Orbach, who died of prostate cancer Tuesday in Manhattan, had a gift for charming audiences - first as a song-and-dance man who starred in musicals on and off Broadway, then for 12 years as a sharp-tongued cop on TV's "Law & Order."
Wednesday, the prime time version of the drama shelved its current cast and instead ran an old episode featuring Orbach at his street-savvy best.
In addition to the TV role for which he is best remembered, Orbach, who was 69, had a long career which included singing in musicals and big screen films as varied as the gritty crime drama "Prince of the City" and the smash romance "Dirty Dancing."
At 69, he was beginning what he hoped would be a new chapter in his career, as his role as Detective Lennie Briscoe was spun off into the new NBC series "Law & Order: Trial By Jury."
With his hangdog puss and loose-limbed gait, Orbach was unmatched at playing the street-smart tough guy. A quintessential New Yorker, he personified his city's well-worn but implacable edge, embodying the Big Apple like few other actors.
While Orbach's fans span the fifty states and beyond, the loss is deeply felt in New York City, where locals consider the actor one of their own.
Former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani says Orbach was "a friend to all New Yorkers" and "a devoted ambassador of the city."
Orbach's longtime "Law & Order" co-star, S. Epatha Merkerson, remembers him as "as a real good guy who knew everything and everybody. He had a real lust for life and the work he did, and it permeated throughout the set."
Of course, he presented quite a different picture as the world-weary, recovering alcoholic Briscoe. But even as Briscoe drooped from the burden of everything he'd encountered, both on and off the job, he sized up life with sarcastic asides. For instance, standing over a fresh body on which a receipt from a fancy restaurant was found, he muttered: "Dinner for two? Hope he enjoyed it."
Orbach had announced in early December that he had prostate cancer. His manager said at the time that he had been receiving treatment since spring, but declined to disclose any particulars about the seriousness of his condition.
Orbach is expected to appear in early "Trial By Jury" episodes when the show premieres in March.
"I'm immensely saddened by the passing of not only a friend and colleague, but a legendary figure of 20th-century show business," said Dick Wolf, creator and executive producer of the four "Law & Order" series. "He was one of the most honored performers of his generation. His loss is irreplaceable."
Orbach started his career as a hoofer who also could carry a tune. Beginning in the 1960s, he starred on Broadway in hit musicals including "Carnival," "Promises, Promises" (for which he won a Tony Award), "42nd Street" and "Chicago."
"He was an anchor who brought style, security and razzle-dazzle to our original 'Chicago' company," said Chita Rivera, Orbach's co-star in that 1975 production. "He was a swell guy."
In 1960, he was in the original cast of the off-off-Broadway hit "The Fantasticks," playing the Narrator who sang the evocative "Try to Remember." That show went on to run for more than 40 years.
Orbach's many film credits include "Crimes and Misdemeanors," "Dirty Dancing" (in which he played Jennifer Grey's protective dad) and the animated "Beauty and the Beast," in which he voiced the role of the candlestick Lumiere, singing "Be Our Guest."
His portrayal of the cop in the 1981 drama "Prince of the City" inspired his "Law & Order" character.
Born in the Bronx in 1935, Orbach was the son of a vaudeville-performer father and a radio-singer mother. He acted in school plays, then attended Northwestern University's prestigious drama school in suburban Chicago, though he couldn't swing the money to finish. In 1955, he returned to New York to hit the stage.
In a 2000 interview with The Associated Press, Orbach remembered those days fondly. Money was tight, even with his early successes: He was earning just $45 a week in "The Fantasticks," but "even married, with a son, we lived all right."
He then began an association with producer David Merrick, appearing in three of Merrick's biggest musical successes, starting in 1961 with "Carnival," in which he played an embittered puppeteer opposite Anna Maria Alberghetti's winsome Lili.
In "Promises, Promises," the Neil Simon-Burt Bacharach-Hal David musical based on the film "The Apartment," he won a Tony for his portrayal of Chuck Baxter, the role originated by Jack Lemmon in the movie.
His biggest hit for Merrick was "42nd Street," which opened on Broadway in 1980 and ran for more than 3,400 performances.
In "Chicago," Orbach played money-loving lawyer Billy Flynn, the role Richard Gere inherited in the 2002 film. It was also in that show that he met dancer Elaine Cancilla, whom he married in 1979.
She survives him, as well as sons Chris and Tony from his first marriage.
Orbach's first shot at series television, "The Law and Harry McGraw" in 1987-1988, was a flop. But four years later he struck gold, succeeding Paul Sorvino at Manhattan's 27th Precinct as "Law & Order" entered its third season.
"People adored him," said Merkerson, who plays Lt. Van Buren. She recalled sharing lunch one day with Orbach and co-star Benjamin Bratt, when several fans approached the table. "Jerry stopped eating to talk to them. But after a while, I whispered to him, 'Your food is getting cold.'
"Kid," he replied with a big smile, "these are the people that keep us going!"