Jerry Orbach didn’t join Law & Order until the show’s third season, and many fans don’t count those earlier episodes as part of the show. The wise-cracking NYPD Detective Lennie Briscoe was the heart and soul of the police procedural and elevated the material to allow for its long run.
Law & Order ran for 20 seasons, but Orbach left after 12 seasons. Orbach fell ill with prostate cancer and producers had to write him out of the show in 2004 because he was too sick to perform. He died later that year. He was only 69.
S. Epatha Merkerson, who played Lt. Anita Van Buren, said Orbach had been sick for years before his death. She didn’t know how bad his prognosis was until he left Law & Order.
“When he left the show, that’s when I knew he was really ill,” she told 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. I see that picture now and I know exactly what I was feeling.”
In an interview on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, Orbach said he loved meeting police on the street.
“Yea, it’s an amazing thing. They’re very sweet. The New York cops are terrific to me,” he said. But he didn’t really care about the attaboys. He loved it when they saw him as a mascot of sorts for the NYPD.
“And I love it when they say, ‘Keep making us look good,’” Orbach said. “So, that’s quite a compliment.”
Shortly after Orbach joined Law & Order, the show retooled. Without those changes, it’s unlikely the show would have been a memorable as it became.
‘Law & Order’ Retools in 4th Season, Overhauls Cast
Jerry Orbach was an instant fan favorite on Law & Order. And producer Dick Wolf saw an opportunity to shake up the cast.
So the show let go Capt. Donald Cragen, played by Dann Florek, and Richard Brooks, who played ADA Paul Robinette. The show wanted to add some women to the cast.
The fictitious 27th precinct had a new boss to run things as Lieutenant Anita Van Buren played by S. Epatha Merkerson joined the show. Assistant District Attorney Claire Kincaid, played by Jill Hennessy replaced Robinette. Merkerson made it through until the show was canceled more than a decade later. Kincaid was killed by a drunk driver in an episode three seasons later.
The show’s core line-up wouldn’t be set however until season 5, when lead ADA Ben Stone left the show and Sam Waterston’s hard charging, take-all-prisoners Jack McCoy joined Law & Order.
Florek’s time on Law & Order wasn’t through, however. His character was brought back to lead Law & Order: Special Victim’s Unit in 1999. The in-show story said Cragen had spent the previous years working as part of the NYPD’s anti-corruption task force.