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.
In the Season 1 episode "The Violence of Summer," Samuel L. Jackson plays defense attorney Louis Taggert.
Jackson had been working steadily for years prior to his guest stint on Law & Order; he was already a Spike Lee regular, having appeared in Do the Right Thing, Mo' Better Blues, and Jungle Fever. However, he was still waiting for his breakout role, and even a large part in 1993's mega-hit Jurassic Park didn't quite put him over. Stardom finally came in 1994 with Quentin Tarantino's indie blockbuster Pulp Fiction. Jackson played cool henchman Jules Winnfield, earning his sole Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Jackson has accumulated nearly 200 professional credits, most of them on the big screen. Other memorable roles came in the Star Wars prequel trilogy, Unbreakable, Shaft, Coach Carter, The Hateful Eight, and Django Unchained.
- Age: 72
- Birthplace: Washington, D.C., United States of America
- Characters: Ned, Larry, Louis Taggert, Gin Rummy, Walter Harper
Philip Seymour Hoffman got his first official acting credit in the 1991 episode "The Violence of Summer." He played Steven Hanauer, a young man accused of forcing himself on a female reporter. Most of Hanauer's scenes take place during his arraignment dates in court. He is angry and animated. The detectives are able to trick Hanauer into pointing the finger at one of the other two men involved in the heinous act.
The Academy Award-winning actor, widely acclaimed as one of the best of his generation, passed at the age of 46. He had amassed a career filled with dozens of lead and supporting roles. One of the first roles that brought Hoffman breakout success was in Paul Thomas Anderson's 1997 film Boogie Nights. He won the Academy Award for Best Actor in 2005 for his portrayal of Truman Capote in the film Capote. A few of Hoffman's other memorable films include Punch-Drunk Love, Magnolia, Charlie Wilson's War, The Hunger Games movies, The Master, and Doubt.
- Age: Dec. at 46 (1967-2014)
- Birthplace: Fairport, New York, United States of America
- Characters: Joseph Martin, Steven B. Hanauer
Chadwick Boseman plays ruthless dealer Foster Keyes in the Season 14 episode "Can I Get a Witness?" In the 2004 installment, a young boy's life is taken in the park. There are two witnesses to the act; however, Keyes threatens the witnesses to stay quiet. One of the witnesses is later offed.
Following his stint on Law & Order, Boseman made guest appearances on several shows, including CSI: NY, Justified, Cold Case, and ER. The actor played baseball legend Jackie Robinson in the 2013 biopic Jackie. Most people know Boseman for his part in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as T-Challa, the king of Wakanda, in Black Panther and the Avengers series.
Boseman passed from colon cancer in August 2020 at age 43.
- Age: 37
- Birthplace: Anderson, South Carolina, United States of America
- Characters: Jackie Robinson
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
- Characters: Charles Miner