Christopher Meloni, the star of Law & Order: Organized Crime, lived an upper-middle-class kind of life growing up in suburban Washington, D.C.
His father and grandfather were doctors. Meloni attended a prep school, then went on to college in Colorado.
But when he was approached by the PBS show Finding Your Roots, he gave them a relative’s name. He called it the “Adam and Eve” turning point in his family. What could the show’s researchers uncover about his great grandfather, Enrico Meloni? Enrico was the first Meloni in America. He sold olive oil on the streets of Boston to support his family.
The show found so many poignant details, overwhelming Meloni, the tough guy from Law & Order: Organized Crime.
Enrico was born in Velva, Italy. The village, which was nestled in the mountains, had a population of about 400 people. The show researchers found Enrico’s marriage license. But there were no parents listed on the document. So they dug a little deeper, looking for birth records in hospitals around the region. That’s when they uncovered key details about Enrico’s early life.
Enrico was an orphan. He arrived at the hospital via “the wheel.” Documents noted he was “wrapped in swaddling clothes and cotton rags.” Meloni then asked host Henry Gates to explain how a wheel related to birth records. Back in the day, you could find wooden cradles built into the outside walls of religious buildings. Parents could abandon their newborns there. The parent placed the baby in the cradle and would ring a bell, signaling for someone to pick up the the child. The parents never needed to reveal their identity. — The church took care of the infants. This option was the choice of the poorest of the poor.
Records indicated that a local nurse likely raised Enrico. She received money for his care until Enrico was 12. Then after that, Enrico was on his own. Gates said that it was a miracle that young Enrico could thrive in the United States after the circumstances of his childhood. Conversely, at age 12, the future star of Law & Order: Organized Crime was on his way to prep school.
Gates asked Meloni what it felt like, knowing that his ancestor likely was at the bottom of the economic social structure and still managed to find his way here.
“Aww man, that’s the school of hard knocks,” Meloni said.
“You see something like that, I’m sure almost everyone would react this way, Oh, I owe you a (long pause) debt.
Then Meloni paused again and wiped away tears. “Yep, I think that’s what those feelings are.”
The Finding Your Roots episode with Meloni and fellow actor Tony Shalhoub, ran in February, two months before the series premiere of Law & Order: Organized Crime. The show’s research also revealed that a branch of Meloni’s family tree was French Canadian. Plus, Meloni and Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, are distant relatives.
Law & Order: Organized Crime returns with a new episode, Dec. 9.