couple went through heartache trying to bring a child into their home. As Hargitay put it, “Adoption is not for the faint of heart.”
One moment in 2010 was particularly rough when after just two days with another adopted daughter, her birth mother “changed her mind” and took back her parental rights. Mariska said it was “devastating,” but confessed, “this is what I’ve come to understand about life: It was probably the greatest, happiest ending.” She added, “I mean, it was so painful for us, but it was deeply joyful and deeply right for her.”
The Key to Her Happy Marriage
Part of her ability to stay positive and happy is due to being in a happy marriage. When speaking of the key to her successful marriage, Mariska said, “We’ve said really honest things to each other—about how we feel and what we want—and I’ve thought for sure we were going to break up.”
“And then we laugh, we can make a joke about what we talk about, and it becomes a part of the repertoire of the relationship. It’s not this secret you carry anymore. We have it out in the open. It dissipates any bad feelings because you know the person heard you and it registered.”
Her method of staying positive was to look towards her father…
Another reason she’s managed to stay positive through life’s ups and downs is her father. Mariska has a very life-affirming personality now, which she attributes mostly to her father’s influence. “The message I got from my father was that life is hard, but you just don’t quit. I am grateful that I didn’t let fear get the best of me. It only holds you back from possibilities and greatness. You’ve got to kick fear to the side because the payoff is huge.”
She also said, “I don’t focus on what I can’t control. If I can’t control it, let’s move on. I think that we have all been swallowed up in ‘shoulda-woulda-coulda.’ You figure it out, and you walk tall and go through it. Some days it’s chicken, and some days it’s feathers.”
A Power Couple
Her husband, Peter, is an actor, writer, and advocate. He’s a graduate of Yale University and was a charter member of the Teach for America Teaching Corps. Aside from his appearances on his wife’s hit TV show, he co-starred in ‘United 93’ and most recently performed on Broadway in the Tony-Award winning play, ‘War Horse.’
Peter Hermann now plays Charles Brooks on ‘Younger.’ And over the years, this celebrity power couple has given us glimpses into their lives through social media and fans can’t get enough of it.
But when they first met, it wasn’t an immediate strike of lightning…
He Didn’t Get the Joke
When the two met on the set of the show, Mariska recalled that she tried to tell Peter a joke to break the ice, but he just didn’t find it funny. But it was a few months later when the two were having a conversation about religion, that they really hit it off.
Peter decided to ask her out on a date. He asked if she wanted to go to church with him. Not a likely offer for a date! But it worked. Hargitay said she knew at that moment that he was the one.
Their Net Worth
According to Celebrity Net Worth, Hargitay makes $450,000 per episode and has an estimated net worth of $50 million. The website also notes that Hermann’s net worth is $10 million, bringing their combined net worth to $60 million.
That’s a pretty impressive number for an actress who, while playing a character on the right side of the law, had a moment in her past where she was found on the other side of the law.
On the Other Side of the Law
Who knew that Detective Olivia Benson was once arrested? When Hargitay was a sorority girl at UCLA, she was taking acting classes and working on her auditions, and even collected tips as a waitress.
She ended up getting an acting role in Ronnie Milsap’s music video “She Loves My Car.” But it was this gig that led to her getting arrested that night. Why? Parking tickets. Hargitay got a lot of parking tickets, parking wherever she wanted and not paying them.
A Matter of Unpaid Parking Tickets
Funnily enough, Mariska was wearing a sexy video outfit when she got tossed in the back of a cop car and taken to the station. Her roommate at the time said, “She was in there with all the ladies of the night and, uh, but she was fitting right in.”
Fortunately, Mariska only spent a few hours behind bars. And maybe that little scare helped propel her career and eventually make her one of TV’s most beloved actresses.