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.
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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 Shortt once told Chris Meloni that he could probably have been 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 ninemonth 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 Bridge) 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 basics, and don't sweat the details. For instance, for nine years they've celebrated their wedding anniversary on July 2, when in fact, as 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 YourTango 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."
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Detective Elliot Stabler was nowhere to be found.