Over the course of Law & Order’s 20-year run, the NBC series became a breeding ground for up-and-coming actors. From Claire Danes to Kerry Washington to Adam Driver, you may just be surprised to see which brand-name actors appeared as guest stars on the NBC procedural before they were famous.
Because Law & Order featured a new case every week, the New York City-based police procedural required a lot of different actors to fill roles. If you were an actor who lived in New York City from 1990-2010, it's a fair bet you were able to make rent at least partly because of a guest spot on Dick Wolf’s popular series.
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Idris Elba appears in the Season 12 episode "3 Dawg Night." The 2001 installment was loosely based on the 1999 New York City night club shooting involving rapper/producer P. Diddy. Elba has a small part as a night club owner named Lonnie Liston, who becomes one of the investigation's suspects. Liston winds up providing information that helps the police find a major lead in the case.
The British actor's big breakout role as underworld kingpin Stringer Bell came the following year in the critically acclaimed HBO series The Wire. He would also star as the eponymous detective on BBC's Luther. Idris has been known to flex his comedy muscles in shows like The Big C and The Office. Elba also has dozens of big-screen credits, including American Gangster, Prometheus, and Molly's Game. The actor is also part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe of films, where he plays the warrior god Heimdall.
- Age: 49
- Birthplace: Hackney, England, UK
- Nationality: United Kingdom
- Characters: Charles Miner
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Zoe Saldana's very first official acting credit came in the 1999 Season 9 episode titled "Refuge." The actress has a small role in the two-part episode, playing a character named Belinca, who has a problem with her sister's husband. The main narrative centers on a 10-year-old who witnesses a Russian mob hit.
Saldana worked steadily over the next decade. Her big breakout role would not come until 2009 when she played Uhura in the rebooted Star Trek film series. Her next film would earn her even more acclaim: James Cameron cast Saldana (overlaid with a blue CGI makeover) as Neytiri in his sci-fi epic Avatar. The actress also played Gamora in the Guardians of the Galaxy MCU film series.
- Age: 43
- Birthplace: Passaic, New Jersey, USA
- Nationality: United States of America
- Characters: Belinca, Gabrielle Vega, Regina
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Adam Driver plays Robby Vickery, an awkward lab technician, in the Season 20 episode titled "Brilliant Disguise." Driver is the initial suspect in the case of a deceased medical student, who is later discovered to also have worked as an escort.
It didn't take long for Driver to become one of the most sought-after male actors in Hollywood. He had his breakout success in 2012 as Hannah's boyfriend in the seminal HBO dramedy Girls. He became a bonafide movie star when he took on the role of Darth Vader successor Kylo Ren in the Star Wars sequel trilogy. Driver has also flexed his dramatic muscles in films like Marriage Story, BlacKkKlansman, and Silence.
- Age: 38
- Birthplace: San Diego, California, USA
- Nationality: United States of America
- Characters: Adam Sackler
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Sam Rockwell plays Randy Borland in the Season 2 episode "Intolerance." In this 1992 installment, a Chinese American high school senior is ended after winning a science award. Randy's brother Carl, who was also being considered for the award, comes under suspicion. His mother makes it known that she thinks a white student should have won the award. Soon, Randy and both of his parents are suspects. A series of events leads to a mistrial, and the bad guys get away with their misdeed.
Apparently Rockwell made a good impression on Law and Order's producers, because he was back in a different role the following year. In the Season 3 episode "Manhood," Officer Newhouse is taken out by a dealer. It's later discovered that two police units did not arrive on the scene in a timely fashion for backup after being called. The detectives on the case determine that the backup did not report on time because Newhouse was gay.
In the episode, Rockwell plays Officer Weddeker. Interviewed by detectives, Weddeker confirms their suspicions that three other officers purposefully delayed helping Newhouse because of his orientation. They're each charged with the officer's demise.
Rockwell has been acting regularly since the 1980s. There were several times when it looked like the talented actor was going to finally take the next step from character actor to Hollywood star. The acclaim could have come following his role in the 2002 Chuck Barris biopic Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, or after his performances in Matchstick Men or Moon.
He finally received critical acclaim and mainstream success following his Oscar-winning performance in 2016's Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Rockwell would get another nod from the Academy the following year for his spot-on portrayal of George W. Bush in Vice. The actor also played Bob Fosse in the 2019 FX limited series Fosse/Verdon.Surprised?