“Law & Order: SVU's ”Dann Florek Says Watching Mariska Hargitay Lead Is a 'Beautiful Passing of the Baton' (Exclusive)

Florek, who played SVU squad captain Donald Cragen for 15 seasons on the NBC series, got choked up while talking about his friend

<p>Kristina Bumphrey/Variety via Getty; Todd Williamson/NBC via Getty</p>

Kristina Bumphrey/Variety via Getty; Todd Williamson/NBC via Getty

Law & Order: Special Victims Unit's Dann Florek can't help but get choked up reflecting on just how much Mariska Hargitay has grown over the years.

PEOPLE caught up with the actor, who played SVU captain Donald Cragen for 15 seasons on the NBC drama, at Tuesday's Law & Order: SVU’s 25th anniversary celebration in New York City.

Taking stock of the leadership roles Hargitay, 59, and her character Olivia Benson have stepped into over the past two and a half decades, Florek told PEOPLE: “It's a beautiful passing of the baton.”

He recalls of his return in front of the camera after exiting the show in 2014: “I got to do one little scene, I think I shot it on Zoom, and I was able to say to her — I'm gonna cry — 'You have no idea how proud it makes me to say "Captain."'"

Related: Mariska Hargitay Celebrates 25 Years of Law & Order: SVU and Turning 60: 'This Powerful Woman Emerged' (Exclusive)

<p>Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty</p>

Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty

The scene Florek referenced was part of SVU’s 500th episode, when Cragen appeared in a FaceTime with Benson as she tried to re-solve a case from earlier in her career. The former captain ended the quick call with that exact aforementioned line, making sure Benson knew just how much she has meant to him.

Related: Cute Photos of the Law & Order: SVU Cast Hanging On and Off the Set

The feelings of admiration are mutual, both on screen and off, as Hargitay thanked Florek by name in her remarks at Tuesday's celebration.

<p>Kristina Bumphrey/Variety via Getty; Todd Williamson/NBC via Getty</p>

Kristina Bumphrey/Variety via Getty; Todd Williamson/NBC via Getty

During the carpet, Florek was busy greeting old friends with hugs and laughter, including none other than another SVU mainstay Ice-T.

“Some people have been telling me I'm like the OG of the show, but that's the OG right there,” said Florek, 71, with a laugh as he pointed to the rapper–turned–actor, 65. “But having been there from the very beginning? When I started SVU, a lot of people said is there room for two Law & Orders? Well, we made it past that. Then I said, I hope we can make five [years]. Then I made 15 [years] and here we are for 25. It's crazy but good. Crazy because it should be.”

Related: Ice-T Jokes Mariska Hargitay Was 'Just Another Actress' When They Met: 'It Wasn't Some Holy Meeting' (Exclusive)

<p>Cindy Ord/NBC via Getty</p>

Cindy Ord/NBC via Getty

As for why Florek thinks the series has been able to stand the test of time, he credits the show’s content, and the people who work tirelessly on it.

“It’s smart. It's great stories. It’s entertainment first, but it's educational, it's enlightening, it's empowering," he explained. "On the way at the airport today, I was stopped again and this has happened the entire time. People said, 'As a family, we don't do all that much together, but we watch SVU and then we discuss it' — and all around the country, you know, they get on the phone and do it. How good is that?"

He noted, "I haven't heard that about a lot of other shows. It's honest, it's challenging, but it's smart and it treats the audience with respect.”

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Law & Order: Special Victims Unit returns for its 25th season Thursday at 9 p.m. ET on NBC.

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