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Saunders: Hargitay grows on 'SVU'

Published February 22, 2007 at midnight

Mariska Hargitay is not an actress who lives through the character she plays. But as Olivia Benson has grown emotionally during the eight seasons of Law & Order: SVU, so has the Emmy-winning actress.

"SVU is a very different show today than it was when we premiered," Hargitay said during a recent conference call. "We've moved in a different direction, often alerting viewers to some of the problems, particularly relating to families, that society seemingly overlooks."

Hargitay's focus on life has moved as well. She admits some story material on SVU have made her much more empathetic to the problems of the world around her. Story lines dealing with abused women, alcohol abuse by teens and pregnant mothers, as well as emotional problems of teenagers, led Hargitay to co-found Joy From the Heart Foundation. The group, among other things, supports women who have been sexually abused.

And events of the past year have produced major personal changes. In June, Hargitay, at 42, became a mother for the first time (a boy named August). Last September, her father, noted bodybuilder Mickey Hargitay, died at 80.

After a six-month maternity leave, Hargitay returned to SVU late last year with a "reinspired" attitude. "I have the best of both worlds: a good family life and a TV series that inspires me."

Such inspiration could be partially due to the new two-year contract she and costar Christopher Meloni (Det. Elliot Stabler) recently signed. While reports vary on dollar figures, both are now among the highest-paid actors in weekly television.

Hargitay is fully aware that the onscreen relationship between partners Benson and Stabler is a major reason for the series' continuing climb in audience ratings.

Unlike the long-running Law & Order, which largely stays away from scripts about lead characters, SVU has thrived on such story lines.

Benson and Stabler obviously care about one another - professionally and personally. Benson is single and viewers have watched as Stabler's marriage and family life declined, partially because of the agonizing pressure of his job.

Will the characters ever have a romance? Fan response indicates that's the direction the series should take. While Hargitay and executive producer Neal Baer, who joined Hargitay on the conference call, don't think this will happen, they have a "never-say-never" attitude.

Baer cites upcoming episodes that deal with their relationship. Speaking as Benson, Hargitay says "Olivia would like that (a relationship). He's the man in her life."

When asked to name her most memorable SVU episodes, Hargitay quickly pointed to an hour last April in which Lou Diamond Phillips played a sadistic villain. A dramatic scene showed Stabler bent over his partner after she had been stabbed.

"I think that showed the intensity of their friendship and relationship," Hargitay says.

THE DOCTOR IS IN

When people in the television community talk about or greet Neal Baer, producer of Law and Order: SVU, they often preface his name with "doctor." The native Denverite and graduate of Cherry Creek High School is a practicing pediatrician, who also devotes time to free clinic work in California.

Dusty's pick for tonight

Ghosts of Abu Ghraib (7:30 p.m., HBO) takes an in-depth look at the controversial events that occurred in the prison and the damage done to America's credibility as a defender of human rights.

Produced by Rory Kennedy, the 90-minute program was part of the American Documentary Competition at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival.

In addition to providing a recap of events, Ghosts features a wide range of interviews with military leaders, legal experts, guards directly involved in the torture and Iraqi victims.

Today's nostalgia

On Feb. 22, 1965, CBS aired a new live version of Cinderella, the Rodgers and Hammerstein TV musical, starring Lesley Ann Warren, Stuart Damon, Ginger Rogers and Celeste Holm. An earlier version, aired in the late '50s, starred Julie Andrews.

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