LIVE
Chris Meloni

Christopher Meloni wants you to know he was shirtless when asked to reprise his 'SVU' role

Though fans didn't know if the actor would ever wear badge No. 6313 again, Law & Order: Organized Crime creator Dick Wolf made him an offer he couldn't refuse.

"I was in the backyard with no shirt on," begins Christopher Meloni, recalling the moment he was asked to reprise his iconic role as Det. Elliot Stabler for the new Law & Order: Organized Crime. "This will help with the article. I was nude. Come on! Let's jazz it up."

Meloni is actually fully clothed right now and self-isolating in his New York City apartment; a positive case of COVID-19 briefly shut down production on the NBC spin-off that's set to premiere April 1. But at 60, he certainly relishes his status as a Hollywood zaddy when describing the initial pitch from ex-boss Dick Wolf.

"I was intrigued for a variety of personal reasons," says Meloni, who has remained close with the überproducer since leaving Special Victims Unit in 2011 amid rumors of a contract dispute with NBCUniversal. "If you have, at least from my perspective, a very well-known and beloved TV character who left abruptly and, I would argue, unceremoniously… there's a built-in recognizability, a thing that needs to be satiated with a sense of closure. Those are all very attractive things."

Faster than you can make Stabler's blood boil, Meloni agreed to return to Precinct 16 — but only to say hi to Mariska Hargitay's Capt. Olivia Benson, his former partner, for a single crossover episode that will air before the debut of Organized Crime. As for a possible permanent return to SVU, the actor wasn't interested in investigating that prospect.

"That, I didn't want to do," says Meloni. "That felt like going back to what was. That boat had sailed." 

Law & Order: Special Victims Unit
Christopher Meloni and Mariska Hargitay in 'Law & Order: SVU'
| Credit: Will Hart/NBC

So where is Stabler headed? New York City's Mob town, where various mafioso misdeeds will take Stabler and his cohorts (including Chicago Med's Danielle Moné Truitt as police sergeant Ayanna Bell) a good while to solve. Dylan McDermott (American Horror Story) and Tamara Taylor (Bones) also play key supporting characters, but NBC is keeping a lid on the details.

"It's not a case of the week, because organized crime doesn't work in that way," explains executive producer Ilene Chaiken (The L Word), who took over for Wolf Entertainment veteran Matt Olmstead as showrunner back in October. (Insiders insist there was no animosity about Olmstead's brief tenure, and he remains in the NBC Universal fold.) "It's an episodic show; the episodes will stand on their own. But the stories will also play out over the course of a whole season." 

That gives Chaiken plenty of time to mine Stabler's rich backstory as an ex-Marine from Queens with a wife, five children, and a tendency to lose his cool on the job. (Former SVU showrunner Neal Baer describes that show's signature crime team this way: "Benson was the empathy we feel toward the victims, while Stabler was the id — the anger or rage at what happened to them.")

But don't look for those old tempers to flare again. "I don't want, you know, a fifty-something Elliot Stabler stomping around, unable to control his anger anymore," says Meloni. "That's not an attractive thing to watch." 

"We want to do a different Law & Order," continues Chaiken, who's never worked for a CSI- or NCIS-type show before. (Her credits also include Empire and The Handmaid's Tale.) "If they had asked me to do a conventional procedural, I probably wouldn't have said yes, because it's not my strength and it's not my interest. Yes, it's very much a part of the franchise, and the fans will get all of the things they want from it. But the very first thing [Wolf's team] said to me is that the show is serialized. His family, his history, is all very much a part of the show. That's the show — who this man was, who he is." 

Oh, yes, about that: The last time we saw Stabler was at the end of season 12, when he fatally shot a young woman who was avenging her mother's murder. (It was revealed in the season 13 premiere that Stabler had responded by retiring.) Off camera, word circulated that salary negotiations went south, prompting Meloni to unexpectedly quit after the finale. Raise or no raise (he turned down an $8-9 million payday), the actor has frequently maintained that he holds no ill will toward the show or Wolf.

"It was time," Meloni says today. "There were some triggers to it. But when I walked, I was like, 'Okay, good.' That was it." 

Chris Meloni
Christopher Meloni
| Credit: Andreas Laszlo Konrath for EW

And for almost 10 years, Meloni never looked back: He played an ancient vampire on True Blood, a hitman with an imaginary friend on Syfy's Happy!, and an imperious high commander on The Handmaid's Tale.

"Zero," he says when asked how much he missed SVU. "I would have no problem admitting to it. But I was pleasantly surprised it played out as well as it did. Because, you know, that's not how life shakes out, right? You can have all the dreams you want, all the preconceived notions of how it's going to be. But I must say, the intervening decade was everything I could have hoped for." 

Though, in a Corleone-like twist (and one that seems especially apropos for the new series), Wolf wanted to pull him back in.

"This could really work," insists Wolf, who adds he wanted Meloni to return "since the day he left.... Elliot Stabler is tough as nails, he has an infallible moral compass, and he is the cop we wish shows up if you ever need one." 

Law and Order: Organized Crime
Danielle Moné Truitt as Sergeant Ayanna Bell, and Christopher Meloni as Detective Elliot Stabler in 'Law & Order: Organized Crime'
| Credit: Virginia Sherwood/NBC

Meloni knew he made the right decision the moment he put on badge 6313 again.

"It felt great, a surprising sense of freedom," he says. "It was a very interesting feeling because I rarely get it. It was just kind of a weird sign that everything's right, and I was where I belonged." 

A version of this story appears in the April issue of Entertainment Weekly, on newsstands now and available here. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

Related content: