Testament to His Craft

Jerry Orbach, 1935-2004

by John G. Nettles

4 January 2005


Jerry Orbach

On 28 December I raised a glass to Jerry Orbach. It’s something I do every time one of the good guys falls, leaving the world a much poorer place for his or her passing, something I’ve done ever since Robert Heinlein left us. I raised a glass and went onto my blog and asked other people to do so. The response was overwhelming, with replies ranging from “Cheers, Lennie” from a Law & Order fan, to “He was the best Lumiere ever,” referring to his voiceover and singing work in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, to “Anyone who can respond to a line like ‘Nobody puts Baby in a corner’ without busting a gut deserves a glass in his honor,” for his role as Jennifer Grey’s dad in that movie about Patrick Swayze’s hair.

Jerry Orbach was a song-and-dance man of the old school, the son of a vaudeville actor and a radio singer, who did the bulk of his life’s work on Broadway. He was in the first companies of The Fantasticks and Chicago and did a long stretch as the titular character in The Singing Detective.

It was as a TV detective, however, that most people know Jerry Orbach. As the sardonic, ex-alcoholic, and less-than-strictly-clean NYPD detective Lennie Briscoe on NBC’s Law & Order for twelve seasons, Orbach came to embody the image of the world-weary cop on the job in a way no one had done on television since Jack Webb in the ‘50s. Like Webb in Los Angeles, Orbach was embraced by New York cops as one of their own, even if he only played one on TV. It has been reported that wherever he went in New York, Orbach never had to pay for a drink in a bar attended by a Manhattan cop. And he came to be so identified with the Big Apple in 2002, he was declared a “Living Landmark” by the New York Landmark Conservancy.

What truly distinguished Jerry Orbach’s work on Law & Order, aside from his longevity on a show notable for its cast turnover rate, was Briscoe’s seamless mixture of gallows humor and vulnerability. Unlike his counterparts on concurrent L&O series—Vincent D’Onofrio, I’m looking at you—Lennie Briscoe was the very picture of the veteran big-city cop who had spent too many years staring down the darkest alleyways in the city and the darkest corners of people’s souls. Briscoe was never in it for the thrill of the hunt or some moral crusade. He was a guy who weathered a slew of personal demons, who had done a few shady things in his time, who believed in the Blue Line and held it fast. He never came off as a brilliant or original thinker; his success as a homicide detective came from having done the job for so long. Though Law & Order, thankfully, doled out its characters’ private lives in tiny morsels, over 12 years, Briscoe’s experience—ex-wives, estranged daughters, the booze, the petty corruption—was easily the most fascinating in the bunch, and Orbach’s ability to live and breathe that complex character is a testament to his craft.

And Orbach’s craft is the reason I raise a glass. In the midst of the flash and cacophony issuing from the Idiot Box, Orbach emerged as a singular talent, his work an oasis of depth and humanity. I have no interest in the Rachels and Rosses, the Roseannes and Dans, or the Sams and Dianes. I couldn’t have cared less about Hawkeye and Hot Lips when they went off the tube. But Lennie Briscoe is gone and I’ll miss him, and that’s an accomplishment worth drinking to, even if only with Lennie’s preferred club soda.

We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work. We are a wholly independent, women-owned, small company. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing, challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. PopMatters needs your help to keep publishing. Thank you.

//Mixed media