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Lennie from ‘Law & Order’ says farewell

It may be spring, but that doesn’t mean there are no dark days in May. Last night,  Lennie Briscoe collared his final criminal on NBC’s “Law & Order.”

After 12 years of playing the quip-spewing, world-weary detective, Jerry Orbach is hanging up his badge and gun. And though  series creator Dick Wolf has tried to appease fans by promising that Briscoe will make occasional appearances on new series “Law & Order: Trial by Jury” (I’m waiting for “Law & Order: Traffic School”), it still feels like a time of mourning for crime-show addicts.

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Though Briscoe wasn’t original to the series — he followed both George Dzundza as Max Greeley and Paul Sorvino as Phil Ceratta — he came to define the quintessential television detective. He didn’t feel the need to dominate every scene; he just slyly stole them, with the perfect quip and perpetually raised eyebrows. His quips are one of the most enjoyable parts of the show. In one episode, when commenting on a decapitated victim, Briscoe chimed in with, “Hope his parents weren't getting him any hats for Christmas.” Then there was this exchange between Briscoe and Detective Ed Green (Jesse L. Martin):

Green: “Did anyone find any type of weapon in Peter Rubin’s home?”Briscoe: “Not unless you count the world’s most boring record collection.”

Not a cop, but he plays one on TV
It's very easy to imagine Lennie Briscoe on the job. Much like the guys who used to populate “Barney Miller," he actually seems like a cop. Orbach plays Briscoe with the wryness of someone who’s seen it all — he’s been on the job about a decade too long, and yet it still remains the center of his life.

His quips reflect someone who’s lost patience with people who play games and with those who just can’t seem to keep up with him. When a limo driver asked him if the model he was looking for was beautiful, Briscoe snapped back, “Right. Not one of those ugly models.” Anyone who deals with someone who seems remotely not to get it in their own workplace will find themselves grinning over Lennie’s latest snappy comeback.

And it’s not just laypeople who adore Briscoe. Even real cops seem to love his character. Orbach told the Philadelphia Inquirer that police officers in New York treat him well, sometimes even offering him a ride in their squad cars if it’s raining. Orbach has also been decreed a Living Landmark (along with Sam Waterston) by the New York Landmark Conservancy. 

Getting to know you“Law & Order” isn’t the kind of show where you learn a lot about the characters’ personal lives — but when you do, it’s through a casual conversation and not through soap opera. When a viewer gets a tip about Briscoe, it feels as  earth-shattering as the time when you learned your high-school science teacher had a life outside of the classroom. I love those little tidbits because they give me a chance to play detective.

What we learned about Lennie wasn’t much. Divorced twice, he was more than a little bitter about ex-wives and divorce lawyers. His comments tended to be along these lines: “My second wife always wanted a walk-in closet. Now I finally got one. Trouble is, I live in it” or “Crazy don’t mean stupid — my ex-wife’s living proof.” There’s also this classic exchange between Rey Curtis (Benjamin Bratt) and Briscoe on the topic of prostitution:

Rey: “You ever pay for it, Lennie?” Lennie: “I was married, wasn't I?”

We also learned about Briscoe’s two daughters, Julia (who never actually made an appearance on the show) and Cathy, who was murdered after testifying against her drug dealer ex-boyfriend.

From crossover episodes with “Homicide: Life on the Street,” we learned that Briscoe had once slept with one of John Munch’s (played by Richard Belzer) ex-wives, which infuriated Munch to no end. Beyond that, we didn’t hear too much about Briscoe’s love life. He once quipped that the last time he “got lucky” was 1986.

Lennie was also a recovering alcoholic. In one episode he commented, “After I traded in the Chivas bottle for the Grecian Formula, I became a saint.”  He went off the wagon in the classic didn’t-follow-the-formula episode, “Aftershock,” where cast members reacted to the execution of one of the criminals. The episode ended with Claire Kincaid (Jill Hennessy) losing her life in a car accident. An intoxicated Briscoe was a passenger in her car.

The “Law & Order” shows have a well-worn revolving door for cast members. Can anyone out there name all the assistant district attorneys, both male and female? How about naming Munch’s original SVU partner (he was one of the many actors to migrate from “Oz” to “L&O” and I don’t mean Chris Meloni)?  There are those fans who think there’s no ADA like Claire Kincaid or that Sam Waterston’s Jack McCoy doesn’t hold a candle to Michael Moriarty’s Ben Stone. There are even those who were never able to move beyond Chris Noth’s Mike Logan as Briscoe’s partner.

Up until now, I’ve always enjoyed all the changes that Dick Wolf threw at us. I liked the reality of seeing someone adjust to a new boss or partner. Logan was even more gruff than Briscoe; conversely, Curtis seemed like a boy scout next to him. When he was partnered up with Curtis, Briscoe quipped, “I got ties older than him. Few pairs of shoes, too.” And current partner Ed Green may be Briscoe’s best yet.

But the idea of replacing Lennie Briscoe is a bit too much for this “Law & Order” fan. Dennis Farina of “Crime Story” fame will be replacing Orbach. My own suggestions would have been Robert Forester (“Jackie Brown”) or yet another paroled “Oz” actor, like Kirk Avecedo or Terry Kinney. But let’s face it, there’s really no replacing Orbach.

After all, not that many actors can deliver a deadpan line like, “New Hampshire. I spent a year there one weekend.”

Briscoe was always the anchor of “Law & Order.” He kept the show grounded in the reality that we imagine real cops go through. Despite his gallows humor, when you watch “Law & Order,” you can't help but notice that Lennie always gives the friends and families of the victims a reassuring pat on the shoulder. He also does this with his partners when the cases get tough.

Maybe above all else, this is what truly endeared this television detective to the fans. Dick Wolf may find an actor who can spout off cynical lines with the best of them, but it will be tough to find an actor who can imbue his character with the humanity of Orbach.

Paige Newman is the Movies Editor at MSNBC.com and a self-confessed crime-show addict.