Whatever Dick Wolf touches seems to turn to gold, starting with his prolific series, "Law & Order." But as NBC kept throwing episode orders at the mega-producer, he found that he had another pair of aces: Mariska Hargitay and Christopher Meloni. The two, who would become synonymous with the phrase "will-they-won't-they," are police partners that still have viewers on the hook after two decades. And while it's hard to imagine a world without them, there was a time when Meloni and Hargitay were auditioning for "Law & Order: SVU" just like any other regular actors.
At a panel for PaleyFest, both Wolf and Hargitay remembered the early days before Elliot Stabler and Olivia Benson set the procedural world on fire. Hargitay was set to audition with three other male leads in a chemistry test, one of whom she thought was John Slattery. When she saw the only male in the room, who she thought was Slattery, she greeted him exuberantly.
"I went up to Chris [Meloni], I said: 'Slattery!'" Hargitay recalled. "And he goes: 'Meloni!'" This first encounter would be a precursor to the working relationship the two would have off and on for the next 20 years. But they weren't the only ones who were feeling the sparks. Their instant connection was also obvious to Wolf in the casting room.
The round of chemistry reads seemed to do their trick because when Mariska Hargitay and Christopher Meloni met, Dick Wolf recalled that it made the reason for casting obsolete. Wolf reminded his lead actor that she was meant to continue the audition with the remaining potential leads.
"Then what happened?" Hargitay asked during the panel. "Why didn't you do that?"
"Because... why would I do that?" Wolf replied honestly. The PaleyFest moderator concisely surmised that the moment the two walked in, there was no point in auditioning anyone else. The chemistry between Hargitay and Meloni was obvious. Hargitay agreed, saying: "There was an explosion that happened."
That explosion continued on and off for the entirety of the show. Stabler and Benson became a staple of the series with his hot-headed need for justice and her resolute empathy for the victims. Even when Meloni left "SVU" for a cool decade, the dynamic between the two characters remained iconic. Fans yearned for the intimate dynamic between the police partners to come to fruition, and now with Meloni onboard for "Law & Order: Organized Crime," that dream remains alive. Without that initial batch of chemistry reads, it's doubtful "SVU" would be the show we know and love.
"There are some times you just know," Wolf said during the panel. "And you've got to be really stupid not to act on a group think. There was no question."