|As the brooding detective on Law & Order: S.V.U., Christopher Meloni spends his days reacting to shocking scenarios of human depravity and violence. Even Sherman, his wife, has a hard time watching the show. No wonder they want "real life" to be drama-free. Jesse Kornbluth finds out how they've made their marriage a cornerstone of happiness, from the day Sherman rolled into Chris's life on a Harley to their ten-year-itch - for each other. |
There are disgusting crimes, and then there are off-the-charts horrors. This year, even more than in previous seasons, the team at Law & Order: Special Victims Unit has worked the bottom of the sewer. Here’s one way you could tell: Week after week, Detective Elliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni) looked like he was about to explode. His veins throbbed. His jaw locked. His shoulders tightened. Whatever the perp had done, you had a certain sympathy for him—because any second, it seemed, Stabler would imbed a steel chair in the guy’s head.
THE PASSIONATE DETECTIVE has one solace: his four young children. And that is unfortunate, because his wife recently decided to divorce him. Never anybody’s idea of laid-back, he’s now in a permanent funk, a darker rage. His partner, Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay), can’t seem to help him. It was no surprise, late in the season, that one case unhinged him so totally his boss sent him home. Stabler was, finally, about to crack.
Yes, Law & Order: S.V.U. is a TV series, not a reality show. Yes, what Christopher Meloni does so convincingly is called "acting." But, although I knew all that, it was with a certain trepidation that I took a seat on the couch next to this tall, ultra-buffed, dark-browed guy and asked him about ... his marriage.
Newsflash: Chris Meloni is nothing like Elliot Stabler.
His "how we met" story proves it.
The year was 1989. Meloni was in Los Angeles, acting in an HBO series he characterizes as "immensely forgettable." The production designer, however, was memorable in the extreme. Sherman Williams was in her 20s. She had short, bleached-white hair and cat’s-eye sunglasses. And she arrived astride a Harley—a Billy Idol, Sharon Stone’s sister.
"This I gotta meet," thought Meloni.
So he wandered over. And flirted. And concluded she was an eleven on a coolness scale of ten. But ... she had a boyfriend.
Time passed. One afternoon, Chris was driving in the Hollywood Hills when someone called his name. It was Sherman. She was throwing a party, and she wanted him to come. He did. And once again concluded that she was "cool, funny, sexy." But ... she still had a boyfriend.
Meloni returned to New York, the city he loves best. But no actor can avoid Los Angeles and, soon, he was back. Again, he bumped into Sherman. That knocked him back: "You don’t bump into people in L.A." So he left a note at her house.
The stars were, at last, aligned. "But wouldn’t you know it?" Chris recalls, with a wry smile. "Just then, three women dropped into my lap. And, you know, three in the hand are worth one in the bush. So I let Sherman slide."
It took another two years for Christopher Meloni and Sherman Williams to start dating. Another six months for them start living together. And another four years for them to marry.
The wedding took place on the beach in Malibu. The theme was medieval, so there were banners fluttering. A nondenominational minister performed the service. The bride and groom held out their goblets, removed the shot glasses inside, and knocked back hits of tequila. And then, because the bride was working on a movie in Miami, she raced to the airport.
APPEARANCES DECEIVE. With his square jaw and intense gaze, Chris Meloni may look like a serious fellow, but when he was a college kid, he decided, more or less on a whim, to become an actor, and he hopped on his motorcycle and roared off to Los Angeles. (Six weeks later, he was back at the University of Colorado at Boulder.) Sherman Williams, on the other hand, may have looked like a hot biker chick, but she was the daughter of an oil executive, a dedicated student at Cal Arts and Parsons, and a Southern girl with old-fashioned values.
So, what did Sherman see in Chris?
"On our first date, we went to three parties, given by three sets of my friends," she recalls. "The first was in West Hollywood. Every guy there was gay. Chris passed with flying colors. Next we went to a party given by Beverly Hills snootballs. Chris kept his manners in check and held his own. Then we went to a costume designer’s party in the Hills, where we drank beers from a tub on the porch. And I thought: I can take him anywhere."
Considering that the guy had disappeared back East for two years, how did she know he’d gotten serious? "There were two concrete steps in front of his house," she says. "Chris had them cut out so I could get my cycle onto his lawn."
His-and-her motorcycles. A struggling actor. A peripatetic set designer. Not the things that usually spell: Time to get married. "Yes, but underneath all of Sherman’s style, she’s very traditional," Chris explains. On both sides, there was a common dream—a house with children.
But not right away. "Without a certain amount of money, there’s stress," Chris says. "I know I’m definitely more relaxed with a couple of bucks in my pocket. So, in 1995, I didn’t feel I could establish a career as an actor and commit to kids at the same time."
By the time they married, Chris was being pulled back East again. The newlyweds established a rule: no more than three weeks apart. But commuting between his coast and hers frayed their nerves; they needed to be in the same place. Sherman loved Los Angeles. Chris, though born in Washington, D.C., loved the streets of New York more. "I need to say, ‘I am in New York City.’ I’m not a mystic, but I have a spiritual connection to New York," he says. "This is where the shell fell off."
Sherman made what Chris calls "a great sacrifice," and the Melonis settled in New York. As if it were pre-ordained, parts started rolling in for him. A rich variety of parts, for Chris is a natural actor, a quick study, and an asset on a set. (His credits include Runaway Bride, Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, Wet Hot American Summer, and the HBO prison drama Oz.) Eventually, he came to the attention of the producers of Law & Order, and in 1999 he began his run as Elliot Stabler.
Of the four shows that make up the Law & Order franchise, Special Victims Unit is the 800-pound gorilla. Close to 14 million people watch it weekly on NBC; millions more catch it in reruns elsewhere. And, while the parent show kills off cast members every season or so, S.V.U. has hung on to its star team.
This has brought prosperity to the Melonis—the luxuries of a New York apartment, a Connecticut retreat, travel, and freedom for Sherman to explore painting. It has also brought the second half of that dream equation: Sophia, age four, and Dante, closing in on two.
So it doesn’t matter that, as Chris describes it, "Law & Order bleeds it out of you, five days a week, sometimes six, 14 to 15 hours a day eating lunch standing up, using your time in your trailer to study or make phone calls." What matters is waiting for him at home. "I love my children beyond all reason," he says. "They’re my joy, even when they’re wild with kid energy."
He battles the gruesome world he inhabits as Elliot Stabler in ways that, at age 44, he can count off like rosary beads. Working out, for one: "I get my frustrations out physically." Friends: "They give me peace of mind and a lot of laughs." Learning how to pace himself: "De Niro was a hero of mine. And Sean Penn. But I’ve realized I can’t operate at that level of intensity. That’s okay for movies. On TV, when you live with horror day in and day out, you have to protect yourself."
Most of all, there’s Sherman, as wife and mother: "She isn’t demanding. And she’s totally calm. The most she says is, 'I really need you to do this...'
THE COMEDIAN MARTIN SHORT once told Chris Meloni that he could probably have be married three or four times. "It just didn’t work out that way," said Short, who has been married to the same woman for 25 years.
Why does the Meloni marriage, now in its tenth year, look so good? Some of it is chemistry (when I floated the theory that "once the sex goes, it’s over," Chris didn’t disagree), and some of it is luck. But a lot of it has to do with the choices a woman and a man make, and how much drama they like in their lives.
The male star of a show that’s a cornerstone of the greatest cops-and-crooks franchise in the history of television is a man who does not lack for opportunities to stray. And Chris Meloni appreciates beauty as much as the next guy. But he already has everything he wants.
"Affairs, drama—that’s complicated stuff," he says. "I’m not a fan of complicated. There's so much energy expended in personal drama, in having a dramatic life. People get addicted to the drama."
Domestic drama, for Chris Meloni, means the little plays produced and orchestrated by his daughter. The problem, he says, is that he can’t satisfy his young director: "My choices are always wrong. I have never second-guessed myself [as an actor], but with my daughter, I do."
Sherman, too, tries to protect herself from the harshness of the world, real and imagined. "The show takes a toll; it’s hard for me to watch it," she admits. "If Chris wasn’t on it, I don’t know that I’d watch. I turn off a lot of news and don’t read many newspaper articles."
Aside from the crucial fact that "we just like each other: Sherman says, the strength of their marriage lies in another rosary: "Space, respect, trust, and freedom." And, she adds, "We laugh a lot."
They’ve got much to be happy about. Law & Order is a nine month job; the Melonis spent last summer in Connecticut, hanging out with their kids. This summer, Chris will be in a play(Arthur Miller’s A View From the Brid9e) in Dublin, so the family will join him. "They have to come over," he says. "You know how it is with kids—you don’t see them for two weeks, you’re looking at a different person.
Clearly, theirs is a formula that works: Stick to the basic and don’t sweat the details. For instance, for nine years they celebrated their wedding anniversary on July 2, when in fact, they just discovered, they were married on July 1. No biggie. It's not like they ever do the expected things on their anniversary anyway. As Sherman notes, "When Chris says ‘celebrate,’ it’s kind of loose."
And, now, while many show-business marriages crumble in months, the Melonis’ is turning into a marathon. Looking at them, you’d never guess. At the Tango photo shoot, it seemed more as if they were still in the infatuation phase of dating. Chris grabbed Sherman’s leg. She feigned a grab at his pants.
He grinned and said, "She digs me."
She laughed and said, "I really appreciate how much he appreciates me."
Detective Elliot Stabler was nowhere to be found.