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​Jerry Orbach’s Greatest ‘Law & Order’ Episodes

Celebrate the return of the original show this month with its truly original star

Jerry Orbach stars as Detective Lennie Briscoe in the television series Law and Order

Jessica Burstein/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images

Law & Order ran for 20 seasons, from 1990 to 2010, and the Dick Wolf procedural that launched a thousand spin-offs — and imitators — is set to make its big return to the small screen on February 24. When viewers tune in to the revival, they’ll recognize a number of faces, including Sam Waterston (81) as District Attorney Jack McCoy and Anthony Anderson (51) as Detective Kevin Bernard. Sadly, not returning is the iconic, wisecracking NYPD Detective Lennie Briscoe; his portrayer, Jerry Orbach, died of cancer at the age of 69 in 2004. As we look ahead to the 21st season of one of the most influential shows in television history, let’s stop to remember some of Detective Briscoe’s greatest moments, from his most memorable cases to his pun-filled one-liners.

​​Note: Trying to find Law & Order episodes streaming online is almost as tricky as cracking one of the show’s murder cases — different seasons live on different sites, and some aren’t available at all. Where possible, we’ve included the best places for you to watch the episode in question.

Briscoe has a very busy day (1994)

The episode: “Mayhem,” March 9, 1994 ​

The premise: Briscoe and Mike Logan (Chris Noth, 67) have the shift from hell as they investigate a slew of unrelated homicides over the course of 24 hours — all while Briscoe is just trying to get to a Knicks game that night. This episode rips so many stories from the headlines that it practically leaves the newspaper in shreds, with cases inspired by Lorena Bobbitt (shudder), Son of Sam and the Zodiac Killer. There’s also a crazed man who tries to use a burrito as a weapon and plenty of Briscoe’s sarcasm: When his partner says he eventually wants to leave New York City to move to New Hampshire, Briscoe replies, “I spent a year there one weekend.”​

Watch it: “Mayhem” clip on YouTube


Benjamin Bratt, Jerry Orbach, Sam Waterston and Jill Hennessey in Law and Order

Jessica Burstein/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images

(Left to right) Benjamin Bratt as Detective Rey Curtis, Jerry Orbach as Detective Lennie Briscoe, Sam Waterston as Executive A.D.A. Jack McCoy and Jill Hennessey as A.D.A. Claire Kincaid in the episode, "Aftershock."

​​Briscoe deals with the aftermath of an execution (1996)​​

The episode: “Aftershock,” May 22, 1996 ​

The premise: The Season 6 finale is an emotional doozy that’s gone down in history among L&O fans for the way it bucks the show’s format conventions: The episode dispenses with the usual case of the week and instead follows four detectives as they deal with the aftermath of watching an inmate’s execution. Briscoe meets with his estranged daughter, and after their talk doesn’t end well, the recovering alcoholic falls off the wagon at a bar. As Assistant District Attorney Claire Kincaid (Jill Hennessy, 53) drives him home, tragedy strikes, and Orbach delivers one of his most wrenching scenes in the show’s history. ​

Watch it: “Aftershock” on TNT Drama


Jerry Orbach in Law and Order

Robert Gilberg/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images

Briscoe is investigated for corruption (1996)​​

The episode: “Corruption,” October 30, 1996 ​

The premise: Briscoe’s ethics are called into question when a former partner accuses him of having taken seized drugs from the precinct years before. When it seems like his job and his reputation might be on the line, he’s saved by an airtight alibi: On the night in question, he was having a tryst with a married fellow police officer, and she agrees to testify on his behalf. ​

Watch it: “Corruption” on Dailymotion

Don’t miss this: What's the Best 'Law & Order' Series of All Time?


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Briscoe finds some justice (1999)

The episode: “Hate,” January 6, 1999 ​​

The premise: Briscoe’s family life was marked by tragedy, and perhaps no one had a sadder fate than his daughter Cathy, who struggled with meth addiction and was later murdered by the drug dealer she testified against in court. In this Season 9 episode, Briscoe finds closure when he learns that her killer has died of a heroin overdose — and there’s a subtle hint that the detective may have had something to do with his death.

Watch it: “Hate” on DirecTV


​​Briscoe fails to nab a killer (1999)

The episode: “Marathon,” November 17, 1999

The premise: Orbach earned his only L&O Emmy nomination for his performance in this Season 10 episode, in which Briscoe is frustrated when he fails to put a gang member behind bars after numerous attempts. It’s also notable for the frank talk Briscoe and his partner, Detective Ed Green (Jesse L. Martin, 53), have about race and the criminal justice system. ​​

Watch it: “Marathon” on Fubo, Philo


Briscoe has another very busy day

The episode: “Couples,” May 21, 2003​​

The premise: For its 300th episode, the series took a go-big-or-go-home approach. In this packed installment, Briscoe and Green investigate a kidnapping and three murders over the course of a single day, all of which connect in some way to domestic disputes, and one of the killings ends up being connected to a fourth murder from a decade earlier. Expect some soapy twists, including a faked death and a woman who runs over her husband in broad daylight when he keeps pressuring her to get breast implants.​

Watch it: “Couples” on Peacock


Jerry Orbach sits at his desk in the Law and Order episode C O D

NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images

​​Briscoe retires (2004)

The episode: “C.O.D.” May 19, 2004 ​​

The premise: This Season 14 finale marked the retirement of Detective Briscoe in an episode with killings inspired by Strangers on a Train. When he learns about the murder of a parcel deliveryman at the beginning of the episode, Briscoe deadpans, “When you absolutely, positively have to kill somebody overnight.” Later, after his team successfully cracks the case, Briscoe packs up his box, bids farewell to Green and Lieutenant Anita Van Buren (S. Epatha Merkerson, 69) and says simply, “It’s nice to go out on a win.” ​

Watch it: “C.O.D.” on Peacock


Briscoe makes his final appearance (2005)

The episode: “41 Shots,” March 4, 2005 (Law & Order: Trial by Jury) ​​

The premise: Orbach died from prostate cancer on December 28, 2004, but he had already filmed the first two episodes of the short-lived spin-off Trial by Jury. He was so ill during the taping of his last appearance that he could barely raise his voice above a whisper, so the writers set up a scene that would allow him to speak softly. At the trial of a cop killer, he and the other NYPD members are barred from entering the courtroom. Briscoe looks in during the verdict and whispers back to the other cops, “They got him!” as they all cheer. It’s a sweetly triumphant ending for one of our favorite TV cops of all time.

Watch it: “41 Shots” on Amazon Prime


Briscoe delivers crime scene one-liners (1992-2005)

The episode: Nearly every one he’s in! ​

The premise: Briscoe may have been a great detective, but we have a feeling he might have made an even better stand-up comedian. Over his dozen seasons on the show, Orbach became known for his trademark off-color crime scene quips, which would be jaw-dropping in their insensitivity if they weren’t so funny. Upon seeing a decapitated teen’s body: “Hope his parents weren’t getting him any hats for Christmas.” And when he discovers a pile of discarded frozen embryos, he says, “Hell of a way to make an omelet.” Groan! Orbach is responsible for many of the best zingers. He explained, “Most people don’t realize it, but I ad-lib all of those great lines. In the early days, the scripts were a little staid and too dry, very Dragnet. So I decided to spice things up with some good old-fashioned gallows humor.” ​

Watch it: Law and Order Best Bits on YouTube


Nicholas DeRenzo is a contributing writer who covers entertainment and travel. Previously he was executive editor of United Airlines’ Hemispheres magazine and his work has appeared in the New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler, Travel & Leisure, Sunset and New York magazine.