These ‘Law & Order’ Stars Guest Starred Before Landing Main Roles in Franchise

by Allison Hambrick
NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 21: (L-R) Actors Richard Belzer, Sam Waterston, Jesse L. Martin and Jerry Orbach attend the party for cast members of all three "Law & Order" shows, September 21, 2004 at One Little 12th Street restaurant in New York City. (Photo by Fernando Leon/Getty Images)

When a show is on the air as long as Law & Order, there are bound to be familiar guest stars—some may surprise even long-term fans. In fact, a number of series regulars started off on the show doing guest spots in different roles.

For example, current series newcomer Camryn Manheim started her small-screen career on Law & Order. Her first role was a guest appearance on the show’s debut season, and she appeared again in seasons three and four. This means that Manheim played three different roles in the series, with Dixon making four.

Excited for her new role, Manheim shared a post to her Instagram to celebrate. The actress captioned a photo of the announcement: “I am over the moon to be joining the cast of Law & Order as Lt. Kate Dixon. My very first job on television was on Law & Order, so it feels like I’m coming home. New York, here I come!”

However, Manheim is not the first series regular who started in a different role in the franchise. Even now-iconic Law & Order actor Jerry Orbach appeared prior to joining the main cast. He is far from the only one. Other cast members who started off as guest stars include Diane Neal, Tamara Tunie, Bebe Neuwirth, Kelli Giddish, Raul Esparza, Peter Scanavino, S. Epatha Merkerson, and Courtney B. Vance.

‘Law & Order’ Casts the Usual Suspects

Arguably considered the best lead in the original series’ long history, Orbach first appeared in a 1991 episode of Law & Order. Before he was Detective Lennie Briscoe, the Emmy nominee was “Frank Lehrmann.” As for the others, the list gets pretty long. Tunie first showed up on Law & Order in 1996 prior to joining the cast of its spinoff Law & Order: SVU four years later. Similarly, Tunie’s costar Diane Neal first appeared in an episode of SVU in 2001 before joining the cast in 2003.

Typically, most of these roles were one-offs. However, one cast member ended up joining the franchise because of a guest spot. Giddish initially guest-starred on Law & Order: Criminal Intent and SVU in the same year. Four years later, she scored another guest-starring role on SVU. Her character was not meant to return, but fans responded positively. SVU saw a large ratings boost, and so Giddish was added to the main cast.

Interestingly, Giddish traced back her history with the show far before her first appearance. As a teenager, she met SVU showrunner Warren Leight at a play development conference. This connection would later prove vital for the actress’s career.

“It’s so crazy because the seeds you sow when you’re trying to do acting,” Giddish said, “but you don’t know when they’re going to come into fruition, and this one happened to really come into bloom.”