JERRY ORBACH 1935 -- 2004

By Gilbert Cruz and L.S. Klepp
Updated January 10, 2005 at 05:00 AM EST

Jerry Orbach was as vital a part of Law & Order as the trademark cha-chung! He spent 12 seasons chasing criminals and cracking wise as the beloved Det. Lennie Briscoe before leaving the show last season. But he had also spent 10 years fighting prostate cancer, and on Dec. 28, Orbach — who had gone public with the disease only weeks earlier — lost the battle in New York City at age 69. ”We knew he had the illness. He’d gone through bad periods before,” says executive producer Walon Green, who was orchestrating Orbach’s return to the L&O franchise in the upcoming spin-off series, Trial by Jury. ”It’s sad to think of not seeing him.”

Indeed it is. When Orbach began walking Briscoe’s beat back in 1992, the Tony award winner was instantly recognizable to a whole younger generation as the overprotective doctor dad in Dirty Dancing (and to an even younger generation as the voice of a flirty French candlestick in Beauty and the Beast). He had spent years playing characters on both sides of the law: a gang leader in the 1958 movie Cop Hater, a mobster in the 1971 comedy The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight, a private eye in the short-lived 1987-88 series The Law and Harry McGraw — even a defense attorney in a 1991 guest stint on L&O. When Green and creator Dick Wolf needed a season 3 replacement for Paul Sorvino’s sergeant, they remembered Orbach’s turn as (what else?) a craggy cop in the 1981 film Prince of the City. Viewers immediately warmed to Orbach’s recovering-alcoholic, twice-divorced alter ego. Wolf never regretted their choice: ”Jerry was the longest-running character on the longest-running drama series on television. But that was merely the capstone on one of the landmark careers in American show business.”

An affable and self-assured pro, the Bronx-born actor honed his leading-man skills in a long string of leads in Broadway musicals: the suave Sky Masterson in a 1965 Guys and Dolls revival, a razzle-dazzling Billy Flynn in the original 1975 Chicago, a ”Lullaby of Broadway”-belting producer in 1980’s 42nd Street. ”People forget, when they see him on Law & Order, the brilliance he had on stage,” says composer Burt Bacharach of his Promises, Promises star. ”The fact that he could do both —that he owned both — really speaks something for the man.” And through it all, say friends, he maintained his regular-guy air. ”Anybody could talk to him,” says his Chicago costar Chita Rivera, a pal of Orbach’s second wife, Elaine Cancilla. (He and Marta Curro divorced in 1975 after having two sons.) ”He and Elaine went to all the same restaurants, always stayed in the same neighborhood. He was everybody’s friend.” Adds Chris Noth, a.k.a. former L&O partner Mike Logan: ”To work with Jerry was to love Jerry.”

Fortunately, viewers will still get to feel some love: Before his death, Orbach had just finished filming for two Trial by Jury episodes. ”In his last scene, they’re waiting as the jury comes in. You get the verdict, and Jerry does a little victory salute,” says Green, who has yet to decide what to do with the character. ”It’s a victorious scene for him.” Not to mention a fitting coda for a most memorable career — and man. ”Call it denial, but for me, Jerry isn’t gone,” says Noth. ”He’s in my heart and my mind every day.” Spoken like a true L&O fan.