Jerry Orbach passed away in 2004 after a battle with prostate cancer. The Broadway legend and Law & Order battled the illness for far longer than most realized. For almost his whole run on the show, he fought valiantly.
Legend In His Time
Before he was NYPD Detective Lennie Briscoe, Orbach made a name for himself on Broadway. Son of a vaudeville performer, he quickly became a leading man in theater. He starred in The Fantasticks in 1960 and regularly collected Tony nominations for decades. An appearance on The Golden Girls netted him an Emmy nomination, and he’s known to Disney fans as the voice of Lumière in Beauty and the Beast. Of course, he’s also beloved for playing Baby’s father in Ditty Dancing.
In 1992, after a previous guest appearance, Orbach was approached to join Law & Order for its third season. He replaced Paul Sorvino as the head detective. Law & Order brought Orbach international acclaim, and he stayed on the show for 11 and a half seasons. His character, Lennie Briscoe, remains among the most loved characters in the show’s long history. Briscoe also scored an Emmy Award in 1997 for the role, among many more nominations.
Ill Nearly The Entire Time
In 1994, not long into his tenure on Law & Order, Orbach was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He fought the illness on and off for over a decade. This means Orbach was fighting cancer for nearly his entire run.
He chose to keep his cancer diagnosis a secret from the general public. The news of his diagnosis didn’t arrive until just weeks before his death. It’s rather sad reading what folks like Dick Wolf were saying at the time: “We expect him to make a full and swift recovery, and while he is receiving treatment, we will work around his schedule.” That’s pretty tragic.
At the time of his death, Orbach was getting ready to helm the spinoff show Law & Order: Trial By Jury. He’s interred at Trinity Church in Manhattan, the same cemetery as Alexander Hamilton.
Tributes Pour In
The lights were dimmed on Broadway for Orbach, which is one of the highest honors the theater world can bestow on an actor. He posthumously received a Screen Actors Guild Award for Law & Order in 2005, which his wife accepted on his behalf. He even has a street named in his honor: a portion of 53rd St. in Manhattan was renamed “Jerry Orbach Way” in 2007.
More tributes followed in for Orbach after Law & Order finished its run in 2010, with many citing how masterful he was on the program. To think he managed to create such an iconic character while dealing with cancer is nothing short of incredible.
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