|"On a plane, a baby was seated in front of me who didn't stop crying," recalls Dann Florek, better known as Capt. Donald Cragen on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. "So I started talking to the baby, and after a few minutes, he stopped crying. The mother turned to me and said, 'That's because he knows your voice from Law & Order.'" It's not that Capt. Cragen's vocal tones are all that soothing, but they sure are familiar. On any given day, L&O: SVU may air as many as three times. |
Still, there are pitfalls in working on a long-running series, especially in a role that often entails giving bits of information that are devoid of drama. "Did you talk to the uncle?" is the example Florek offers. He notes, "Nothing much is happening there. But when the scenes are about emotion, when there's a personal element, they come easier." Mundane moments aside, Florek has played his share of intense scenes during his eight-season stint on the hit NBC police drama, reprising the role after three seasons on the original Law & Order and the L&O TV movie Exiled.
Whether he is providing exposition or grappling with heavier emotions, Cragen is a contradictory figure, steely yet compassionate, rule-abiding yet at times rebellious. But most of all, suggests Florek, "he's the rabbi, a mentor." He continues, "Captain Cragen has to be all things to all people. He is policeman and politician. At one time he was a cop not unlike Benson [Mariska Hargitay] and Stabler [Christopher Meloni], and he has crossed the line. But now, as the captain, he's got to keep them in control. Often he's in a conflict."
Bald and imposing-looking, Florek is an intense man and a thoughtful actor who has been in the business for more than three decades. The 56-year-old Grand Rapids, Mich., native first came to the attention of the TV-viewing public for his depiction of nerdy direct-marketing whiz Dave Meyer on the Emmy-winning series L.A. Law. Other TV credits include guest spots on The Practice, NYPD Blue, Wings, Roseanne, and Ellen. He appeared in the satiric made-for-TV movie The Pentagon Wars and the award-winning HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon. On the big screen he has tackled a range of genres, as well: action thrillers such as Hard Rain, romantic dramas with comic elements such as Beautiful Joe, and broad-stroked comedy such as The Flintstones. Earlier credits include the late-1980s films Angel Heart and Sweet Liberty.
His theatre work in New York and regionally also reflects a spectrum of acting styles, ranging from Shakespearean (A Midsummer Night's Dream) to dramatic realism (Death of a Salesman, Strange Snow, American Buffalo). His stage experience has been particularly helpful to him on the small screen. "During the long rehearsal process for a play, certain things become instinctive," Florek contends. "For example, when you walk onto the stage, you wind up in the light—with the spotlight on you—before you begin your speech: 'Now is the winter of my discontent.' Similarly, when you're acting on television, it becomes second nature to gauge the scale of your acting on the basis of the shot: Will it be a wide-angle shot or a close-up? Yes, I do believe that kind of awareness comes from stage experience.
"A good stage actor will be able to work on film for many reasons, including the ability to bring the acting down five notches," he continues. "But the reverse is not true. A good TV or film actor without theatre experience may not be able to act on stage, where he has to bring the acting up five notches and maintain truthfulness."
His move from theatre to television was a "happy accident," Florek says, adding that the term defines his whole career. "I never thought I'd be doing television at all," he explains. "As a young actor, I was opposed to it. Television was looked down upon. Still, I wasn't always getting the roles I wanted on stage or film." That reality, coupled with the fact that television made it possible for him to pay the rent, helped reshape his view of the small screen, he admits frankly. That said, he notes, he never approached landing a role on TV, let alone a series, with the vigor of a lifelong ambition. Indeed, he auditioned for pilots and guest spots only between theatre gigs.
Rage Lands the Role
Florek has what might be considered an unusual background for an actor. In high school, he was in an accelerated math and physics program. "I was also in the band, and sports interested me, especially baseball," he recalls. "But I had no interest in theatre until we were forced to read Hamlet and Long Day's Journey Into Night in a lit class. And I thought, 'Wow, this is powerful.' My buddies said, 'You read the fuckin' plays? Why didn't you get the CliffsNotes?'"
He started as a math and physics major at Eastern Michigan University, but later he switched gears, graduating with a degree in theatre and a desire to act professionally. But his love of mathematics never waned. "Numbers are everything to me," he notes. "Music is numbers. So is Shakespeare. Think about iambic pentameter—all numbers. But what makes acting exciting is that with identical words and rhythms, 10 actors will perform it differently. Acting is about how they fill it in."
He arrived in New York in the early 1970s and, with the exception of a few fallow periods, has worked steadily since the mid-'70s. His breakthrough performance was in Stephen Metcalfe's Strange Snow at the Manhattan Theatre Club in 1982. In this dark piece, Florek played a traumatized Vietnam vet, a likable loser awash in personal demons. "John Simon wrote, 'The actor is awesome,'" Florek quotes from the review in New York magazine. "After that, whenever he didn't like my work, he'd write, 'The usually excellent actor Dann Florek is floundering.' "
But earning the role in Strange Snow wasn't easy, despite Metcalfe's having written the part for him, Florek notes; he's struck by the irony even in retrospect. "But the Manhattan Theatre Club people just didn't see me in it, and so it went to someone else," he explains. "When that actor got another job, they asked me to read for it." His anger over not initially being cast coupled with the character's rage resulted in Florek throwing the script to the floor after the scene in the audition and storming out of the theatre. "The director, Thomas Bullard, and Steve [Metcalfe] ran after me down the street," the actor relates. "'You just got the role,' Tom said, and I answered, 'I'll let you know if I'm interested.'"
Florek is obviously his own man. When acting no longer interested him, he turned his attention to directing. "It was the early '90s in Los Angeles, and I guess I didn't like the material I was getting," he says. "I turned back to acting when I was cast as Teach in David Mamet's American Buffalo in San Diego. I loved playing Teach and the process of finding the character during rehearsal." And that's precisely what he misses most in a series, especially one such as L&O, that in addition to its sped-up rehearsals, avoids backstories—though longtime viewers know that Cragen is a widower and a recovering alcoholic and was once falsely accused of being on the take.
Still, Florek says he thinks about his character, fine-tuning his performance with telling details. He points to his slightly loosened tie as an example: "The tie gets knotted all the way only on special occasions, when Cragen deals with authority. It's his expression of deference." Down the road, the show will have increased "gravitas," the actor says, adding that he's not looking forward to stories dealing with child abuse. From the outset, such story lines have been troubling to Florek, especially because Cragen is not wholly sympathetic toward kids. "Though he'll always protect children, he also thinks they're a lot of trouble," Florek explains.
"That's hard for me, but as an actor I've got to find a way to ground those feelings in reality. I do that by making Cragen a bit of a curmudgeon." That way Cragen can voice less-than-friendly sentiments toward kids and remain sympathetic. "It's similar to playing a villain, a fop, a king, or a killer," Florek suggests. "Richard III takes you out on a branch and makes you ask yourself, 'Why be good?' For me, acting is about the journey, the signposts, and connecting the dots."