Amid the ever grimmer news about the Asian earthquake, I’d like to spare a few words for the wonderful actor Jerry Orbach, who died last night. After a long and successful stage career and a string of character roles on film, Orbach spent 12 seasons playing the wisecracking Det. Lennie Briscoe on Law & Order before leaving the show this year. Orbach, 69, had been expected to recover fully from prostate cancer and had already begun production on the new L & O spin-off, Trial by Jury, scheduled to premiere in 2005. To legions of Law & Order junkies (and as many have noted, the show has uniquely addictive properties) Briscoe’s gravelly baritone was the voice of New York street justice.
Orbach’s Lennie Briscoe was the Philip Marlowe of television, known for his dry, Bogart-like delivery of crime-scene one-liners. Finding a university ID on one murder victim, he quipped, “She can forget about midterms.” Told by a spacey suspect that a crime was the devil’s work, he retorted, “No, this was done by someone who knows the neighborhood. Satan’s not a local.” Orbach wasn’t the first actor to play a senior detective on L & O—he started in Season 3, following George Dzundza’s Max Greeley and the estimable Paul Sorvino’s Phil Cerreta—but his deadpan manner came to define the show’s no-nonsense procedural style. (Especially now that syndication has made the show so ubiquitous as to constitute a kind of public utility, everyone has their favorite L & O cast; my ultimate lineup would include Chris Noth and Orbach in the cop roles, S. Epatha Merkerson as Lt. Anita Van Buren, and Sam Waterston and Steven Hill in the “Law” section. To me, the female assistant DAs were pretty much interchangeable.)
Orbach knew that the key to the show’s longevity was its rigid adherence to a formal structure, one-half law, one-half order. In an interview last year, he reflected, “It’s almost like a ritual. You know there’s going to be a body found, and we’re going to look for who did it, and then there’s going to be some twist at the trial. People tune in. They know what’s coming and they like it that way.”
Orbach also understood the importance of the tension between what viewers did and didn’t know about his character. Lennie Briscoe was reliably cagey about his personal life—the cops and lawyers on Law & Order are among the most unapologetic workaholics on television. But something about Orbach’s actorly restraint, not to mention the rough past suggested by his craggy face and weary slouch, made the rare glimpse into Briscoe’s back story all the juicier. When you learned something about Briscoe’s past, as one writer put it, it was like discovering that “your high-school science teacher had a life outside of the classroom.” Over the years, we were allowed a few precious Briscoe tidbits: We learned that he was a recovering alcoholic; that he had two daughters, one of them a drug addict, after two spectacularly unsuccessful marriages; that he hadn’t had a date since 1986 (or was that just his dry sense of humor again?); and that he took his coffee “regular,” and often.
During his 12 seasons of on-location shooting in New York, the Bronx-born Orbach became a local favorite, especially with the cops. In an interview last year, he described his relationship with the real NYPD: “If it’s raining and I can’t get a cab, sometimes a squad car will come by and they’ll say ‘Where you going?’ I say, ‘I don’t want to get you guys in trouble.’ They say, ‘Get in the back. We’ll pretend you’re under arrest.’ ” Along with fellow cast member Sam Waterston, he was declared a “Living Landmark” by the New York Landmark Conservancy last year. Asked what his new status meant, Orbach answered with a line wry enough to serve as Lennie Briscoe’s epitaph: “It means they can’t tear me down.”