When Capt. Donald Cragen left the squad room a final time on “Law & Order: SVU,” he did so as he had lived in it — nobly.
That may be a lofty term, but Dann Florek‘s performance as the captain of the Special Victims Unit was noble, quiet, steady and unwavering.
Wednesday’s (Jan. 15) “SVU” marked his 400th episode as the captain. Florek played Cragen in all 331 episodes of this series, now in its 15th season, and in 69 episodes of the original “Law & Order.”
There’s a lot to be said for the sort of decency that Florek could not keep out of his performance. Florek declined requests to speak about his exit from the series, but had spoken with Zap2it over the years in a series of phone interviews and set visits.
He was one of the originals, going back not just to the mothership of “Law & Order,” but to that show’s initial pilot. Like so many actors, he could recall that one line that changed the course of his career.
“Fellows, you’ve got to find me something, I’m getting my butt barbecued,” he recalled saying in the audition.
Florek, 63, reminisced about how much he had loved working with Jerry Orbach, who played Detective Lennie Briscoe on “L&O.”
Though the stories on “SVU” focus on some of the nastiest depths people can sink to, and traditionally had veered clear of the detectives’ private lives, dedicated fans could glean facts about the characters.
Cragen had been a Green Beret and was a Mets fan. Incidentally, that baseball in a Lucite cube on his desk supposedly autographed by the team? The TV crew signed it.
Though Cragen gave off this air of Midwestern politeness, there was a righteous anger that seethed just below the surface. If a perp’s actions required it, he could be fast and furious and take him down.
“The old bald guy knows what’s going on,” Florek told us.
No one doubted it.
Florek got his grace note at the end of Wednesday’s episode, “Amaro’s One-Eighty,” which had Detective Nick Amaro (Danny Pino) at its center. Amaro, the straight arrow, was hanging out with the other SVU detectives, who goaded him into finally having a drink. Two glasses of wine later, he and Detective Rollins (Kelli Giddish) were walking. Right in front of them, a taxi hit a cop, who was running to a crime.
Amaro and Rollins picked up on his chase and wound up in an apartment hallway. Amaro fired shots, hitting a 14-year-old, unarmed black boy and paralyzing him.
As always, the show takes its cue from the headlines: New York City has a new mayor who campaigned on striking down the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk practice.
Amaro was the only one who fired a weapon, the kid was unarmed, and it was seen as a hate crime. Add that he had been drinking and was the first example of how the new mayor would treat rogue cops; it looked as if Amaro was going to do felony time. Then one of the Grand Jurors asked him a question.
Amaro was so sincere in his misery, and so obviously not a drunk bigot that he was not indicted.
Back at the precinct, Cragen told everyone that he was leaving, after waiting for Nick’s situation to resolve itself. Cragen dispensed advice and told them all to mind their new leader, Capt. Benson (Mariska Hargitay).
As the detectives clapped him out, everyone was misty. It’s a bittersweet feeling they experienced recently, saying goodbye to Detective John Munch (Richard Belzer). Munch may be back at some point, but Cragen gave the definite feeling that he wouldn’t.
He was, quite literally, sailing off into the sunset, going on a six-month cruise. He advised Benson to take care of herself and remember to live, for herself not just the NYPD.
And with that one of the greats walked off.