Law & Order Special Celebrities Unit Case File No. 1: Philip Seymour Hoffman
If you're fifty or younger, Law & Order has been around in one iteration or another for more than half of your life. Children have been born, grown up, and had children of their own, always knowing they can find a rerun of some form of Law & Order somewhere on television any time of the day, and Special Victims Unit is still adding new episodes to the never ending cycle of syndication. When the end times come, only cockroaches and Law & Order will survive.
To give you an idea of how long original flavor Law & Order was on the air, Jerry Orbach and Sam Waterston, the cast members most closely associated with it, didn't appear until the third and fifth seasons, respectively. The show rotated its cast out several times, killed off numerous characters, and convinced viewers that New York City is entirely under the control of the Russian mafia, but one constant was that it provided a veritable scavenger hunt of now famous actors in early screen appearances. Turn on a random episode of Law & Order (and again, you can probably find one right now), and you're likely to see a Bradley Cooper (season 6, episode 20), or a Claire Danes (season 3, episode 1), or a Jennifer Garner (season 6, episode 23). We start this column off with a major find, Philip Seymour Hoffman's very first screen credit in season one's "The Violence of Summer."
Hoffman doesn't get a "guest starring" credit, but Samuel L. Jackson does, second billing as a matter of fact, which makes this a surprise Special Celebrities Unit two-fer (a three-fer if you count Gil Bellows, six years before becoming modestly famous for playing Ally McBeal's doomed boyfriend). He does appear in the opening scene, though, swaggering and smirking his way into a courtroom, in a rare episode that puts the "Order" before the "Law." Hoffman plays Steven Hanauer, on trial for gang rape. The kind of thug who high fives his co-defendant when their case is dismissed, Hanauer is set free after the prosecution fears they don't have enough evidence to convict.
As the lack of a "guest starring" credit would indicate, sadly, he doesn't show up again until the last five minutes or so. Most of the episode focuses on the prosecution's challenging effort to rebuild its case against Hanauer and his buddies, as Assistant D.A. Ben Stone (Michael Moriarty) struggles with his barely concealed distaste for the victim, a tabloid reporter and perhaps not-so-former junkie. As far as I'm concerned, like Jack Torrance always being the caretaker of The Overlook, Jack McCoy has always been Assistant D.A., and his warm, paternal competence (inability to stop himself from sleeping with his co-workers aside) stands in sharp contrast to Stone's world-weary, flask-in-his-briefcase cynicism.
Meanwhile, Detectives Logan and Greevey pound the pavement in a search for new evidence. Because this is 1991 New York City, even in broad daylight everything is bleak and gray, and you're far more likely to see random flaming trash barrels in the background than artisan coffee shops. Nobody is shocked and appalled when the residents of the apartment building near where the gang rape allegedly took place admit that they did nothing when hearing the commotion. Nevertheless, the detectives do eventually uncover a fourth, never before identified suspect, who can best be described as "Scummy Russell Brand."
Despite that second billing, Samuel L. Jackson doesn't appear until less than the last ten minutes of the episode, playing Scummy Russell Brand's lawyer. Logan and Greevey catch up with Hanauer and one of his buddies and, because they're not the brightest rapists in all the land, trick them into talking about the attack on tape. Despite Stone's initial misgivings, and lost DNA evidence, they win a conviction.
Though his screen time totals no more than seven minutes, Philip Seymour Hoffman (credited without the "Seymour" here) makes an impression, because even early in his career he always made an impression. He initially played variations on overgrown bullies (albeit not always ones who commit rape), an interesting contrast to the complex, broken characters that would later make him famous, all with the same unnerving sense of realness. You can easily see Steven Hanauer pushing around someone like Allen, Hoffman's desperately lonely obscene phone caller in Happiness, and it's proof of what a tremendous talent he was, and how greatly he's missed.