‘Law & Order’ Fans Struggled When One Mainstay Left the Show

by Megan Molseed

The popular Dick Wolf flagship series Law & Order ran for a total of twenty seasons before it left primetime in 2010. And, just three seasons in, one of the popular detective drama’s most iconic characters, Lennie Briscoe joined the cast.

Played by Jerry Orbach, the wise-cracking detective Lennie Briscoe quickly became a Law & Order fan favorite. For many, the debonaire – but cynical NYPD detective became a cornerstone of the popular NBC procedural. So, it certainly altered the aura hit procedural when Orbach exited the popular series in 2004 after twelve seasons.

It was around this time that Orbach fell ill with prostate cancer. The showrunners wrote him off the series. Orbach did, however, stick with the franchise for a little while. When Orbach first left the series, the plan was that he would continue to star in the short-lived Law & Order spin-off, Law & Order: Trial by Jury. This series offered a lighter schedule for the longtime actor, allowing accommodations for the treatment Orbach was receiving for his prostate cancer.

The void left by Orbach’s exit was filled by Dennis Farina’s Senior Detective Joe Fontana. The shift was a smooth and simple one with Fontana simply transferring into the precinct, replacing Briscoe in the Law & Order season fifteen premiere.

Unfortunately, Jerry Orbach’s cancer was far too aggressive. In all, the actor filmed only two Law & Order: Trial By Jury episodes before he passed away later that same year. He was only 69 years old.

Jerry Orbach Leaves A Memorable ‘Law & Order’ Legacy

According to one of Orbach’s Law & Order costars, S. Epatha Merkerson, Jerry Orbach had been ill for years before his death. However, the Lt. Anita Van Buren actress notes that she had no idea how bad his prognosis was until he left the series.

“When he left the show, that’s when I knew he was really ill,” the Law & Order actress tells the Archive of American Television.

“There’s a picture of me and Jesse [L. Martin] and Jerry and it was at it was after he shot his last Law & Order scene,” continues S. Epetha Merkerson. “I see that picture now and I know exactly what I was feeling.”

Not long before his death, Jerry Orbach discussed his time on the series with Conan O’Brien. During the interview, Orbach also discussed how he enjoyed meeting the real police while filming Law & Order.

“It’s an amazing thing. They’re very sweet,” Jerry Orbach tells Conan O’Brien.

“The New York cops are terrific to me,” the actor adds.

“And I love it when they say, ‘Keep making us look good,’” Orbach continued in the interview. “So, that’s quite a compliment.”