Arts & Entertainment

'Law & Order: SVU's' guest actresses get Emmy's attention

Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (tv program)VehiclesLiteratureArts and CultureDrama (genre)Academy AwardsElizabeth Mitchell

"We were writing a story for Chris Meloni's character's mother, and she was going to be bipolar. Immediately we thought Ellen Burstyn."

So began Neal Baer's wooing of the Oscar-winning Burstyn to the set of "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit." "We had lunch with her," he continues, "and it was kind of a date. It's a big deal to have them trust you. We told her about the part, and I said, 'You'll be on a beach and flip out,' and she said, 'Down and dirty?' and I said, 'As down and dirty as you like.'"

"I'd never had anybody say they wanted to write a script for me," Burstyn recalls. "We agreed that if I liked the script, we'd do it."

Another successful match achieved: Burstyn won her only Emmy — for outstanding guest actress in a drama series — for the role.

But Burstyn's win is no outlier. Show runner Baer has had a knack for pairing guest actresses and Emmys: Since 2005, the show has won every trophy in the category, save for 2006 — the year that star Mariska Hargitay won for lead actress in a drama. It's a nice streak for a show that, after 12 years on the air, largely passes under the radar. In some ways the victories have set the tone for how the series has been aging.

"Aging" being a key word. Those past winners: Amanda Plummer (2005), Leslie Caron (2007), Cynthia Nixon (2008), Burstyn (2009) and Ann-Margret (2010) may not all be eligible for AARP membership, but they're no ingénues either. The canny move of bringing on a beloved — if somewhat undervalued or retiring — actress and giving her a role she can sink her teeth into on a short-term basis has proved to be catnip for a number of otherwise TV-shy names.

"People ask, 'How do you get those people?' and the answer is, 'Well, we pitched ideas,'" Baer says. "Then it's like a prairie fire. Once you get a couple of notable people, then others want to join."

"Everybody uses famous guest stars now, but I think 'SVU' has been a pioneer in this regard," says Susan Green, co-author (with this writer) of "The 'Law & Order: SVU' Unofficial Companion." "There's only so much angst the regular stars can have — how many times can Mariska melt down or Chris have an anger issue? And it's great for publicity; there's a curiosity that comes with a million fans from yesteryear."

The slew of Emmy wins is a small part of Baer's pitch to actresses — at least it was in Christine Lahti's case. Lahti appeared in several "SVU" episodes this past season as a drunken prosecutor and has been submitted by the show for nomination consideration.

"Neal mentioned it as part of the pitch," she recalls. "He said, 'Oh, by the way, this is a pretty good track record we have.'"

Selling the streak may bring 'em in, but not necessarily because they're expecting an Emmy. Oscar winner Marcia Gay Harden was nominated in 2007 and may be up again this year for the same recurring character, but she doesn't think even a victory would have much of an effect professionally.

"I don't know what effect any of these things have on your career at the end of the day," Harden says. "I think these things are won and then forgotten. But in some other way, the psyche recognizes that, yeah, this actor does great performances. For me, it would be genius because I would join a select group of people who had an Emmy, an Oscar and a Tony."

Instead, the roles themselves are the appeal. "They write characters that allow their actors to stretch, then give them the environment to do that," says Elizabeth Mitchell, who is being submitted this year for her work opposite Jeremy Irons. "The best thing you can give an actor is that opportunity, and they give you the tools to create."

Still, why the women and not the men? "SVU" has no actor Emmys in any category. Lahti has a theory: "'SVU' is one of the few crime dramas that skews female — and that has a lot to do with Mariska and the writers. I know Neal likes to write really strong women, and Mariska is such a strong role model."

But with a new regime stepping in — Baer exits the show at the end of this season — the guest actress trend may be in for a shake-up; the balance of overworked leads and heavy roles for guests is likely to be tested by a new show runner, and Hargitay is stepping back from her front-and-center position.

To Green, it might not be so bad if the celebrity guest star trend dials back a bit. "There are so many lesser-known actors who are equally talented and who have been on the show but haven't been nominated," she says. "There's something celebrity star-obsessed about this whole category. There's complicity between the show in hiring these people because they know they'll get attention and viewers … and the people who do the nominations, who don't have to look at up-and-coming names."

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