March 11, 2021

Reasons Behind 'Law and Order: SVU' Cast Members Leaving the Show

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Since its 1999 debut, the Special Victims Unit of NYPD detectives has been a staple on television. Here’s why some members slowly exited the beloved show.

"SVU's" subject matter strikes us right at the core, but that seems to be what makes the show great and keeps people hooked. 

Twenty-one seasons later, NBC's "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" depiction of horrifying crimes is still going strong. However, over the years, fans had to say farewell to 12 of their favorite characters. Here's a look at what happened.

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DEAN WINTERS: BRIAN CASSIDY

After only the first season, Dean Winters became the first series regular to exit the show. Winters was previously committed to HBO's Oz, playing the character Ryan O'Reilly, making it difficult to simultaneously juggle two shows. 

However, he returned in season 13 and recurred as a love interest for Olivia Benson's character, appearing in seasons 14, 15, and 19.

Image Credits: Getty Images

MICHELLE HURD: DETECTIVE MONIQUE JEFFRIES

Michelle Hurd appeared as the ever-professional detective Monique Jeffries for the first two seasons of "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit." 

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Detective Jeffries discovered she liked the danger of their line of work, and her behavior became increasingly outlandish before she left the show by being transferred to Vice. 

Behind the scenes, the belief that Michelle's character didn't get explored to its full potential within the show's cast led to the actress' departure.

Michelle Hurd poses for a photo during New York Comic Con 2019 Day 3 at the Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden on October 05, 2019, in New York City. | Source: Getty Images.

STEPHANIE MARCH: ADA ALEXANDRA CABOT

Stephanie March joined the cast as a regular for six seasons and as a guest star for another two seasons. The gaps and variation supported her plan of not getting too comfortable in her role as Alexandra Cabot. 

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As the Assistant District Attorney, Cabot firmly believed in the justice system, even though she bent the rules from time to time.

Following an attempt on her life via drive-by shooting, ADA was placed in the Witness Protection Program Cabot and appeared in season six's "Ghost" to testify after the arrest of the man who tried to assassinate her.

Stephanie March attends the The Hollywood Reporter's 9th Annual Most Powerful People In Media at The Pool on April 11, 2019, in New York City. | Source: Getty Images.

Once the trial ended, she was re-enrolled in the Witness Protection program. Cabot appeared in the short-lived Law & Order spinoff, "Conviction," and returned to "SVU" in season 10. 

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Periodically, she returned during season 11, before joining the International Criminal Court, and for several episodes of season 13. As to why she left the show, to begin with, March told TV Guide:

"I want to be certain to emphasize that I have zero complaints about 'Law & Order.' It was a fantastic work experience, and I really miss the people quite a bit. It was my first on-camera job after college."

Image Credits: Getty Images

DIANE NEAL: SENIOR ADA CASEY NOVAK

Diane Neal became a part of the team as a regular from season 5 to 9 and returned as a guest in season 12, followed by regular appearances in season 13. 

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As a loose cannon in the justice department, Senior Assistant District Attorney Casey Novak had no qualms about sabotaging defendants to see justice served as she saw it. 

The actress became the longest-running female ADA in the show's history and left the show with no specific cause known for her departure.

Diane Neal attends the 2016 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights' Ripple Of Hope Awards at New York Hilton Midtown on December 6, 2016, in New York City. | Source: Getty Images.

ADAM BEACH: DETECTIVE CHESTER LAKE

Adam Beach portrayed Detective Chester Lake on seasons 8 and 9 of the crime drama. He was known for having a strong work ethic with a tendency to lean towards vigilantism. 

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With his martial art skills added to the mix, detective Lake became a liability and left the team. Lake was tried for murder in the Season 9 finale but went free after his actions were ruled as self-defense. 

He was arrested again for murdering a suspect he believed to be guilty but was released by a jury deadlock. Neal Baer, the showrunner at the time, felt that Beach's role took away from the winning formula of the core cast, and the parting of ways was amicable.

Adam Beach attends the "Juanita" New York screening at Metrograph on March 07, 2019, in New York City. | Source: Getty Images.

MICHAELA MCMANUS: ADA KIM GREYLEK

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Assistant District Attorney Kim Greylek became known as the most aggressive prosecutor while starring in season 10 of the crime drama. 

Michaela McManus left the show after one season because showrunner Neal Baer felt that her character didn't fit well into the series. Due to the challenges in portraying and writing her role, the decision was mutual. 

ADA Kim Grelek was called back to Washington DC to rejoin the ranks of the Justice Department. It paved the way for one of many returns by Stephanie March's ADA Alexandra Cabot.

Michaela McManus attends "The Village" press junket during SCAD aTVfest 2019 at Four Seasons Hotel on February 9, 2019, in Atlanta, Georgia. | Source: Getty Images.

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CHRISTOPHER MELONI: DETECTIVE ELLIOT STABLER

For 12 seasons, Christopher Meloni's character, Elliot Stabler, was a fiercely loyal detective who wasn't afraid of getting into a little trouble. 

Elliot and Benson were the dynamic duo that added extra spice to the show. However, he abruptly left when contract negotiations with NBC Universal didn't go as planned. 

He received a quick write off from the show shortly after, with his character retiring from the force after he was placed on administrative leave following the shooting of a woman in the squad room. The detective is yet to reappear in the show since his departure.

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Christopher Meloni visits 'The IMDb Show' on March 26, 2019 in Studio City, California. | Source: Getty Images.

TAMARA TUNIE: MEDICAL EXAMINER MELINDA WARNER

Tamara Tunie portrayed Medical Examiner Melinda Warner for several seasons before becoming a leading cast member for seasons 7 to 12. 

Her character, Melinda Warner, is straightforward and always strives to find the truth in every situation. She recurred again in seasons 13 to 17 and 19. After the series, Tunie had more acting roles before she ventured into music.

Tamara Tunie and Gregory Generet. Image Source: Getty Images

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BD WONG: SPECIAL AGENT GEORGE HUANG

BD Wong started with a recurring role in seasons two and three before SA George Huang became a series regular. After season 12, Wong appeared as a guest in three seasons, with his final appearance in season 17. 

FBI's forensic psychiatrist George Huang brought a unique dynamic to the team with his meticulous yet empathetic mind. Wong's departure after season 12 came from a desire to pursue other opportunities like this role in the short-lived series, "Awake." 

Wong attends the "Mr. Robot" Season 4 Premiere on October 01, 2019, in New York City. | Source: Getty Images.

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RICHARD BELZER: DA INVESTIGATOR JOHN MUNCH

Richard Belzer played the role of John Munch across the "Law & Order" franchise and was a Special Victims Unit member for the first 15 seasons. 

After 20 years, Belzer decided to retire from the full-time role, though he hasn't ruled out returning to the show when the time is right. Speaking about the possibility of recurring appearances, Belzer said:

"I'd be a fool to say I didn't want to do it anymore, and I'm certainly not bored with the character because the writing is so good. Munch is] very close to how I would be if I were in that situation, so it's a dream."

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Richard Belzer attends the Friars Club celebration of Jerry Lewis and the 50th anniversary "The Nutty Professor" at New York Friars Club on June 5, 2014, in New York City. | Source: Getty Images.

DANNY PINO: DETECTIVE NICK AMARO

Danny Pino's character was detective hothead Nick Amaro who often put himself in danger because of his attitude. He appeared in seasons 13 to 16 before he was written off abruptly without an explanation. 

At the end of season 16, fans were quite shocked when Amaro announced he was heading off to a much warmer climate in California. It seemed hard to grasp as Pino joined the cast in season 13 to replace Christopher Meloni. Amaro retired from acting to spend more time with his family after being shot.

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Danny Pino arrives at the premiere of FX's "Mayan M.C." Season 2 at ArcLight Cinerama Dome on August 27, 2019, in Hollywood, California. | Source: Getty Images.

DANN FLOREK: CAPTAIN DONALD CRAGEN

The very first actor cast in the show, Dann Florek, was a series regular for the first 15 seasons. As Captain Cragen, he always had his detectives' back. 

Florek's exit from the show flowed naturally as Captain Cragen reached the mandatory age cap and retired after having groomed Olivia Benson to take over his job. 

The move came in an effort to maintain the show's realistic nature. That wasn't the end for the veteran captain, though. He returned to the show for its sixteenth season as a guest-star.

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Dann Florek attends 2013 NBC Upfront Presentation Red Carpet Event at Radio City Music Hall on May 13, 2013, in New York City. | Source: Getty Images.

RAUL ESPARZA: ADA RAFAEL BARBA

The fearless Assistant District Attorney, Rafael Barba, did whatever he felt necessary to bring perpetrators - be they regular citizens or law enforcement officers - to justice. He was often impulsive and unafraid of using theatrics in the courtroom. 

Raul Esparza portrayed the role from season 14 to 19, and after feeling like he had done what he could with it, the actor decided to leave. ADA Barba had one of the most dramatic departures in the history of the series. 

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He was prosecuted for murder by none other than Sam Waterston's DA Jack McCoy from "Law and Order." Barba disconnected a comatose infant from its life support system; what he felt was an act of mercy. He was tried and acquitted, but after 21 years, he thought it was time to hang it up.

Raul Esparza attends the 2017 New York Stage & Film Winter Gala at Pier Sixty at Chelsea Piers on December 5, 2017, in New York City. | Source: Getty Images.

PHILLIP WINCHESTER: ADA PETER STONE

A later addition to the Special Victims Unit, Assistant District Attorney Peter Stone came from "Chicago PD" and "Chicago Med" to prosecute felons for seasons 19 and 20 of the crime drama. 

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News of his departure from the show came simultaneously as the announcement of its record-breaking 21st season, though no explanation for Winchester leaving came with it. 

On September 26, 2019, the first episode of the 21st season of "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" aired, and the previous showrunner, Warren Leight, returned to oversee the season.

Philip Winchester from the serie "Law & Order : SVU" attends a photocall during the 58th Monte Carlo TV Festival on June 17, 2018, in Monte-Carlo, Monaco. | Source: Getty Images.

The historic occasion didn't go unnoticed by fans of the longest-running live-action series on TV and had a lot to say about the details regarding the new season. 

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Leight left his position in 2016 and admitted he felt upset because he could have written about many things that happened during the period he was gone, including the #MeToo movement.

DETAILS ONLY DETECTIVES KNOW

Some very uncomfortable material has captivated audiences for roughly 20 years. It has illuminated the issues surrounding sexual assaults and crimes against the most vulnerable of victims. 

Apart from plot lines, character arrivals and departures, and public sentiment, there is so much that goes on behind the scenes. Let's start with the show's name: "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" doesn't set off alarms about content. 

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But initially, the show's title was "Sex Crimes." Some people took issue with it, afraid it could lead to a loss in revenue from advertising. In that arena, Mariska Hargitay took the issues exemplified in her TV role to heart.

In real life, Benson is a trained rape crisis counselor and in 2004 established the Joyful Heart Foundation, which works to help survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence, and child abuse.

Given that so many episodes take on current hot topics, several groups have tried to alter that course. Two particularly outspoken organizations that have rallied against some of the subject matter are the Catholic Church and the NFL. However, some of those in showbusiness see that as an opportunity. 

Guest-starring on an episode of SVU seems to be a bit of a trend, including dozens of well-known actors and several Oscar winners. This list includes Whoopi Goldberg, Olympia Dukakis, Robin Williams, Snoop Dogg, Jeremy Irons, Angela Lansbury, Ellen Burstyn, and Marcia Gay Harden.  

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