Though the situation was real, Hargitay—who managed things until paramedics arrived—admits her response was partly an act. "I am a huge chicken," she says. But playing Olivia "bucks me up. I can't be wimpy around her." Going on patrol with real NYPD cops while researching the role also gave her the confidence to handle an emergency. "Now I know [the] procedures."
"She is serious and thoughtful," says Dann Florek, who plays Hargitay's boss. But the 37-year-old actress, who on a whim will get up and dance to hip-hop while having her makeup applied, also has "this unbelievable energy," Florek says. "She can take over a room."
Chris Meloni, who plays her partner Det. Elliot Stabler, agrees. "She's the one who organizes everything." Last February Meloni and his wife, Sherman, then pregnant with now-8-month-old Sophia, were treated to a baby shower at Hargitay's 2,500-sq.-ft. Park Avenue apartment in New York City. "Oh my God, she went overboard!" he says, recalling the blown-up photographs of Sherman and him.
"It's important to her that she spends quality time with people who are close to her," says a pal, lifestyle guru Katie Brown, of the single, unattached Hargitay. "Maybe that's partially because her mom died so young."
Her mother, '50s screen siren Jayne Mansfield, was 34 when she was killed in a 1967 traffic accident after the car she was in collided with a truck in Louisiana. Mariska, then 3, was asleep in the backseat with two of her brothers, Mickey Jr. and Zoltan, from her mother's marriage to bodybuilder-actor Mickey Hargitay, whom she'd divorced three years earlier. All three children escaped unscathed, and Mariska (who also has a half-sister, Jayne Marie, from Mansfield's first marriage, and a half-brother, Octabiano, from her mother's third union) has no memory of the accident. Of her mother, "I'm so proud of everything that she did and represented," says Hargitay, who was raised by her father ("a levelheaded, salt-of-the-earth guy") and stepmother, Ellen Siano, a flight attendant. "She really loves it and is still doing it," says Hargitay of Siano.
After growing up in Los Angeles, Hargitay majored in theater at UCLA. It was the start of what she calls "an up-and-down journey" in show business. At 21, she left school just shy of graduation after landing her first series, 1986's Downtown, costarring future L.A. Lawyer Blair Underwood. "I thought, 'I made it!' And then you don't work again for four years." Worse for her self-esteem, "I was Jayne Mansfield's daughter—constantly."
She came into her own with a 1997-98 guest stint on ER as Dr. Mark Green's emotionally unstable single-mom girlfriend. Law & Order: SVU creator Dick Wolf tapped Hargitay for his spin-off in 1998. "She can be both funny and serious," he says, "but she looks believable carrying a gun."
She is quite serious about her new foundation, Spirit of the Dolphin, which she hopes will give abused children the chance to swim with dolphins in Hawaii. Her own encounter with the mammals while on vacation in late September "was the most amazing, healing experience," she says. Getting the chance to share it only increases Hargitay's contentment with her life. "Now is a good time," she says. "Now is a great time."
Michael A. Lipton
Mark Dagostino in New York City
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