With his steely blue eyes, sculpted Italian features and brawny physique, let’s just say actor Christopher Meloni (Hist’83) doesn’t have much to worry about in the looks department.
No, it’s no surprise that People magazine named the long-time star of television’s Law & Order: Special Victims Unit one of its Sexiest Men Alive in 2006. Whether he’s playing quarterbacks or psychopaths, cops or vampires, “hot” seems to be a common denominator — though there was this one time when his agent called…Aco
“He said, ‘I’ve got an offer for you. It’s four days of work and it will take you four hours of prosthetic makeup.’ That really intrigued me,” Meloni says by phone from Hollywood. “Then he said the character’s name was Freakshow and I was like, ‘That’s absolutely perfect, I don’t even need to read the script.’”
And so a Hollywood sex symbol came to play one of the most hideous film characters in recent memory, the dermatologically challenged, frazzle-haired, backwoods denizen in two over-the-top Harold and Kumar comedies.
Of course, nobody could tell it was Meloni under all that latex, and Freakshow is just one small — disgusting — data point in a career that includes not just success on network TV, but also on the big screen and in some of cable’s hottest series, including “Oz,” “True Blood” and “Veep.”
The actor, 53, grew up in Washington, D.C., and came to CU-Boulder hoping to “experience America from a different perspective.” He says he began learning his craft both through acting classes and by keeping his eyes open.
“CU was definitely the first place where I got a chance to really study people, how they interact and react,” he says. “There was a lot of quality people watching.”
After graduation he studied with legendary acting coach Sanford Meisner in New York while supporting himself working in construction and as a bouncer and fitness coach. He began to pick up commercial work and in 1984 was cast as an ex-con quarterback in HBO’s first sitcom, 1st and Ten.
Meloni came to prominence with his visceral portrayal of bisexual psychopath Chris Keller in the 1998-2003 HBO prison drama “Oz.” It made him an icon in the gay community.
In his best-known role, he played the complex, not-quite-by-the-book Det. Elliot Stabler alongside Mariska Hargitay in Law & Order. He left the show in 2011.
“Doing 12 years of something that great on national TV was rewarding,” he says. “I think it was also pretty important to be on a show that resonated with sexual crime. … In certain ways it opened up dialogue for people to confront or discuss that sort of thing.”
Meloni’s recent work includes starring with Shailene Woodley in 2014’s White Bird in a Blizzard, the FOX network comedy Surviving Jack, and his recurring role in the popular supernatural cable series True Blood.
As for what’s next, the actor says you never know when the next Detective Stabler (or Freakshow) will come along.
“You can do all the planning and wishing you want, but at the end of the day you read what’s on the page,” he says. “If you are lucky enough to have your imagination sparked, you know exactly how to fit into that world.”
Photography courtesy Christopher Meloni