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."
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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."
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Friends: "They give me peace of mind and a lot of laughs."