Fans of Law & Order hold a special place in their heart for actor Jerry Orbach. For 12 years, he gave one stellar performance after another as detective Lenny Briscoe on the long running show. But fans were shocked when it was announced that Orbach would be leaving at the show’s 14th season. Because while the show has had a long running tradition of rotating cast members as the seasons progress, Orbach had become a staple and a fan favorite over the course of his dozen years as a lead on the show. In this video, we’re taking a look at why Orbach left Law & Order, as well as going over some interesting elements of his life and career. So, join Facts Verse as we present: The Sad Reason Jerry Orbach Left Law & Order Forever.
Why Jerry Left The Show
When it was announced that Jerry Orbach was leaving Law & Order, fans were surprised and a little confused. Because the announcement included the fact that he would join the upcoming spinoff Law & Order: Trial By Jury. So it didn’t appear as if Jerry was retiring, or that he had grown tired of acting in a crime procedural. So it seemed odd that he would leave on Law & Order show after 12 years, just to start up another in the Law & Order universe. But as people later found out, the switch had very little to do with Law & Order, beyond it being an intensive work schedule that became increasingly hard on Orbach. The truth was that Orbach was struggling through prostate cancer, and actually had been for a decade. He had not gone public with his illness, but it had been slowly getting worse over the years. By the time he made the move to the spinoff, the disease had progressed to the point where he was struggling to get through the shooting schedule of the original show. So producer Dick Wolff tried his best to accommodate Jerry’s diminishing ability to stand up to the rigors of shooting. As such, he felt that the shooting schedule of the new show would be a lot better for Jerry. It would require a lot less of his time and energy, but would still allow him to keep working. Orbach felt it was important to stay busy, even as he suffered through his illness.
He Worked Until the End
Sadly, Orbach only lasted for two episodes of the new show. His cancer had progressed to the point where he was too weak to speak. This made it impossible for him to continue shooting, and sadly he died shortly after filming the second episode. The cast and crew of the show had a deep love and respect for Orbach, and this was no more evident than in a gesture they made for the filming of his final scene in the second episode. At that point, Orbach could barely raise his voice above a whisper. Yet the episode called for him to utter his famous line, “They got him” at the end. Normally he would say it with full-throated gusto. But in this case, that wasn’t going ot be an option. So the creative staff got together and figured out a workaround for Orbach. They shifted the final scene to be located outside of a courtroom. This was so the characters could ALL whisper their final conversation, and it wouldn’t seem strange, since people are supposed to stay quiet when they’re standing just outside a courtroom. The other cast members loved this idea. It allowed them to still perform the scene with Orbach, but didn’t call for him to speak above a whisper. So they all whispered their lines. To viewers, it might have seemed like a simple choice of not wanting to disturb whatever was going on inside the courtroom. But it was only revealed later that it was actually a gesture to accommodate Orbach’s illness.
Orbach’s long illness
Jerry Orbach was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1994. This terrible news came just as he was getting settled into the rhythm of Law & Order, as the show became a hit. Not wanting to ruin the show, or his chances to stay on it, Orbach decided he wanted to keep his illness a secret, not only from the general public, but also from his coworkers. The disease came and went in carrying stages over the next decade. But that means Orbach was fighting prostate cancer nearly his entire time on the show. It shows you the caliber of actor and the type of man he was. He was a consummate professional, and remained stoically committed to performing his role on the show, despite going through treatment after treatment to help cure him of the disease. The extent of his illness wasn’t actually revealed until only a handful of weeks before he died. So it came as a shock to even the people he worked with every day. Dick Wolff may even have not realized the extent of Orbach’s illness, because he made an announcement saying that he expected Orbach to make a full recovery. He announced that the show would arrange his schedule around his treatments. Sadly, things had progressed too far for Orbach to make the kind of recovery that Wolff and the rest of the Law & Order team was hoping for.
Orbach’s generous gift
Jerry had the rare gift of maintaining 20/20 vision for all of his life. He felt this was a perfect opportunity to help others after his death. Orbach decided to donate his eyes to people who needed them. A patient with extreme nearsightedness was given Jerry’s corneas, while another patient with farsightedness got his other cornea. The recipients were able to have a corneal transplant operation to receive Orbach’s corneas, and have the benefit of Orbach’s perfect vision.
Oddly enough, this wasn’t a decision that Orbach made right at the end of his life. In 2004, his widow, Elaine told The Daily News that it had been a long time wish of Orbach’s. She said that she couldn’t remember a time when he didn’t have a desire to help others with the gift of eyesight upon his death. She elaborated that Jerry believed in the continuation of the body, via gifts like organ donations and transplants. He felt it was the ultimate gift to give – taking a body part that is still working, and allowing someone else to use it for their continued health. She said the thought of it made Orbach intensely happy. So it was no surprise to her that after he died, two lucky people were given the gift of sight, courtesy of Jerry Orbach’s generosity.
Dispute over Orbach’s estate
There has been a lot of contention about Orbach’s estate in the years since he died. It all started when his two sons were seemingly cut out of his wll. In 2008 they came forward and made public the fact that trusts that were left to them were organized in a way that their stepmother – Orbach’s wife, Elaine – was allowed to not only take the interest accruing in the trusts, but was also allowed to remove as much of the principal amounts as she ‘needed’. This meant that the money theoretically set aside for Orbach’s sons was essentially being given to Elaine. This did not sit well with his sons, who also accused Elaine of giving away their father’s eyes after his death. Clearly they felt Jerry had not made the decision to donate his eyes, and that Elaine had made that decision for him. Orbach’s son Chris wrote a letter to Elaine that was unintentionally made public. In it, he accused her of being ‘a double-dealing, lying, scheming, miserable fool’ who essentially stole all of the $10 million in Jerry’s estate. Chris claimed to only have inherited a few items like CD’s and sweaters, while Elaine took all the money. Elaine disputed these claims, saying she had no idea why Chris was accusing her of such things. Elaine ended up passing away in 2009, and what remained in the estate wound up going to Jerry’s sons.
Then in 2014, there was even more dispute regarding Orbach’s estate. Before he died, Jerry had added an friend and accountant, Patrician Black, as executor of a Chase bank account he had. Years later, Black was ousted from the position by Elaine. After Elaine’s passing, her sister Rita became the new, sole executor. Reportedly Rita was trying in vain to have Black fully extricated from the account, but that no one could reach Black. The primary issue at hand is that the bank refused to allow anyone to withdraw money from the account, for fear that they’ll give it to the wrong person, opening them up to liability of being sued. So by virtue of not responding to legal phone calls and letters regarding the account, Black has essentially tied that money up indefinitely. And while it’s not known how much is in the account, it appears to be enough for people to be fighting over it. It’s also not clear if the issue has been cleared up in the years since this issue began in 2014.
Regardless of the disputes that have happened since Orbach’s death, it’s clear that he was a talented actor, loved and revered by not only the people around him, but also by millions of fans all over the world. And the fact that he continued to practice his craft even as he was in the process of dying of cancer shows us about his passion for entertaining others.
Now it’s time to hear from you. Did you know that Jerry Orbach donated his eyes to people in need after his death? Did you know that he kept his illness a secret from his cast mates and producers of Law And Order? Let us know in the comments section below!