Open main menu

Donald Cragen is a fictional character played by Dann Florek in the American crime drama television series Law & Order and its spinoff Law & Order: Special Victims Unit on NBC. Cragen started the series as a homicide captain with the New York Police Department, but then became captain of the department's Special Victims Unit. A recovering alcoholic, Cragen is a tough police veteran, but loyal to his officers.

Capt. Donald Cragen
Law & Order character
Doanld Cragen.jpg
First appearance"Prescription for Death" (L&O)
"Payback" (SVU)
Last appearance"Fixed" (L&O)
"Perverted Justice" (SVU)
Portrayed byDann Florek
TitleNYPD Captain
FamilyMarge Cragen (wife, deceased)
daughter (later retconned)[1]
PartnerMax Greevey
SeasonsL&O: 1, 2, 3, 5, 10, 15
SVU: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16

Florek starred in the first three seasons of Law & Order before he was fired from the show due to an order from NBC to add more female cast members. Before his termination, Florek had expressed disappointment with his character's lack of material. In 1999, series creator Dick Wolf reintroduced Florek to Special Victims Unit, in which he reprised his role as Cragen from the show's first season to the fifteenth. Having appeared in 400 episodes, Cragen has been in the second-most episodes of any character in the Law & Order franchise, surpassed only by Olivia Benson.



Cragen comes from an Irish Catholic background, and graduated from a Catholic university in New York City, although different episodes have given conflicting information about exactly which school; he calls St. Raymond's University his alma mater in the first season episode "Sophomore Jinx", but says it is St. John's in the third season episode "Justice".[2] Cragen served as a Green Beret in the U.S. Army Special Forces in the Vietnam War before joining the New York Police Department,[3] where he was a homicide detective partnered with Max Greevey (George Dzundza).[4] Cragen had been married to a flight attendant named Marge (Ellen Tobie) and the two had no children,[5] although, in a continuity error, an early Law & Order episode indicated they had a teenage child.[1]

The episode "Prescription for Death" establishes that Cragen is a recovering alcoholic. He says that his drinking problem had become so severe in his early career that Greevey insisted he would no longer partner with him unless he joined Alcoholics Anonymous. Cragen finally hit rock bottom when he pulled his service revolver on a taxi driver while in a drunken rage; horrified, he quit drinking, joined AA, and has been sober ever since.[4] Nevertheless, he admits that he feels a daily temptation to drink due to the horrors he witnesses in his job.[6]

While on Law & Order, Cragen was depicted as easily irritated when under stress; when answering the telephone, his customary greeting was, "What?!". By the time of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, however, he has become more unflappable. He is jaded by city politics and no longer votes.[7] He is a fan of the New York Mets, and keeps an autographed baseball in a case on his desk.[3]

Cragen's primary weapon in Law & Order is a Smith & Wesson Model 36, which he continues to carry in Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.[8] His primary weapon throughout Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, however, is a Glock 19 9mm semiautomatic pistol.[9][10]


Florek portrayed the character from 1990 to 1993 in the original Law & Order. Six years later, he reprised his role again in Law & Order: Special Victims Unit from its premiere in 1999 to 2014.

In Law & OrderEdit

In the 1991 episode "The Blue Wall", Cragen is investigated by internal affairs for possible corruption after evidence tampering within the department leads to the acquittal of three Wall Street bankers in a money laundering case. As Greevey and detective Mike Logan (Chris Noth) investigate the case in an attempt to clear Cragen’s name, they discover that Cragen's mentor Pete O'Farrell (Robert Lansing) accepted bribes and arranged the evidence tampering. Cragen is reluctant to cooperate in the investigation against O'Farrell, but when District Attorney Adam Schiff (Steven Hill) applies pressure by calling for his indictment, Cragen agrees to wear a wire during conversations with O'Farrell, ultimately leading to O'Farrell's arrest. Despite clearing his own name in the process, Cragen feels guilty for bringing down his former mentor and friend.[11]

When Greevey is murdered in the episode "Confession", Cragen is a pall-bearer at his funeral.[12]

The Cragen character was removed from the series after the third season, making his last appearance in the season finale episode "Benevolence". Although his departure is not immediately explained,[13] it is established in the fifth season episode "Bad Faith" that he has transferred to head of the Anti-Corruption Task Force. He is succeeded in the homicide precinct by Lieutenant Anita Van Buren (S. Epatha Merkerson).[14]

Outside Law & OrderEdit

After leaving the 27th Precinct, Cragen spends six years as the head of the Anti-Corruption Task Force.[15]

Cragen encounters Logan again in the 1995 episode "Bad Faith" during an Anti-Corruption Task Force investigation into crooked narcotics detectives. Logan is investigating the suspicious death of a friend and fellow detective, Bill Marino, and is questioned by Cragen and task force detectives due to Marino's ties to the narcotics detectives. Logan's investigation into Marino's death leads to the arrest of Joseph Krolinsky (Bill Raymond), a former Catholic priest who had molested several boys, including Logan and Marino, and who had manipulated Marino into supplying him with victims. When Logan feels conflicted about whether to testify about his knowledge of Marino's complicity in those crimes, he turns to Cragen for advice. Cragen comforts Logan and ultimately helps convince him not to commit perjury by lying about Marino.[1]

As portrayed in the 1998 TV movie Exiled: A Law & Order Movie, Cragen next interacts with the 27th Precinct while attempting to arrest Mafia boss Don Giancarlo Uzielli (Tony Musante) for the murders of 15 people. During that investigation, Cragen discovers that there is not only a cop in the 27th Precinct on Uzielli's payroll, but that Logan is interfering with the investigation of the don by investigating a murder of his own. With Logan's help, Cragen discovers the identity of the corrupt officer: his former detective, and trusted friend, Tony Profaci (John Fiore).

At some point before the events of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Cragen's wife Marge, a flight attendant, is killed in a plane crash.[16] Florek said upon reprising the role on SVU that he and the show's producers crafted a back story in which Marge's death led Cragen to start drinking again, and that, in his loneliness, he solicited prostitutes. In that back story, Cragen becomes captain of the sex crimes unit to escape that downward spiral. Most of that story, however, is not explicitly discussed in any episodes of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.[15]

In SVUEdit

In 1999, the character appeared in the spinoff Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, in which he heads a bureau dedicated to solving sex crimes. Several of Cragen's first episodes on the series reunite him with another one of his former detectives from the 27th Precinct, Lennie Briscoe (Jerry Orbach); one of these reunions involves re-opening a serial murder case that Briscoe and Logan had failed to solve six years earlier (as portrayed in the Law & Order episode "Mayhem").[17]

In "Stalked", a first season episode, Cragen participates in a sting operation in which one of his detectives, Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay), serves as bait for Richard White (Bruce Kirkpatrick), a serial rapist who had been stalking her. When White attempts to attack her, Cragen physically incapacitates him and allows for his arrest.[3]

In a 2001 episode, Cragen finds a kidnapped boy he and Greevey had been assigned to find in 1991 while investigating a corrupt adoption agency. Cragen and his detectives later determined that the wife of the boy's biological father killed his mother and gave the baby to the adoption agency, where he was given a home. In the end, the boy's biological father wins custody of him.[18]

In the fifth season episode "Criminal", a homicide investigation leads to a suspect named Javier Vega (James McDaniel), a man Cragen arrested for murder in the 1970s who has since reformed and become a criminology professor. Convinced of Vega's guilt, Cragen becomes personally involved in the investigation, which results in Vega's arrest and conviction. When evidence surfaces proving Vega's innocence, a guilt-stricken Cragen arranges for his immediate release. Vega later kidnaps the actual killer and threatens him at gunpoint, but Cragen talks him down, then saves Vega when the killer grabs Vega's gun and tries to shoot him.[19]

Cragen in "Rhodium Nights", after waking up and discovering the body of a young woman (portrayed by Pippa Black).

At the start of the ninth season, Cragen is briefly relieved of duty for failure to supervise due to the actions of several of his detectives, such as Benson aiding her fugitive half-brother Simon Marsden (Michael Weston)[20] and her partner, Detective Elliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni), covering up his daughter's DUI.[21] Cragen is forced to transfer to the office of Chief of Detectives and cede control of his precinct to the newly promoted Sergeant John Munch (Richard Belzer). The transfer is short-lived, however, as Cragen's command is restored after Munch allows a suspect (Cynthia Nixon) faking dissociative identity disorder to be released into her sister's care, only for her to kill her parents.[22] In season 11, he is again suspended for 10 days, and is told that any further trouble concerning his unit will cost him his job.[23] In "Ace", he is forced to use deadly force against a baby trafficker who is about to kill a rape victim.[24]

Throughout Season 13, Cragen takes a more personalized role in SVU cases. In the episode "Russian Brides", Cragen takes on an undercover assignment to lure out a killer of young mail order brides, posing as the head of a children's rights organization. During a conversation with his "date", he mentions that he and his late wife had always wanted a child, but to no success. After his wife suffered a miscarriage, he says they attempted to adopt a child, but could not find the time to go through with it. It is left ambiguous whether Cragen is speaking of his own life, or merely improvising as part of his undercover role.[25] The season 13 finale, "Rhodium Nights", closes with Cragen awakening in bed to find the body of a young female escort beside him, her throat cut, and his hands covered in blood. He is suspended while the NYPD's Internal Affairs Bureau investigates him for murder.[26] In the Season 14 premiere, Bureau Chief ADA of the Public Integrity Unit, Paula Foster (Paget Brewster), investigates Cragen in the murder of the escort. He is arrested and held at Rikers Island. The SVU detectives work the case as well, trying to prove that he was framed. It is discovered that Cragen did hire a few escorts for "company". After it is proven that the girl was murdered by her pimp, Delia Wilson (Brooke Smith), Foster drops the murder charge, but announces that she is charging him with several other crimes, prompting Benson and the SVU detectives to dig into Foster's motives.[27] Benson discovers that Foster is on Wilson’s payroll. The SVU detectives arrest Foster, which allows the charges against Cragen to be dropped.[28]

In the Season 15 episode "Internal Affairs", Cragen asks Benson to take the Sergeant's Exam and remarks that he is approaching the mandatory retirement age, numbering the days he has left with SVU.[29] Cragen officially announces his retirement in the episode "Amaro's One-Eighty". He explains that he is leaving to join his girlfriend, Eileen Switzer (Melissa Blume), on a six-month cruise around the world, which would take him to his mandatory retirement date. He tells the squad room it was his privilege to work with each one of them, and announces that Benson would be taking over as their new interim supervisor.[30]

In Season 16, Cragen returns for the episode "Perverted Justice", in which he helps Sergeant Benson and Defense Attorney Bayard Ellis (Andre Braugher) look into a decades-old rape. Cragen uses his connections from the 27th precinct to help SVU get information they could never have accessed otherwise.

Awards and decorationsEdit

The following are the medals and service awards worn by Captain Cragen.

  American Flag Breast Bar
  NYPD Medal of Honor
  NYPD Combat Cross with gold award star (2nd award)
  NYPD Meritorious Police Duty
  NYPD Excellent Police Duty


Creation and castingEdit

Dann Florek was first cast as Donald Cragen in "Everybody's Favorite Bagman", the pilot episode of what would later become Law & Order. The pilot was filmed and produced in 1988 and it would take two more years before NBC ordered the full series. While main cast members Noth, Dzundza, Michael Moriarty and Richard Brooks had each signed option contracts that allowed them to be hired for the full series, Florek had signed no such contract. However, since he did not have any other acting roles at the time that the show went into production, he was available to join the show's cast.[31] Florek was living in Venice, Los Angeles at the time he was cast and had to be flown into New York City for the filming of each episode.[32]

Florek said during the formative seasons of Law & Order, the cast and crew had a great deal of integrity and were dedicated to making something different, and that filming could be unpredictable as a result. However, Florek was frustrated with his lack of scenes, claiming he felt the character was not well developed and under-appreciated, and he disliked commuting so far for such little material. He also believed the producers and crew were not giving him enough direction and guidance in forming the character, pointing out that he did not learn Cragen was an alcoholic until several weeks into filming. As a result, Florek came up with much of the character by himself, and improvised many personality traits and characteristics as he went.[32]

Florek repeatedly tried to quit the role during the first season, claiming that he was not given enough screen time. Series creator Dick Wolf persuaded him to stay, particularly due to concerns about the stability of the cast after Dzundza left the series and was replaced by Paul Sorvino as Sergeant Phil Cerreta.[15]

Departure from Law & OrderEdit

Those were the worst two phone calls I've ever had to make in 20 years as a producer. 'Dann,' I said, 'Look, you were the bedrock of the cast, you never complained, you show up on time every day of work, you have never been a pain in the ass, and thank you. You're fired.'

 — Dick Wolf, about Florek's firing[33]

Florek was ultimately terminated from the series after the third season upon orders from Don Ohlmeyer, NBC's West Coast president, to add more female cast members to the show. Wolf objected to the decision, but agreed to it in the face of possible cancellation if he did not.[15] He was one of two actors dismissed from the series along with Richard Brooks, who played Assistant District Attorney Paul Robinette. Wolf described notifying Florek and Brooks about the decisions as "literally the two worst phone calls I ever had to make in a business context". Florek said he did not approve of the "hushed and hidden" way his firing was handled.[34]

After Florek's departure from the show, Wolf stayed in touch with the actor and often said he wished to work with him again. Their continued correspondence led to Florek directing several episodes of Law & Order, as well as Florek reprising his role as Cragen in Exiled: A Law & Order Movie. When Wolf invited him to join the permanent cast of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, the television comedy series The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer, in which Florek played Abraham Lincoln, had just been cancelled. Florek had originally expected to star in another comedy, but production was delayed, freeing the actor's schedule up. Florek had reservations about accepting the role because, he said, "I didn't want to wind up doing the same thing; the crusty yet benign captain." He ultimately agreed to join the cast, in part because Ohlmeyer no longer worked for NBC. In accepting the role, Florek asked for more freedom in shaping the direction of the character. He said, "I wanted him to have grown and changed, and to be much more actively involved."[15]


When Law & Order: SVU first aired, Dave Mason, television editor for Ventura County Star, said Cragen was "played brilliantly" by Florek, and called the relationship between Cragen and Stabler the strongest aspect of the series.[35] Alan Sepinwall, television columnist for The Star-Ledger, said the Cragen character "showed off more personality" in the film Exiled and on Special Victims Unit than the character exhibited in the original Law & Order.[13]



  1. ^ a b c "Bad Faith". Law & Order. Season 5. Episode 20. April 28, 1995. NBC.
  2. ^ Green 2009, p. 239
  3. ^ a b c Cutler, Jacqueline (May 15, 2011). "'Law & Order: SVU' officers command uniform respect". Shawnee News-Star. Shawnee, Oklahoma: Gatehouse Media. p. 9D.
  4. ^ a b "Prescription for Death". Law & Order. Season 1. Episode 1. September 13, 1990. NBC.
  5. ^ Green 2009, p. 146
  6. ^ "Slaves". Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Season 1. Episode 22. May 19, 2000. NBC.
  7. ^ "Wrong is Right". Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Season 2. Episode 1. October 20, 2000. NBC.
  8. ^ "Loss". Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Season 5. Episode 4. October 14, 2003. NBC.
  9. ^ "Confession". Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Season 10. Episode 2. September 30, 2008. NBC.
  10. ^ "Clock". Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Season 8. Episode 2. September 26, 2006. NBC.
  11. ^ "The Blue Wall". Law & Order. Season 1. Episode 22. June 9, 1991. NBC.
  12. ^ "Confession". Law & Order. Season 2. Episode 1. September 17, 1991. NBC.
  13. ^ a b Sepinwall, Alan (April 23, 2008). "Leaving 'Law & Order': Memorable exits". The Star-Ledger. Newark, New Jersey: Advance Publications. p. 69.
  14. ^ "Sweeps". Law & Order. Season 4. Episode 1. September 15, 1993. NBC.
  15. ^ a b c d e Rohan, Virginia (October 11, 1999). "O Captain, My Captain: Dann Florek rejoins the ranks of 'L&O' with 'Special Victims Unit'". The Record. Woodland Park, New Jersey: Gannett Company. p. Y1.
  16. ^ "A Single Life". Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Season 1. Episode 2. September 27, 1999. NBC.
  17. ^ "Entitled". Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Season 1. Episode 15. February 18, 2000. NBC.
  18. ^ "Stolen". Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Season 3. Episode 3. October 12, 2001. NBC.
  19. ^ Green 2009, p. 276
  20. ^ "Philadelphia". Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Season 8. Episode 16. February 27, 2007. NBC.
  21. ^ "Blood". Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Season 6. Episode 21. May 10, 2005. NBC.
  22. ^ Green 2009, p. 336
  23. ^ "Turmoil". Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Season 11. Episode 8. November 11, 2009. NBC.
  24. ^ "Ace". Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Season 11. Episode 22. May 5, 2010. NBC.
  25. ^ "Russian Brides". Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Season 13. Episode 7. November 9, 2011. NBC.
  26. ^ Bryant, Adam (July 22, 2012). "Exclusive: Law & Order: SVU Casts Adam Baldwin as Cragen's Replacement!". TV Guide. Portland, Oregon: NTVB Media. Retrieved July 22, 2012.
  27. ^ "Lost Reputation". Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Season 14. Episode 1. September 26, 2012. NBC.
  28. ^ "Above Suspicion". Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Season 14. Episode 2. September 26, 2012. NBC.
  29. ^ "Internal Affairs". Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Season 15. Episode 4. October 9, 2013. NBC.
  30. ^ "Amaro's One-Eighty". Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Season 15. Episode 11. January 15, 2014. NBC.
  31. ^ Courrier 1999, p. 26
  32. ^ a b Courrier 1999, p. 114
  33. ^ Kuklenski, Valerie (May 20, 2003). "'Visual Nicotine' – The players come and go, the stories change, but 'Law & Order' has made prime time crime time". Los Angeles Daily News. Los Angeles, California: Digital First Media. p. U4.
  34. ^ Courrier 1999, p. 33
  35. ^ Mason, Dave (February 9, 2001). "Stabler is a caring man with bluntness". Ventura County Star. Camarillo, California: Gannett Company. p. E01.


  • Courrier, Kevin; Green, Susan (November 1999). Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion. Renaissance Books. ISBN 1580631088.
  • Green, Susan; Dawn, Randee (September 2009). Law & Order: Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion. BenBella Books. ISBN 1933771887.