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How Late ‘Law & Order’ Star Jerry Orbach Made a Lasting Impact on Show

by Lauren Boisvert
(Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Jerry Orbach died in 2004 after a long battle with cancer, but his influence on theater and television is still felt, especially on “Law & Order.” He starred as Lennie Briscoe on the procedural for 12 seasons, before the stress of the job was too much for his illness. Orbach was sick for the majority of his run on “Law & Order,” but he was still a positive presence on set, and brought smiles to his co-stars’ faces. Kurt Vonnegut even called him “adorable” in a 2005 interview.

The show wasn’t the same for the 6 years it ran after his death. Fans felt his absence in every episode, especially because of its seemingly sudden nature; Orbach didn’t share his illness with the public until a few weeks before his death. After, the praise and remembrances poured in.

The New York Times wrote up an article about his life and career. Writers Ben Brantley and Richard Severo wrote, “Mr. Orbach may have been the last of a breed: no male star since has matched the breadth and continuity of his career in musicals […] It wasn’t until the 1990s, when he started appearing as Lennie Briscoe in ‘Law & Order,’ that Mr. Orbach became a familiar name throughout the country. The rough edge that distinguished him on Broadway eased his transition to character roles like Briscoe, the recovered alcoholic who seemed to greet the discovery of each episode’s crime with a world-weary shrug.”

Jerry Orbach’s Influence on ‘Law & Order’ and on Co-Stars

In a memorial video by the American Film Institute, “Dirty Dancing” co-star Patrick Swayze shared his memories of Orbach. “When I was shooting ‘Dirty Dancing,’ I think probably the eyes I trusted if I was real, and it worked, and I had nailed it, [were] Jerry Orbach’s eyes,” said Swayze. “I would go over to him and under my breath [say] “What did you think?” and he goes. “No, go there further, I think there’s more you can get.” He would say little things like “courage”, and it gives me goosebumps to say that. I really, really respected that man. I watched his career from the time I was little [and] I think it was a great loss when he passed.”

Bebe Neuwirth shared a moment with Orbach when they were co-stars briefly on “Law & Order: Trial By Jury.” Orbach switched to the spin-off before he died, as a way to ease him into a lighter shooting schedule. Neuwirth said, “It was the most elegant and beautiful and charming little vaudeville move I ever saw,” describing a dance Orbach did with a cane on set. “I threw my arms out and said, ‘Teach me that.’ And so he did.”

Jerry Orbach was a wonderfully talented actor on screen and stage, and he made a lasting impression wherever he went. Here, he will always be remembered for his role on “Law & Order,” but he was also so much more than just that.