The great thing about Law & Order is, it’s always on. At some point in the day you can find an episode of the various series to watch. Whether you’ve seen it a million times and already know who the bad guy is, or you stumble across an episode you’ve somehow missed and get hooked by the opening -- the “ripped from the headlines” element keeps it fresh. Obviously, cop shows aren’t new, but we can all agree it’s the grandfather of the modern TV procedural. Every police show that has premiered since Law & Order hit the airwaves has been copying its formula. The really fun thing about the franchise is discovering previously missed performances from your favorite actors. Sometimes it’s their first real acting job, other times they’ve guest starred as a lawyer or criminal. No matter the case, it’s endlessly enjoyable to see how they fare in the long running franchise.
Since the original Law & Order debuted in 1990, it has spawned several spinoffs including, Special Victims Unit, Criminal Intent, Trial by Jury, LA, True Crime and the upcoming Hate Crimes. With that kind of longevity it makes sense that there is considerable overlap with another big franchise: the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Before they joined the MCU, stars like Vincent D’Onofrio and Benjamin Bratt were most well known for their Law & Order characters. Other familiar MCU faces like Jeff Goldblum and Terrence Howard were regulars on a spinoff. Law & Order is such a giant part of pop culture, we thought it would be fun to take a look at 25 MCU actors who have appeared on one or more of the series. Dun dun!
25 TY SIMPKINS - CRIMINAL INTENT
In the world of Law & Order, kids fall into three categories. They’re either a victim, the child of the victim or a creepy perpetrator. In one of his earliest parts, Ty Simpkins played the son of the victim in the Criminal Intent episode “Ex-Stasis.” Honestly, there’s not much to say about his role, as he’s just a little boy.
Child stars who’ve appeared on Law & Order before they were famous could be whole different list. Though this was one of his first jobs, it led to roles in War of the Worlds, Revolutionary Road and Insidious.
24 COLM FEORE - SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT
What makes SVU so real and so hard to watch at times is that the bad guys aren’t always strangers in an alley. Often times they’re powerful people who are recognizable from the news. In the Season 12 episode “Flight,” Colm Feore is chilling as a billionaire accused of assault.
He plays the outwardly charming rich guy with the underlying evil personality to perfection. This is a regular character on SVU, but Feore’s performance does manage to stand out among all the show’s villains.
23 KRYSTEN RITTER - LAW & ORDER
In one of her earliest TV jobs, Krysten Ritter had a quick scene as the assistant of the victim in the episode “Everybody Loves Raimondo’s.” She’s there to confirm whether her boss was having problems with the suspect. Her captivating personality is on display here, but it’s such a short moment, there’s not much for her to work with.
This is one those appearances that inevitably ends up on a before they were stars photo gallery. Shortly after this role, she went on to join Veronica Mars and Gilmore Girls, so clearly her work impressed the right people.
22 CLARK GREGG - LAW & ORDER
Long before he was super spy Phil Coulson, one of Clark Gregg’s earliest and smallest parts was in the Season 1 episode “Life Choice.” He played Patrick Dunne, the boyfriend of a woman lost in a bombing.
As usual, he’s a suspect for a few minutes, but of course there’s a twist, He’s used as a momentary red herring before police find the real culprits. Marvel fans will love catching the always great Gregg before he became the Director of S.H.I.E.L.D.
21 ZOE SALDANA - LAW & ORDER, SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT
In her first ever on-screen job, Zoe Saldana had an uncredited role in the Season 10 episode “Merger.” She had one scene that wasn’t very memorable, but clearly impressed someone, as she made her big screen debut in Center Stage shortly after.
With her movie career beginning to take off, she returned for the SVU episode “Criminal.” This time she was given much more to do as the daughter of an ex-convict who once again comes under suspension. She adds an extra level of emotional weight to every scene, the same way she does as Gamora.
20 EMILY VANCAMP - SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT
A character that pops up a lot on all the Law & Orders, especially SVU, is the spoiled rich kid who may or may not have committed a crime. Emily VanCamp takes her shot at the role in Season 8's “Dependent.”
She’s a girl whose drug problems are so severe, she doesn’t remember whether she was involved in attacking her parents. Ultimately, she’s proven innocent, but VanCamp’s unpredictable performance keeps viewers guessing until the big reveal. Right up until the moment her innocence is established, there’s no hints at which way things are going.
19 WINSTON DUKE - SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT
Over the years SVU has done several episodes on assault on college campuses. In “Gridiron Soldier” a young football player is arrested for assault, leading to a disturbing history of horrible incidents at a college football team. The story is unfortunately familiar.
Winston Duke’s heartbreaking turn from denial to anger to despair is so moving it’s hard to watch. Though everyone involved is eventually arrested, there’s no real justice for Duke’s character, which is the devastatingly real part of watching SVU.
18 FRANK GRILLO - SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT
Frank Grillo has made a career out of portraying tough guys, so we would be surprised if he didn’t make this list. Grillo did two stints on SVU, once as a co-conspirator in “Deception.” and later as a victim in “Transitions.”
What sets Grillo apart from other action stars is his ability to make each character interesting, while bringing humanity to his performances. He uses this quality in both his appearances, creating memorable moments with his short amount of screen time.
17 SEBASTIAN STAN - LAW & ORDER
In his first big acting job, the Winter Soldier himself Sebastian Stan was the rare character that is simultaneously the bad guy and the victim. “Sheltered” is based on the case of the DC sniper and features Stan as the son of the suspected shooter, played by another MCU actor, Ty Burrell.
In a classic Law & Order twist, his character Justin Capshaw is revealed to be a victim who continues his father’s crimes so they won’t be separated. Stan is at once heartbreaking, cold and calculating, perhaps foreshadowing his future work as a hero turned villain.
16 MICHAEL ROOKER - LAW & ORDER
Michael Rooker has had such a long, impressive career, it’s no surprise that he’s guest starred on Law & Order. In a particularly chilling Season 18 episode “Executioner,” Rooker plays the suspect in the mistaken identity crime. It turns out he was actually after the doctor who presided over his brother’s execution.
Rooker is unquestioningly the perpetrator, but is also a sympathetic character who ultimately is painted with more humanity than the doctor he wanted to harm. It’s his performance that makes this a particularly emotionally brutal episode.
15 SAMUEL L. JACKSON - LAW & ORDER
Samuel L. Jackson has been in pretty much everything, so obviously there would be an episode of Law & Order on his resume. In the Season 1 episode “The Violence of Summer,” Jackson is the lawyer for the main suspect in an assault case. Like many early episodes, this one is rough to watch, as the victim is not treated with the care and respect she deserves.
However, Jackson still manages to steal every scene in an otherwise uncomfortable hour. It’s a nuanced performance that showcases how Jackson is able to adjust his very specific charm for each role.
14 NEAL MCDONOUGH - CRIMINAL INTENT
If you need a menacing villain full of evil, but somehow still charming, Neal McDonough is who you cast. Anyone who’s seen him in Legends of Tomorrow or Justified can attest to this. Admit it, the minute he shows up on-screen, you already don’t trust him.
In the final season of Criminal Intent, McDonough played Monsignor McTeal in the episode “The Consoler.” Despite his seemingly selfless nature, history told us this guy was bad news. The actor gave his usual layered performance, where every moment is packed with several emotions, but we still wanted him to get caught.
13 MING-NA - SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT
There are some episodes of SVU that are just difficult to get through. The Season 6 episode “Debt” is certainly on that list. It revolves around the search for a human trafficking ring. Ming-Na plays Li Mei, a woman looking for her daughter, who has been taken.
The actress is fantastic as a mother willing to do anything to help her child, while also racked with guilt, as she feels responsible for her daughter’s situation. She was the big name guest star who brings in viewers to an important story, and she was amazing. It’s one of the series’ best.
12 CHADWICK BOSEMAN - LAW & ORDER
Though his movie resume is filled with heroic roles, in the Season 14 episode “Can I Get A Witness?” the King of Wakanda plays feared drug dealer Foster Keyes, who leaves no witnesses.
Viewers who only know Boseman from his movie work may be surprised to see him play such a cold blooded character, but it just shows his range and potential at this early stage in his career. TV producers must have been impressed with his performance, because after this the actor made the procedural rounds, appearing on CSI: NY, Cold Case, Lie to Me and Castle.
11 HENRY SIMMONS - SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT
A Season 16 episode stars Henry Simmons as a famous athlete falsely accused of assaulting several women. It seems very open and shut, until the squad uncovers a deeper, more sinister plot.
In typical Law & Order fashion, there are twists that lead to a heartbreaking, unexpected conclusion. Simmons maintains the stoic demeanor we know him for, and is great as he reveals just how much these lies have cost him. He never goes over the top, because Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. fans know its Simmons’ quiet strength that makes him so charismatic.
10 SAM ROCKWELL - LAW & ORDER
Before he was Tony Stark’s competitor, Sam Rockwell got his start in two very early episodes of Law & Order. He had a small part in the season two episode “Intolerance,” then came back a few years later for “Manhood,” where as a more experienced actor he was given a much meatier role.
What fans love about Rockwell is his unpredictable nature and his range. As a viewer you never know what to expect from his performances. While his first appearance shows no signs of his bright future, his second time around is full of potential.
9 IDRIS ELBA - LAW & ORDER
Before the world got to know Idris Elba as Stringer Bell, he had a small part in the Season 15 episode “3 Dawg Night". In one of the series’ infamous “ripped from the headlines” stories, Elba plays a nightclub owner who is a possible witness against a famous rapper.
This was his first major American television role, so it wasn’t huge. However, in the Law & Order world, he’s important, as he’s the pivotal witness that breaks the case open for the cops. His scenes may be short, but his star power is obvious.
8 JOHN SLATTERY - LAW & ORDER
We’re pretty sure there’s no TV show John Slattery hasn’t guest starred on. Seriously, check his credits, he’s been in everything. Clearly, it’s not surprisng that he’s appeared in two separate episodes of Law & Order. In Season 8’s “Tabloid” he’s the lawyer for a famous man accused of taking out a tabloid reporter.
He came back a few years later as a suspicious doctor in season 10’s “Stiff.” As we’ve seen in Mad Men and as Howard Stark, Slattery excels as the charming man who you know is bad news, which means he fits right in on Law & Order.
7 MICHAEL B. JORDAN - CRIMINAL INTENT
In a case of art imitating art, Michael B. Jordan plays a young boxer trying to get his life back on track in the season nine episode “Inhumane Society.” When two of his childhood friends are eliminated, it’s clear the motive has something to do with him.
By this point in his career Jordan was already an established TV star on The Wire and Friday Night Lights, so it’s no surprise that he outshines his older, more experienced co-stars. The boxing scenes are what make this an interesting episode, as we can see hints at what’s to come.
6 MAHERSHALA ALI - SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT
SVU episodes don’t come more heart wrenching than the season 11 premiere “Unstable.” While investigating an assault, detectives link it to a previous case. During the investigation, Stabler discovers that he arrested the wrong man and he’s been in prison for 25 years.
Mahershala Ali plays the real culprit. He displays a level of evil we’ve never seen from him. Even as Cottonmouth, he wasn’t this vile. He’s downright scary and brilliant. He’s so memorable, this is one of those episodes you can only get through once.
5 BRADLEY COOPER - SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT, TRIAL BY JURY
Before he became a huge movie star, Bradley Cooper was known for the TV series Alias, Jack & Bobby and Kitchen Confidential. For a franchise with so many series, there’s a surprising lack of crossovers. However, Cooper played the lawyer to a rich family accused of attacking undocumented immigrants in a two parter of SVU and Trial by Jury.
At this point, he had mainly been seen as the good guy, so his work as the slimy lawyer was quite surprising. Of course, it’s obvious now how good he is, but this is where we get hints of his range.
4 MUSTAFA SHAKIR - LAW & ORDER
In addition to his amazing portrayal of Luke Cage’s Bushmaster, Mustafa Shakir’s TV credits include a long list of procedurals, including two stints on Law & Order. First in season 12’s “3 Dawg Night.” Then, in season 15’s “Gunplay.”
It’s an unfortunate aspect of the series that actors of color often play the criminals or their associates, and that’s who Shakir ended up portraying in both his episodes. Despite his talent, it’s hard to see a distinction between his two characters.
3 DANAI GURIRA - LAW & ORDER, CRIMINAL INTENT
No matter who she's playing, Danai Gurira always commands the screen. This is true as Michonne, Okoye and Courtney Owens in the season 20 Law & Order episode “Fed.” The man she's seeing gets her wrapped up in a scandal, but when push comes to shove she takes care of herself.
It’s a long running joke that every stage actor in New York has appeared in one of the series at some point, so it makes sense that Gurira would be one of the many to have her screen debut in the franchise Criminal Intent episode “Inert Dwarf.”
2 WILLIAM SADLER - CRIMINAL INTENT, TRIAL BY JURY, LAW & ORDER
William Sadler is one of the most recognizable faces in movies and TV, which means he’s not only been in one show, he’s been in three. The actor has appeared in the Criminal Intent episode “Granshaa,” Trial by Jury’s “Blue Wall” and the Law & Order episode “Lifeline.”
It’s not unheard of for actors to show up in the various series, but three is a magic number. Sadler has played the father of a victim and a witness. These are just more examples of why Marvel chose him to be the president of their universe.
1 MIKE COLTER - TRIAL BY JURY, CRIMINAL INTENT, SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT
Mike Colter is so good at playing the hero in Luke Cage, it’s hard to imagine him as such an evil character, but that’s exactly what he plays in the SVU episode “Hell.” It’s a truly scary performance, showcasing the range of one of the nicest actors in Hollywood.
He also appeared alongside William Sadler in the Trial by Jury episode “Blue Wall,” and in the Criminal Intent episode “Albatross. What makes his trifecta so unique is that he did it without guest starring on the mothership series.