Christopher Meloni has played a lot of roles over a career that’s lasted for many decades, but he’s certainly best known for one in particular. Why yes, we are talking about his iconic character on an extremely beloved and long-running procedural series. For 12 years, Meloni portrayed the passionate and easily angered New York City police detective Elliot Stabler on NBC’s Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. In addition to busting fictional, terrifying, and deplorable people, Meloni has been a highlight of projects as disparate as the surreal and nostalgic Wet Hot American Summer franchise, the campy vampire series True Blood, the 1800s historical drama Underground, the stark prison show Oz, and even the superhero movie Man of Steel.
In 2021, Meloni made his long-awaited return to network TV and the franchise that made him rich and famous, reprising his role of Elliot Stabler in the twisty and tragic Law and Order: Organized Crime. Here’s a look at the life and times of the real guy behind the TV badge, Christopher Meloni.
A few flop sitcoms are part of Christopher Meloni's story
Like most actors who make it big, Christopher Meloni had to pay his dues and experience a lot of failure before he’d find a signature role, job security, fame, and fortune. When Meloni landed roles on the HBO drama Oz and Law and Order: Special Victims Unit in the late 1990s, he was almost 40 years old and had been kicking around Hollywood for more than a decade and had acted in a succession of network sitcoms that were all poorly received and quickly cancelled.
In 1989, Meloni played the dual role of Vito Del Greco and Johnny Gunn in the sixth season of the raunchy HBO football comedy 1st & Ten. Meloni didn’t come back for the show’s seventh season, ultimately its last. By then, Meloni had moved on to The Fanelli Boys, playing one of four obnoxious live-in adult sons of a put-upon recent widow. It lasted 19 episodes before its cancellation in early 1991. Meloni’s first headlining role in a network TV show was on the 1993 comedy The Boys, playing a small-town novelist who can’t write because the wacky locals keep interrupting him. Only five episodes of The Boys aired. In 1995, Meloni would give sitcoms one more try with Misery Loves Company, a show about friends who hang out in a bar. That one was gone after eight episodes.
Christopher Meloni is a hall of fame football player
Christopher Meloni is a big, imposing guy who plays big, imposing characters — hardened criminals, police detectives, and the like. He’s of the physical type, standing six feet tall according to IMDb, where he’s believable in those roles, or when he portrayed a football player on the comedy 1st and Ten, because he used to be a football player. And he was a pretty good one, too. Meloni grew up in Alexandria, Virginia, just outside of Washington, D.C., and he attended the private and parochial St. Stephen’s School, now known as St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes School, according to the Washington Post. Meloni served as the school’s star quarterback, and he led the team to a perfect, undefeated season back in his senior year of 1978. In 2007, the entire team was inducted into the St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes athletics hall of fame, and Meloni attended and spoke on behalf of his teammates.
“That moment in time meant a lot to me. I knew I was going to be quarterback that season, but to be a captain and to go undefeated? That’s all I wanted,” he told The Washingtonian.
Christopher Meloni starred on two shows at the same time
Christopher Meloni steadily worked as an actor from the late 1980s and into the mid-1990s, but mostly in small film roles and on forgettable, quickly come-and-gone TV series — nothing that could be characterized as a breakout or star-making turn. In 1998, Meloni secured a major role on an acclaimed, popular series, joining the cast of HBO’s harrowing prison drama Oz in its second season as Chris Keller, a brutally violent convicted murderer serving an 88-year sentence who aligns himself with a prison gang. Oz shot short seasons of eight episodes, allowing Meloni the time and inclination to pursue other acting gigs. In 1999, he landed another starring role on another TV drama: Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, the first spinoff of NBC’s popular Law and Order. Meloni now had two breakout roles on two big shows. “I knew I was the luckiest actor in New York City,” Meloni said on Inside the Actors Studio (via Backstage). “To have a steady gig in New York City is a dream come true. To have two, which are awesome shows—forget about it.”
The execution of that fortunate situation was something else. On work days, he’d portray Chris Keller on Oz for half the day, then head to the set of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit to portray Elliot Stabler, whose job it is to bust guys like Chris Keller.
Patience paid off for Christopher Meloni and his wife
In 1989, Christopher Meloni had just started to land work as an actor on TV shows when he also got his big break in the romance department. While on the Los Angeles set of an HBO series that he told Your Tango was “immensely forgettable,” a crew member named Sherman Williams rolled up to work on a motorcycle, sporting cat-eye sunglasses and tightly cropped, bleached-blonde hair. Meloni was immediately smitten, but his attempts to strike up something were shot down because Williams had a boyfriend. As Your Tango notes, he eventually ran into Williams again — she was single, but he wasn’t, so once again they didn’t connect.
Two years after that, they reconnected and finally started dating, and four years later, in 1995 they got married in a medieval-themed beachside Malibu wedding. According to Good Housekeeping, the couple started a family in the early 2000s. Daughter Sophia was born in 2001, and son Dante arrived in 2004.
Christopher Meloni's got a knack for chess and comedy
Because Christopher Meloni came to fame for his roles on the very serious Law and Order: SVU and Oz, his comic skills were a revelation in the 2001 cult classic Wet Hot American Summer. Set in 1981 at a summer camp, Meloni portrayed Gene, the head cook who blurts out his odd proclivities, such as his need to manhandle sweaters and to get intimate with a fridge. Meloni’s Wet Hot American Summer co-stars are a who’s who of comedy cool kids of the 21st century, including Amy Poehler, Paul Rudd, and David Wain and Michael Showalter, who co-wrote the film after collaborating on the MTV sketch series The State. Meloni would reprise his role in two Wet Hot American Summer spinoffs and appear in Wain and Showalter’s 2014 rom-com They Came Together, and it was all thanks to (or in spite of) a chance meeting in New York.
“I knew Michael Showalter through a chess shop. It was called The Chess Shop,” Meloni told Vulture. “I used to go play chess there, and he and I played chess a few times, but I didn’t know his name or anything.” Meloni then went and auditioned for Wet Hot American Summer, only to come face to face with Showalter, whom he didn’t know was a filmmaker. “I remember walking in the room, and I saw Michael, and was like, ‘Oh s***. I wish I hadn’t beaten him in chess.”
Money matters led to Christopher Meloni's Law and Order: SVU exit
Christopher Meloni played the highly emotional, empathetic, and often angry New York City detective Elliot Stabler on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit for 12 seasons. Alongside Mariska Hargitay as his equally devoted garner Olivia Benson, Stabler took down dozens of New York’s most reprehensible criminals. But then, at the beginning of the show’s thirteenth season in the fall of 2011, Law and Order: Special Victims Unit viewers learned that Detective Stabler had retired, off-screen, following his sixth shooting in the line of the duty.
Twelve years playing one character makes for one of the longest tenures in dramatic TV history, but Meloni wasn’t necessarily ready to move on to the roles. According to TV Line, Meloni and SVU production company NBC Universal entered contract renegotiations in the spring of 2011. The parties couldn’t come to an agreement on how much Meloni should be paid moving forward — according to Vulture, producers offered Meloni $8 million for one season, which would have represented a pay cut from his previous season’s payment of nearly $9 million. And so, Meloni left the show, requiring writers to explain his sudden absence. At least there didn’t seem to be any hard feelings. About 10 years after his departure, Meloni returned to play Stabler once more, starring in the 2021 spinoff Law and Order: Organized Crime.
Are Christopher Meloni and Mariska Hargitay friends?
In the canon of great TV cop pairs, Law and Order: Special Victims Unit‘s central team of Elliot Stabler and Olivia Benson are right up there with Starsky and Hutch and Cagney and Lacey. The actors who have played those roles over hundreds of hours of television, Christopher Meloni and Mariska Hargitay, have an easy rapport and infectious chemistry that, according to People, was evident from their first auditions, and it has informed their off-screen relationship. Meloni and his wife, Sherman Williams, asked Harigtay to be their daughter’s godmother, and he also knew she’d marry her future husband before she did. Hargitay came to the SVU set one day, devastated after breaking up with partner Peter Hermann. “And she’s sobbing, and the whole time, the bubble in my head was just: ‘You’ll be married within five months,'” Meloni recalled to People.
Meloni and Hargitay were well aware of the often intense pressure from SVU fans for their characters, partners on the job, to become romantically or physically involved, too. Meloni was dead set against that ever happening, telling Inside the Actors Studio (via The Hollywood Reporter) that he and his castmates “always knew it would have been the death knell of that relationship,” and that to ensure the show stayed watchable and full of life, they’d have to “keep the tension, never cross it.”
Even after Meloni left SVU, he and Harigtay stayed tight. He publicly supports her anti-domestic violence organization, Joyful Heart.
Christopher Meloni bought a piece of TV history
Christoper Meloni only played an underpaid public servant, husband, and father struggling to make ends meet on television. He portrayed NYPD detective Elliot Stabler on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit for more than 270 episodes between 1999 and 2011. Shortly before he left the series, according to TV Guide, Meloni was one of the top three highest-paid dramatic actors on TV, earning $395,000 per episode. That’s a substantial weekly salary, and that doesn’t even count all the residuals Meloni has raked in from Law and Order: SVU reruns airing on numerous local stations, cable networks, and streaming platforms. All that money adds up, and according to Celebrity Net Worth, Meloni has an estate and accounts that total somewhere in the area of $30 million.
While Meloni does give some of that money back to the world — he’s supported charities including Smile Train, the Human Rights Campaign, and the Alzheimer’s Association, according to Look to the Stars — he’s also willing to blow a big wad of cash on a whimsical purchase.
In 2014, according to Variety, Meloni and wife Sherman Williams, a production designer, spent $5.25 million on a relatively modest, five-bedroom Los Angeles house that was once the home of married 1950s sitcom stars Ozzie and Harriet Nelson of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. It was also the house used for exterior shots of the home of agent Ari Gold (Jeremy Piven) on Entourage.
Christopher Meloni got behind his viral rear end
Just after the April 2021 premiere of Christopher Meloni’s latest TV series, Law and Order: Organized Crime, the actor went viral. Or, rather, part of the actor did, for photographs captured while he was filming in the Park Slope area of Brooklyn, New York. According to Twitter user Peter Hess, someone in the neighborhood’s Facebook group shared a picture of Meloni in which the actor’s rear-end looks very large and prominent. Hess shared the picture to Twitter, where it racked up more than 30,000 likes and 6,000 retweets.
Another Twitter user, @ceressfs, wanted to know exactly why the tight-pantsed Meloni’s junk in the trunk appeared so distinctive, and she took her questions to the man himself, asking the actor, “you wanna explain why you have so much cake???” Meloni, showing that he’s a good sport or at least not ashamed of a viral butt picture, replied, “Sure- big birthday (60), big boy (200 lbs), big cake.” That quip made the incident go even more viral, garnering more than 63,000 likes and 7,000 retweets.
Soaring keeps Christopher Meloni's life far from boring
After leaving Law and Order: Special Victims Unit in 2011 and freeing himself of the grind of shooting an hour-long weekly drama series, Christopher Meloni had a lot more time on his hands. He joined the cast of True Blood for a spell as Roman, a 500-year-old vampire authority figure, and took on some projects and hobbies. According to Vulture, he’s stayed busy working on an adaptation of David Vann’s Alaskan story collection Legend of a Suicide and flying planes. According to Aviation International News, this particular celebrity pilot was fostered in his pursuit by the most well-known of all celebrity pilots, John Travolta, who apparently got Meloni “hooked on flying.”
Meloni told Flight Training in 2015 that he took up piloting just before he turned 50 years old. By the time he was 53, he’d already logged 765 flight hours in an Eclipse 500, a small plane he owned. As Vulture noted, that time included a big undertaking: a successful, 15-hour solo flight from coast-to-coast. Sounds like his time as a pilot has been a runway success.
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