The daughter of legendary sex symbol Jayne Mansfield and former Mr. Universe Mickey Hargitay, Mariska Hargitay appears born to play the type of larger-than-life roles that would make her a Hollywood idol. Instead, from her breakthrough performance as a vulnerable single mother on ER to her starring turn as a somber detective on Law & Order: SVU, the talented actress has built her career by portraying real-life characters and keeping out of the spotlight. Raised in Los Angeles, Hargitay was a child of divorce before she celebrated her first birthday. In 1967, her mother died tragically when her car collided with a truck outside of New Orleans. Hargitay, then only three years old, was asleep in the backseat of the vehicle, but escaped uninjured. Days later, she moved in with her father and stepmother, Ellen Siano, a flight attendant. Hargitay participated in scores of activities throughout grade school, including cheerleading, student government, and athletics. She also developed a passion for performing: at 18, after being crowned 1982's Miss Beverly Hills, she enrolled in the University of California at Los Angeles' prestigious undergraduate theater program. Hartigay began her professional acting career while she was still a student with a bit part in Bob Fosse's Dorothy Stratten biopic Star 80 (1983). In 1985, she appeared in the B-movie Ghoulies and agreed to portray a teenage parolee inCBS' short-lived series Downtown. Roles in the teen comedies Welcome to 18 (1986) and Jocks (1987) quickly followed. In 1988, the actress joined her dad in the biopic of his own career, Mr. Universe. That same year, Hargitay earned the recurring role of Carly Fixx on television's Falcon Crest.
The next several years found Hargitay acting in B-movies, such as a martial arts film called The Perfect Weapon (1991), and a handful of television films, such as Blind Side (1993) and Gambler V: Playing for Keeps (1994). She earned a small role in Mike Figgis's Leaving Las Vegas (1995) and replaced Gabrielle Fitzpatrick as Dulcea in Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie (1995), but her scenes were eventually re-shot with Fitzpatrick in the role. Throughout the late '80s and early '90s, Hargitay also appeared in numerous popular television shows -- In the Heat of the Night, Baywatch, Wiseguy, thirtysomething, Booker, Seinfeld, Ellen, The Single Guy -- and in quite a few failed series -- Tequila and Bonetti, Key West, Can't Hurry Love, Prince Street, and Cracker. In subsequent years, producer Dick Wolf tapped the actress for his Law & Order spin-off, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (1999). As NYPD Detective Olivia Benson, Hargitay became a familiar and a celebrated face: She earned several award nominations for her performance on the show, as she stuck with the popular show for over ten years.
In addition to working in film and television, Hargitay found time for the theater -- appearing on the Los Angeles stage in Salad Days, Women's Work, and Porno -- and read Rochelle Majer Krich's crime story Regrets Only on a mystery-themed audiobook. She also established her own charity, Spirit of the Dolphin, which gives abused children the chance to swim with dolphins in Hawaii. In 2007, Hargitay served as the National Ambassador for Lee National Denim Day to raise money and awareness for breast cancer. In terms of off-camera activity, Hargitay's successful pregnancy at the age of 42 (with her husband, SVU co-star Peter Hermann) made headlines as well.