Something happened recently that requires me to confess to having what amounts to a really dumb interest. Although I criticize classmates and friends who love to watch the sensationalism of reality shows like “The Apprentice” and “The Bachelor” and programs like the utterly vacuous “Will and Grace” and “Sex and the City,” I’m guilty of tuning in to a certain show with an intensity eclipsing that of even the most rabid reality TV fan. I really, really like “Law & Order.” (Okay, okay, “America’s Next Top Model” too, but that’s another column altogether.)
Let me explain: I’m a bit of a “Law & Order” buff. You could say I like the show. A lot. Like, there was a time when, during one single week, I’d watch anywhere from 12 to 15 hours of the original series. Between new episodes or reruns of the latest season once a week on NBC and two or three episodes playing in primetime each weeknight on TNT, I became somewhat preoccupied. My obsession has since waned a little, but even now when I watch the occasional episode, I’ve seen almost every one several times.
The thing about the original “Law & Order” franchise (I won’t touch on “Special Victims Unit” and “Criminal Intent” because they’re just not relevant here) is that, once you start watching it, you can’t stop. Fans have often remarked on its weirdly addictive properties — the tightly structured investigation/trial setup, the three-dimensional characters whose personal lives we learn very little about and, as TNT’s promos for their three-hour blocks of reruns constantly remind, the drama.
Of course I realize that it’s just a TV show — but with this kind of program, one that makes you feel smarter as you watch but still entertains with class and intelligence, it’s easy to get drawn in. “Law & Order” is the equivalent of high-class televised heroin to reality TV’s cheap weekend binge drinking, and fans wouldn’t have it any other way. The thing is, it’s not just a show I like to watch; one grows quite fond of the characters — crusaders for justice who still have a human side.
So here’s the reason for my sudden outpouring of love for the show: Jerry Orbach — known to many Lennie Briscoe on the seemingly immortal cops-and-lawyers drama — died of prostate cancer two Tuesdays ago. Orbach, who played the twice-divorced, wisecracking New York Detective Briscoe for 12 seasons before his illness forced him to move to the third Law & Order spinoff, “Trial By Jury,” was my favorite character on the show.
Although I’m the last person who would ever purport to care about celebrity gossip, the news was genuinely upsetting. I was a little sad for the rest of that day, and every time I saw his headshot in the sidebar of a newspaper (or the absence thereof), I got a little sadder. It’s just not fair, I thought, for Lennie to die. It’s silly, of course, for fans to confuse a character with an actor; of course they’re not the same. But still, you get the feeling that knowing Orbach would have been a bit like getting to know the world-weary Lennie’s nicer side. His Associated Press obituary quoted him as saying, “[I don’t know] where I stop and Lennie starts, really … I know he’s tougher than me and he carries a gun. And I’m not an alcoholic … I know I wouldn’t want to be him. I guess THAT’S where I stop and he starts.”
After all that stuff about Orbach’s TV career, I want to do him some sort of tribute, a sort of mini-eulogy for my wisecracking televised pal. I think the best way to do that is to tell you about his career outside of television, to let you know a few things that all those reruns can’t. Orbach began his career as a Broadway actor, singing and dancing in musicals like “42nd Street,” “The Fantasticks,” and “Chicago.” He won a Tony Award for his work in “Promises, Promises” in 1968. He played Baby’s father in Dirty Dancing, and guess who voiced rakish candlestick Lumiere in Disney’s animated “Beauty and the Beast?”
Orbach’s performances with the rest of the L&O cast gave the show a dose of humanity, of vulnerability with a hard edge: There’s a reason he and hardass attorney foil Sam Waterston have been on the show so long, while the rest of the cast has rotated every few seasons. I prefer to remember him as Detective Briscoe, deadpanning a corny one-liner over a dead body before a commercial break. He was a great actor — one of my favorites — and I think anyone who’s ever seen the show will miss him. Goodbye, Jerry, and thanks for everything. Lennie: I’ll see you tomorrow night on channel 31.
Alexandra eagerly looks forward to the “Law & Order” reruns on TNT every day. If you share her zest for the courtroom, let her know. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.