You probably know Olivia Benson, the most recognizable face of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit for nearly two decades, but there are probably quite a few things you didn't know about Mariska Hargitay, the actor behind the character. There's quite a bit of overlap between the actress and her character, and Hargitay herself admits that her role on the show frequently bleeds into her real life (and vice-versa). There's even an academic paper about how Hargitay's real life and fictional character converge in the zeitgeist. But even before she was ever associated with the long-running procedural, her life had its own share of drama and tragedy.
Mariska Hargitay and her family members have had narrow brushes with death more than once. The earliest tragedy in her life resulted in the implementation of a brand-new federal law. She's worked alongside Joe Biden both in real life and as her television persona. And despite being one of the most well-known cops on TV, she has herself been in jail (and for the unlikeliest of offenses). These stories about Mariska Hargitay will make you feel so much more for Hargitay and all of the characters she saves on SVU.
She Was Present During The Tragic Crash That Killed Her Mother
Mariska Hargitay's mother was Hollywood actress Jayne Mansfield, a major star in the '50s and '60s who rivaled the popularity of Marilyn Monroe. In 1967, Mansfield and Mickey Hargitay (Mariska's father) were in a car that collided with a trailer truck, killing Mansfield as well as her driver Ronald Harrison and her lawyer Samuel Brody.
Mariska and two of her brothers were asleep in the back seat, and were miraculously spared. The crash was so tragic that it led to the requirement of underride bars on semi-trailers, which are also known by the name "Mansfield bars."
Her Mother's Death Left Her Profoundly Depressed Years Later
Because she was so young when her mother was killed, Hargitay's memories of her are fleeting, and she remembers nothing of the crash that took her life (although she does still bear a scar from it). It took years for Hargitay to fully feel the tragedy of her mother's death. When she did, at 22, she suffered from depression for months, one she made it through with the help of her siblings and her father.
She has referred to her mother's death as the scar of her soul, while adding that being a mother herself has made her feel closer to own her own mother, even this many years after her death.
Her Stepmother Was Nearly Killed Shortly After Her Birth Mother's Death
After Jayne Mansfield's death, Mariska's father, Mickey Hargitay, married a flight attendant named Ellen Siano. In her 2008 profile on E! True Hollywood Story, Mariska describes how she nearly lost a mother yet again only six years after losing her birth mother.
Siano was working on a flight to Los Angeles when the plane encountered turbulence so severe that it killed one passenger and four others had to be hospitalized. Siano was thrown from the floor to the ceiling 56 times.
She's Been A Tireless Advocate For Sexual Assault Survivors
Hargitay started the organization Joyful Heart in 2004. Her work on the show had exposed her to horrifying statistics about real-life sexual assault, and she wanted to do something real for the people who had written her about their actual experiences. She established Joyful Heart in Hawaii, but it soon developed into a national organization.
By 2017, 18,000 survivors of sexual assault had come to the organization for help, and it had raised nearly $200 million.