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NBC Insider Law & Order: Special Victims Unit

Which Law & Order Cast Members Played Multiple Characters in the Franchise?

Several beloved actors on the series got their starts as guest stars in earlier seasons or on other shows.

By Jessica White

Between Law & Order: Special Victims UnitLaw & Order: Organized Crime, and the many other spin-offs created throughout the years, the Law & Order franchise has helped launch the careers of many actors.  

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Often, that's taken form in these actors playing multiple characters across the shows. Cynthia Nixon, for example, has played three different characters in the Law & Order universe. David Harbour has taken on five different roleswithin the franchise, ranging from nefarious foes to helpful consultants.

RELATED: Celebrities Who Appeared on Law & Order Before They Were Famous

What's even more interesting, though, is when Law & Order showcases these guest stars and later gives them brand new main cast roles — and it's actually happened more times than you think. The Law & Order universe boasts some chameleonic talent, proven in full force by the kaleidoscope of characters played by these cast members before they joined the big leagues. 

Law & Order creator Dick Wolf is meticulous when casting, so it's no wonder he often grants large parts to those he has already seen deliver a dynamite performance. They've proven they thrive in the limelight before, so why not give them a brighter spotlight? 

RELATED: 25 Celebrities Who Guest Starred On Law & Order: SVU

"I am very involved in all principal casting for my shows. I consider principal casting to be extremely important," Wolf told Backstage in 2019. "The proper casting can make or break a show. I want actors to understand the character they are playing and to show some depth." 

Below, read about eight Law & Order cast members who had smaller roles in the franchise before landing their big dun-duns

Camryn Manheim

Main cast: Law & Order (2022-present) 

Previous appearances: Law & Order (1991, 1993, 1994) 

Lt. Kate Dixon on Law and Order

Fans may know Camryn Manheim as Lieutenant Kate Dixon in the flagship series but, before becoming a regular, she played three different characters on the show.

Manheim first guest-starred as a woman named Leila in Season 1, Episode 12 ("Life Choice) in 1991. Two years later, she appeared as Martha Rollins in Season 3, Episode 22 ("Benevolence"), and, in 1994, guest starred for the third time as Beatrice Hines in Season 4, Episode 20 ("Nurture"), which you can watch below.


Diane Neal

Main cast: SVU (2003-2008) 

Previous appearances: SVU (2005) 

Diane Neal as A.D.A. Casey Novak

Fans loved Diane Neal as Assistant District Attorney Casey Novak from Seasons 5-9 of SVU. Viewers loved her so much that she returned in Seasons 12 and 13 alongside former ADA Alex Cabot (Stephanie March)

RELATED: The Scariest Villains on Law & Order: Organized Crime 

But eagle-eyed fans may know that before Neal played Novak, she appeared in SVU Season 3, Episode 10 ("Ridicule") as a convicted murderer named Amelia Chase.  

Anthony Anderson

Main cast: Law & Order (2008-2022

Previous appearances: SVU (2006)

Det. Kevin Bernard (Anthony Anderson) in a scene from Law & Order.

Anthony Anderson played Law & Order Detective Kevin Bernard for many years but, before his days of busting criminal butt with District Attorney Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston), he appeared in an episode of SVU.

RELATED: 11 Law & Order: SVU Villains Fans Are Still Terrified Of

Two years before jumping on the flagship series, Anderson played Detective Lucius Blaine in Season 7's "Fat" as a temporary partner for Elliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni) while Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) was away. Lucius was responsible for bringing us the hilarious line, directed to Stabler of all people: "Forgot I was dealing with Detective Sensitive."

Kelli Giddish

Main cast: SVU (2012—2023) 

Previous appearances: SVU (2007), Criminal Intent (2007)

It was hard bidding farewell to Kelli Giddish as longtime SVU fan favorite Amanda Rollins in Season 24.

But before Rollins was interrogating suspects in the hot seat, Giddish played a special victim named Kara Bawson in Season 8, Episode 12 ("Outsider"), as seen about. The same year, Giddish took her talent to Criminal Intent, playing murder suspect Dana Stipe in Season 7, Episode 5 ("Depths"). 

Raúl Esparza

Main cast: SVU (2012-2018) 

Previous appearances: Criminal Intent (2009), Law & Order (2010) 

Counselor Rafael Barba in a scene from Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.

Raúl Esparza is another SVU fan favorite who got his start as a minor character before breaking out as the tenacious SVU attorney Rafael Barba.

RELATED: Everything to Know About the Law & Order Theme Song 

Before starring as the witty ADA from Seasons 14-21 of SVU, Esparza guest-starred in Criminal Intent Season 8, Episode 11 ("Lady's Man") as ADA Kevin Mulrooney in 2009. The next year, he played Dennis Di Palma in Law & Order Season 20, Episode 12 ("Blackmail"). 

S. Epatha Merkerson

Main cast: Law & Order (1993-2010) 

Previous appearances: Law & Order (1991) 

In recent years, S. Epatha Merkerson has been lighting up the screen fas Chicago Med's Sharon Goodwin, but we all remember her as the iconic Lieutenant Anita Van Buren in the flagship Law & Order.

RELATED: Who Was in the Original Law & Order Cast in Season 1? 

Before that role, though, Merkerson appeared in Season 1, Episode 17 ("Mushrooms") as the mother of a victim named Denise Winters. Two years later, Merkerson took on Van Buren as a regular cast member, and the rest is Law & Order history

Jerry Orbach

Main cast: Law & Order (1992-2004) 

Previous appearances: Law & Order (1991) 

The late Jerry Orbach played the sardonic Detective Lennie Briscoe from Seasons 3-14 of Law & Order and, while fans loved his wit, it wasn't the first time he graced the series with his deadpan humor.

A year before landing the role of Briscoe, Orbach guest-starred in Season 2, Episode 2 ("The Wages of Love") as defense attorney Frank Lehrman.   

Peter Scanavino

Main cast: SVU (2014-present) 

Previous appearances: Law & Order: Trial by Jury (2005), Criminal Intent (2005), Law & Order (2009), SVU (2013) 

A.D.A Sonny Carisi on SVU

Before Peter Scanavino played Rollins' husband and SVU Detective-turned Assistant District Attorney  Sonny Carisi, he was one of the most seasoned guest stars of the Law & Order franchise, having played four different characters across four different shows.  

RELATED: A Look Back at Rollins and Carisi's Heartwarming SVU Love Story 

Before becoming a series regular on SVU in 2014, Scanavino played Johnny Dubcek in Season 14, Episode 13 ("Monster's Legacy") in 2013.

Prior to that, Scanavino had already appeared as Robert Hassel in Law & Order: Trial by Jury Season 1, Episode 12 ("Boys Will Be Boys"), and as Johnny Feist in Criminal Intent Season 5, Episode 2 ("Diamond Dogs") — both in 2005. In 2009, he guest starred as Jim Anderson in the flagship Law & Order's Season 20, Episode 2 ("Just a Girl in the World").