Mariska Hargitay's Tragic Real-Life Story

In 2023, Mariska Hargitay made television history when her "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" character, Olivia Benson, became the longest-running character on primetime television. Hargitay was on it when the show started in 1999, and after more than 500 episodes, it's still going strong in 2024. 

Somehow, Hargitay has also found time to found the Joyful Heart Foundation, a charity dedicated to supporting survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence, while changing the narrative of how such crimes are viewed. A long-running, popular television show, scores of awards, a happy family life ... it seems like she's got everything anyone could ever hope for, but that's not to say that she hasn't weathered horrific tragedies.

And they started when she was very, very young. Hargitay is famously the daughter of blonde bombshell Jayne Mansfield and bodybuilder Mickey Hargitay, so that means she's always had some unique experiences ... including that time a lion nearly killed her brother. Mansfield had taken him behind the scenes at Jungleland when he wandered too close to a lion, which then attacked him with such savagery that he underwent brain surgery. It was just months before the family would suffer an even more devastating tragedy, and Hargitay's adult life would see its fair share too.

The following article discusses and includes descriptions of sexual assault.

She was in the car when her mother was killed in a catastrophic accident

Mariska Hargitay's mother, Jayne Mansfield, hit Hollywood in the mid-1950s, and quickly became one of the most widely recognizable stars of the era. That came to a shocking end on June 29, 1967: Mansfield was on her way to a TV appearance in New Orleans when her car collided with a tractor-trailer: she was killed instantly, along with the two other adults in the car. 

Shockingly, her three children were riding in the back seat, and all survived. That included Mariska Hargitay, who was 3 years old at the time, as well as her brothers, 8-year-old Mickey Hargitay Jr. and 6-year-old Zoltan. The Associated Press reported first responders said that Mansfield's car had become wedged underneath the back of the trailer, and that the three children were said to be in stable condition but suffering from various injuries. The owner of the tractor-trailer, who was also on-site, reportedly said, "It was the most dreadful thing I've ever seen."

It's a long-standing Hollywood legend that Mansfield was decapitated in the accident, but that wasn't the case — not according to the undertaker who prepared her body for burial. The New York Times talked to Jim Roberts in 1997, who said the accident was "as bad as you get in this business." He also added that for as much as Mansfield traveled, her children were often with her: "She couldn't stand to be away from her children."

She's spent her whole life wondering why her mother had to die

After losing her mother in that horrible car accident, Mariska Hargitay and her siblings were raised by her father, bodybuilding legend Mickey Hargitay. She's lauded him for his grounding presence, but the loss of her mother left an unfillable hole she's struggled to come to terms with.

In 2021, Mariska Hargitay was named one of Glamour's Women of the Year, and when she sat down for an in-depth interview, it goes without saying that the topic of her famous mother came up. "I think I learned about crisis very young, and I learned very young that s*** happens and there's no guarantees, and we keep going." She continued, "I've spent the last 50 — how old am I? 57, so 54 years sort of trying to figure out what happened and why, and what am I supposed to do with it?"

It was 2018 when Hargitay opened up to People, saying that it was tough for her to know that so many people only saw her mother as a sex symbol, and overlooked the fact that she had a genius-level IQ and an unwavering devotion to her children. "She was an inspiration, she had this appetite for life, and I think I share that with her." Hargitay explained tearfully: "Someone once said about [remembering my mother: 'All you have to do is look in the mirror.' She's with me still."

She's spoken about the difficulties of having famous parents

If it seems like having two world-famous parents would be more of a blessing than a curse, here's some food for thought: Sometimes, it's not always all that it's cracked up to be. Mariska Hargitay has spoken about just how difficult it's been for her to deal with the loss of her mother, and in an interview with Closer Weekly, she explained the challenges.

"Being the daughter of a Hollywood icon has become a burden. I used to hate constant references to my mom because I wanted to be known for myself. Losing my mother at such a young age is the scar of my soul." Hargitay has also said that her mother shaped the kind of actress she became in a surprising way, telling the Los Angeles Times that "On some unconscious level, I was shying away from those sexual roles because of my mother." (Would she have ended up playing the no-nonsense, tough-as-nails detective if that wasn't the case? Who knows!)

And it even got worse than that. Hargitay has also said (via Good Housekeeping) that when she was first starting out in the business, she was told that she should capitalize on her famous mother's image by changing her name and having plastic surgery done to look even more like her. Hargitay refused.

She nearly lost her beloved stepmother

After Jayne Mansfield's death, Mariska Hargitay says that she was fortunate enough to have another female role model to look up to. That was her stepmother, Ellen, and she told E!, "There was an absence, and then there was a person there, in the absence." She's spoken about her stepmother in other interviews, too, always crediting her with being the brave, fearless, loving, feminine role model that she needed.

It very nearly wasn't a happily-ever-after, though, and six years after her mother was killed, Hargitay found herself facing the possibility of losing her stepmother, too. Ellen was a flight attendant, and on a flight into Los Angeles when severe turbulence hit. Severe might be an understatement: One passenger was killed, more were hospitalized, and Hargitay's stepmother nearly died as well.

The family rushed to the hospital, and things looked dire. They would later estimate that Ellen had hit the floor and the ceiling of the plane nearly 60 times, and it was a long, long road to recovery. Hargitay recalled, "Those are tough emotions for kids to deal with, especially that specifically, to have that, you know, almost happen twice ... I don't know if there are words for it, but it was really scary for us."

Dying young is a family tradition ... and she nearly did, too

For Mariska Hargitay, the death of her mother, Jayne Mansfield, was a never-healing wound, but according to what she told Redbook, there was even more to it. Mansfield was 34 years old when she died, and not only is that incredibly young, but Hargitay's grandfather also died at 34. He died after suffering a massive heart attack, so it's easy to see how that particular birthday may have been a dark spot on the horizon.

Hargitay spoke about just how terrifying it had been to approach her own 34th birthday, and wonder what the world had in store for her. "I was always frightened of it. What does it mean? Like I was next in line," she said.

The day came, and after deciding that she wasn't going to let fear run her life, she joined friends for a motorcycle ride. It was a matter of seconds before her bike was rear-ended by a driver who'd been looking down at their phone while following behind her. "Everything stopped, and I went flying through the air, and I thought, 'I can't believe this. I'm going to die like they did.'" She would later tell InStyle (via PageSix), "That's when I told myself, 'You're not going to die, you're not your mother.' That's when my whole life changed."

An adoption fell through after she held and fell in love with her potential child

Mariska Hargitay and her husband, Peter Hermann, have three children: August, Amaya, and Andrew. August is the oldest (rear center), and Amaya and Andrew were adopted within six months of each other. During an interview with Good Housekeeping, she said that adoption had been a long and difficult journey, and that it had been filled with heartbreak. 

Hargitay says that it took about two years of working with an adoption lawyer before their dreams came true, and not only were there a few possibilities that fell through, there was one in particular that she thought was going to work. She and her husband had met the mother of the child they intended to adopt, and thought they had confirmed beyond a shadow of a doubt that the adoption was on. After the birth, Hargitay was given the baby. She and Hermann named her, fell in love with her, and then a few days later, the mother changed her mind.

Recounting the story brought Hargitay to tears. "It was nothing short of devastating. But ... this is what I've come to understand about life: It was probably the greatest, happiest ending. I mean, it was so painful for us, but it was deeply joyful and deeply right for her. And so when she changed her mind, I felt honored to be a part of the process."

An injury on the set of SVU made her face her own mortality ... this time, as a mother

There comes a point in everyone's life where they're forced to confront the idea of their own mortality, and Mariska Hargitay has been candid about how death has been a shadow that's loomed over her entire life. She's also been candid, too, about how a potentially life-threatening injury she suffered on the set of "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" made her rethink things in an entirely new light. 

Hargitay has long been doing her own stunts, and it was during one of those stunts that she sustained a tiny, microscopic tear in her lung. Several months later, the injury had reached a breaking point: Her lung collapsed, and she was rushed into what would be the first of several surgeries. As if that wasn't bad enough, she returned to work and suffered another collapsed lung, in a bizarre twist of fate that doctors described as having a 1:1,000 chance of happening.

She told Redbook that she had been terrified, not for herself, but for her family: She knew what it was like for a young child to lose their mother. "I just thought, 'Please make me better, please make me better.' I got really scared that maybe something else was wrong. All those old fears about my mom and my grandfather came shooting up. Having a child changes everything. All of a sudden you have so much to lose, so much to live for."

It took her decades to consider herself a survivor of sexual assault

When Mariska Hargitay joined "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," she was shocked by the real-life statistics involving sexual assaults, and told The Hollywood Reporter that she knew she had to get personally involved. That started with advocating to keep the story arc where on-screen alter ego Olivia Benson is sexually assaulted. There was a pushback to skip it, but she said, "... sexual assault doesn't discriminate. It was a painful episode to shoot. I threw up afterward. ... It was important for me to make it as profoundly real as I could."

It wasn't until 2024 that Hargitay wrote an essay for People that revealed the harrowing details of her own experiences, writing, "A man raped me in my thirties. It wasn't sexual at all. It was dominance and control. Overpowering control. He was a friend. Then he wasn't." She continued, "That's why I've talked so much about acquaintance rape, because many people still think of rape as a man jumping out of the bushes. This was a friend who made a unilateral decision."

Hargitay spoke more about her revelations on Today, explaining that it had taken her a long time to put words to what had happened to her. Words, she said, are important: "I said, 'A man raped me.' I wasn't raped. A man raped me. There's a big difference." Getting to that point in her own journey also renewed her determination to change the conversation around sexual assault, and ultimately, end it.

On learning she wasn't alone in 'the frozen place'

When Mariska Hargitay sat down with Glamour, she spoke about the "frozen place," her way of describing that place we all can find ourselves in when we're going through something incredibly traumatic — no matter what it is. "I clearly was in that frozen place for a lot of my childhood — of trying to survive, actually trying to survive," she said. When she started on "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," she discovered something terrible: She wasn't alone.

Instead of the typical fan mail, she started getting letters from sexual abuse survivors who felt comfortable sharing their own trauma with her. It led — in part — to the development of her Joyful Heart Foundation, started in 2004 to support survivors. Hargitay explained: "Normally, I'd get letters saying, 'Hi, can I please have an autographs picture,' but now it was different: 'I'm fifteen and my dad has been raping me since I was eleven and I've never told anyone.'" She remembered her visceral reaction of shock and horror at the sheer number of stories, and stories of women who put the blame squarely on themselves: "I went, 'Oh, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no.'"

In a piece for The Hollywood Reporter, Hargitay revealed that the letters were so many and so powerful: "The themes of the letters were shame and isolation and so much suffering — private, excruciating suffering alone. I have boxes full of them. I actually hired rape crisis counselors to help me respond," she said.

Her work on SVU brought her face-to-face with heartbreaking statistics

Mariska Hargitay's work on "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" brought her up close to the world of sexual assault, and in 2017, she produced "I Am Evidence," a heartbreaking look at the shocking number of rape kits that went unprocessed.

In a piece for The Atlantic, she recalled reading the report from Human Rights Watch: "The report found a backlog of 12,669 untested rape kits in the city of Los Angeles — my hometown. I read the report with my head in my hands, lost for words, except for, 'Oh, my God. Oh my GOD.' Soon we started seeing reports of similar backlogs around the U.S., adding up to hundreds of thousands of untested kits, of discarded victims, of perpetrators walking free, of wrongfully convicted people sitting in jail. I felt as if my head were going to explode."

The same year, Detroit made it a point to clear out their backlog, and kicked off investigations into 817 serial rapists. Hargitay knew that she had to do something, and in addition to establishing her foundation, she also spearheaded an initiative to raise awareness of the problem of untested rape kits, and change policies around dealing with them. She told Glamour that she was outraged at the fact that each untested kit — each representing a person who had just been through one of the most traumatic events life could throw at them — sent a clear message: The system didn't care.

The loss of Richard Belzer hurt deeply

When Richard Belzer passed away in 2023, those who were closest to him reported that his death had come after dealing with considerable health issues. It really was the end of an era: His Detective John Munch wasn't just a "Homicide" and "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" mainstay, but he'd also appeared on multiple other shows, including "The X Files," "The Wire," and even "30 Rock." 

Belzer was on "SVU" for 326 episodes, so it's not surprising that his passing hit the cast hard. When Mariska Hargitay appeared on Today, she spoke a bit about the lasting impact Belzer had not only on the show, but the cast and crew as well. "What a heart and soul," she said, tearing up at the mention of his passing. "He was family. And he taught me so much about taking risks, and creativity, and trust, and he brought so much joy to the set, and boy, did this man love children! He was this acerbic, quick-witted, brilliant mind, and yet he would melt in the sight of a child."

Fast forward around a year, and the grief was still there. Hargitay and the other cast members spoke with E! News about filming without him, and she revealed that they still kept his memory close, and that "We talk about him all the time. It's like he's still here."

The loss of her father was devastating

Mariska Hargitay was raised by her father and his third wife after the death of her mother, Jayne Mansfield. He went out of his way to make sure she experienced as normal a childhood as anyone could hope for, and she told Glamour that he always put his children first. It's understandable, then, how devastating his 2006 death would be.

His cause of death was bone marrow cancer, and at the time of his death, the 80-year-old former bodybuilder left behind a family that included five children, 10 grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren. Hargitay was with him when he passed, and later revealed his last words to her: "Mariska ... always."

She spoke more about the long-lasting impact his death had on her, saying (via People) that although she was grateful to be with him at the end and have the chance to say what she wanted to say, "It was huge to lose this person who was my everything, my strength, my power, the person who believed in me. ... Now I do feel that he's with me. Even though he's not here physically, I carry him."

If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN's National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).