The apocrypha Interview: Jerry Orbach
By Kitteridge
 
Jerry Orbach
Detective Leonard 'Lennie' Briscoe, 1992-Present
Defense Attorney Frank Lehrman - September 24, 1991
Typical Line: "Kid's sellin' crack, Mom's turnin' tricks....."This is one family Norman Rockwell never met.'

Though there might have to be a rumble with co-star Sam Waterston (Jack) on this point, we're betting our money's safe in saying Orbach is the real heart of the show. Tireless in his support of not just the show, but New York and cops everywhere, Orbach - who has done it all, from chauffeuring for Mae West to being nominated twice for Tonys. According to rumor, he also read for the roles of Greevey and Ceretta - clearly, creator and EP Dick Wolf really, really wanted him on the show. Fortunately, he got him.

 
So, 300 episodes! A surprise? 
No, of course not. I have this incredible history with long runs, everything from -- three years in Chicago, two in Promises, four and a half in 42nd Street and The Fantasticks, which ran 42 years. God only knows, when I start to do something it just keeps going. But I never thought I'd be doing this for my 11th season. Anyway ... it's a wonderful, wonderful run. 
Do you have a favorite episode?
Oh, gee, I don't think I really have a favorite. Some moments I've enjoyed in particular, but not really a favorite. There was one where we were pursuing this woman who had been involved in a Patty Hearst type bank robbery in the '60s and then we find her -- I think it was called "White Rabbit." Things like that that have a little underlying drama to them, you know. 
I understand that Dick Wolf wrote this part for you. Is that right?
Well, he tailored it to me. He really basically said he wanted the character I did in Prince of the City. Not a crooked cop, but that kind of world-weary cynical guy who's seen it all. 
Because Lennie has never threatened to throw anyone out the window, as your character did in Prince.
No, no. He hasn't had to yet, but he could! We don't get to do much violence. 
How did you actually come to the role?
It's interesting, I hadn't really thought about this show and one of my agents said, "You really ought to do Law & Order, it's in New York and it's a nice part of a lawyer," so I did it and got to know the people involved, and I guess they got to know me a little bit. And it turned out to be a good thing, because when Paul Sorvino wanted to leave, I had been on a short list anyway in Dick Wolf's mind and that was the opportunity right there. I think even earlier it might have been a choice between me and Sorvino -- who knows, I don't know what went on behind with out me knowing it, but it was all fortuitous and it's been a terrific thing. It's been a wonderful run and it couldn't be a better job for me because I get to stay home. 
In the Unofficial Companion I think it said you wait until five minutes before taping to learn your lines. Still accurate?
Yeah, I like to keep it totally fresh, and come to each scene without a plan. Just like you do in life. And then I meet the actor that we're working with, whoever it is, and know what's going to happen, and I have nothing planned, so I'm free to react to whatever's going on, whatever the director wants. I already know the story, but I don't have to sit down and memorize it by rote. 
How did the quips come to be?
They just sensed that that's in my nature and it's in Lennie's nature too to make fun of terrible things, and to do wisecracks to slough things off when they're terrible things like bodies and things like that. It's the kind of humor cops have when they've been on the job a long time. That just naturally evolved. Now it's become de rigueur, people expect me to do a joke in there. 
And there's a college drinking game.
That's right -- like on Fraiser, they were watching Antiques Roadshow and they had to drink every time someone said 'patina.' So I try to keep the jokes interesting and fun and they're just my wisecracks I put in wherever I can. And I suggest changes if I don't think they're funny. Having worked with Neil Simon and Mel Brooks and Bruce J. Friedman and some of the great wits of the world, I've learned a little about comedy structure over the years. 
Does the pace of the show get to you after all this time? It's pretty rigorous.
Yeah, it is, it is. And by this time of the year I'm like that horse that's looking towards the barn. I want to get it over with and get to vacation time. It's getting very close to golf. 
You don't dread coming back?
By the time I've had that almost three months off, I'm glad to be back to work. 
You're very much the face of Law & Order -- you're always at the seminars, on talk shows....
I try to do as much as I can in those areas, and it's good for the show, it's good for me, it's good for New York, the whole thing. Like the cops say, "Keep making us look good." 
Why do you think the show has lasted?
I think there's a certain amount of reliability in the audience's mind. They know what they're going to get, they know they're going to see a story from beginning to end, they don't have to wait until next week to see how it comes out, and they don't have to know what happened last week or who was sleeping with who or all of those elements on a lot of other shows. You can just walk into Law & Order and turn it on and see a full story from beginning to end. And that's very comforting to an audience's mind. They're not going to get too many unpleasant surprises. It's comfortable. 
Could this show have worked in the 60s or 70s?
I don't know -- there have been other shows like -- there were a couple of others like East Side, West Side, and the Defenders, and a couple that had a structure like this over the years. It goes back to Naked City, things set in New York with a gritty realism, they're timeless. As they used to say on Naked City, there are eight million stories in the Naked City, or the old radio show, Grand Central Station, crossroads of a million private lives. It's true, New York lends itself to that. Even in the time when the sitcom was king in the days of The Cosby Show and all of the sitcoms had followed the success of Cosby, when all there was on the air were half-hour sitcoms, people were looking at Kojak reruns at 11:00, trying to find an hour drama to hang onto, something meaty. And Law & Order came along and started that trend back again to the hour drama. It goes around and the cycle changes, but this one, thank God, seems to be hanging on.
And I've read in a few articles where you've said you'd like to have someone die in your arms so you can get the Emmy -- have you resigned yourself to the fact that they may not going to write that for you?
Yeah, I'm pretty much resigned to that. I don't expect any big changes where we're doing heavy emotional stuff. I don't think the audience expects it, and when we do a little bit of it, even a tiny bit, people say, "Wow, that scene with you in the bar with the priest was powerful. And I said yeah, I got to get a tiny bit emotional for a second." Instead of just asking questions or doing wisecracks. But I'll do this, this is fine. 
And you're currently working on another all-cops-like episode, right?
Yeah, and it leads into the 300th. So they'll be at 9:00 and 10:00. One is going to segue into the other. We're doing it right now -- we're taping out of sequence. We did No. 300 last week, and now we're filming 299, backwards. The all-cop one is very, very, very, very trying, harrowing, exhausting and a lot of hours. The weather hasn't been cooperating, either. We had a week and a half ago 88 degrees, then we had snow, it's been madness. Today we're outside with just our sportscoats on and no coats and it's like 45 and the wind is blowing. We'll be glad to get out of this one. 

 
 

whaddya think?