Lennie Briscoe

lennie brisco by brandon bird

Lennie Briscoe is a fictional character on NBC’s long-running police procedural and legal drama television series ‘Law & Order.’ He was portrayed by Jerry Orbach for 12 season. The character was introduced in the 1992 episode ‘Point of View’ as the new senior detective in the NYPD’s 27th Detective Squad in the 27th Police Precinct’s Station House. His boss during his first season on the show is Capt. Don Cragen; a year later, Lt. Anita Van Buren takes over the 27th Squad.

He was previously assigned as a detective in the 116th Det. Squad in Queens. Briscoe joins the squad after Det. Mike Logan’s (Chris Noth) partner, Sgt. Phil Cerreta (Paul Sorvino), is shot by a black market arms dealer, and Logan transfers to a desk job in another precinct. After Logan is transferred to Staten Island in 1995, Det. Rey Curtis (Benjamin Bratt) becomes Briscoe’s partner. Four years later, Curtis goes into early retirement to take care of his multiple sclerosis–stricken wife, and he is replaced by Det. Ed Green (Jesse L. Martin) in 1999.

Lennie was born on January 2, 1940. He grew up in the Meatpacking District of Manhattan. A veteran of two failed marriages, Briscoe has two daughters by his first wife, the elder Julia and the younger Cathy, and a nephew, Det. Ken Briscoe (played by Orbach’s son, Chris). He mentions being a grandfather and Cathy is shown to have no children so they must be Julia’s. Briscoe was an alcoholic, although in recovery. Many references are made to his former problems both in his personal and work life because of his alcoholism. He often makes references to being a ‘friend of Bill W.’ (a reference to his having attended Alcoholics Anonymous).

His family is fairly dysfunctional; due to his alcoholism, he was often absent from his daughters’ lives, and they have distant, fractious relationships with him as adults. Briscoe blames himself, especially when Cathy, a methamphetamine addict, is murdered by a drug dealer after testifying against the dealer in court. However, he finds closure when the drug dealer dies from a heroin overdose. It is implied (although never explicitly stated) that Briscoe considered having the dealer killed. An old snitch of Briscoe’s offered to kill the dealer if Briscoe could get his charges reduced. Briscoe is later seen talking to the arresting officer about the snitch, but it is never confirmed if Briscoe did him the favor.

In the 1996 episode ‘Aftershock,’ after witnessing an execution from a case he helped investigate, Briscoe falls off the wagon with disastrous results; A.D.A. Claire Kincaid (Jill Hennessy) is struck and killed by a drunk driver while driving him home from a bar. The experience shakes him deeply, and he remains sober for the rest of his life.

Briscoe was raised Catholic, but is Jewish on his father’s side and occasionally attends Jewish services as a courtesy to his first wife. His father suffered from Alzheimer’s and passed away sometime before 1994. In 1997, his mother was still alive and living in Florida. Though not actually Jewish according to the traditional definition, Briscoe is sometimes the target of antisemitism from criminals and even some of his own colleagues. Briscoe also develops a friendship with one of the few featured Jewish police officers during his tenure, John Munch (Richard Belzer), despite Munch’s initial resentment when he discovers Briscoe had slept with Gwen Munch, Munch’s first wife.

Briscoe is one of many characters on the show to have served in the military; he was at one point a corporal in the United States Army. On several occasions he has referred to his service in the Vietnam War. After leaving the Army, Briscoe joined the NYPD in the 29th Precinct in Manhattan and walked a beat there with stops at the 31st and 33rd Precincts, also in Manhattan, and the 110th and 116th Precincts in Queens, at some point reaching the rank of detective. It is also revealed in the 1999 episode ‘Marathon,’ that he spent three years in the Anti-Crime Unit. Briscoe’s detective shield number is 8220.

Briscoe typically has a wisecrack or joke about the victim or circumstances of death at the close of the opening scene, with the joke usually exhibiting a very deadpan delivery while at the same time being highly ‘on target.’ He likes music, but mostly music that was popular in his youth. In Season 9, Curtis chides his musical taste for stopping with Bobby Darin. Briscoe used to read Langston Hughes back when he was a beatnik ‘for about five minutes’ and ‘it used to work pretty good on Jewish girls.’

Many of Briscoe’s former partners and colleagues outside the series (offscreen before Briscoe joined the 27th Precinct) have been or ended up becoming corrupt. In the 1993 episode ‘Jurisdiction,’ Lieutenant Brian Torelli (Dan Hedaya) forced a confession from a mentally challenged man; at the end of the episode Briscoe is present when Internal Affairs arrests Torelli for suborning perjury and obstruction of justice. In the 1994 episode ‘Kids,’ the son of police detective Ted Parker, a former colleague of Briscoe, is arrested for shooting another teenager. Parker and Briscoe have a private conversation where Parker uses hypotheticals to virtually confess to Briscoe that his son only shot in self-defense. At the end of the episode, Parker tacitly acknowledges to Briscoe that he used his contacts in his old precinct to engineer the shooting death of a key prosecution witness in his son’s case (resulting in a mistrial).

Another of Briscoe’s former partners, Det. John Flynn (Kevin Conway), falsely implicates him in the 1996 episode ‘Corruption’ for taking seized drugs from the 116th Precinct evidence room (given to him by Flynn) during their stint there several years before. Flynn makes this allegation partly to throw off the Hellman Commission, which had been convened to investigate police corruption, including the questionable shooting death of a suspect by Flynn himself at the start of the episode, and partly as revenge against Curtis, who refused to falsely defend Flynn. Briscoe, however, has an alibi—he was having an affair with Officer Betty Abrams (Caroline Kava), a married woman. Against Briscoe’s wishes, Abrams testifies before the commission to exonerate him. Because of the affair, however, the commissioners question her credibility. Although Briscoe is ultimately cleared, defense attorneys exploit the allegations for the rest of his career.

There are moments in Briscoe’s career where his decisions are controversial. In the episode ‘Stalker,’ a stalker accused of murdering a woman could have gone free because the police concluded that the victim had earlier lied to the police about previously being attacked by the stalker, thereby undermining the victim’s credibility. However, after the victim is found murdered, Briscoe goes to EADA Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston) and tells him that he now believes that the victim did not lie to the police of the stalker’s earlier attacks and that he is willing to take the stand and state that the original police report was incorrect. Curtis would be called by the defense to testify that he thought the original police report was correct. At the end of the episode, the stalker is found guilty; outside the courtroom, Curtis and Briscoe reconcile.

Shortly after Green is assigned as his partner, he and Briscoe nearly come to blows during a particularly difficult investigation of a robbery-homicide. Their primary suspect confesses as he is being arrested, but because Briscoe is the only officer within earshot, Green, Van Buren, and McCoy are placed in a difficult position with regard to the confession. Again, Briscoe is eventually vindicated, and he and Green work to rebuild their professional rapport and what eventually ends up as a close friendship.

Briscoe retired from the NYPD in 2004. His successor in the 27th Precinct Detective Squad is Det. Joe Fontana (Dennis Farina), whose stint in the 27th Precinct would be far shorter than Briscoe’s. Briscoe died at some point between 2004 and 2005 (Orbach himself died in late 2004). Although not addressed directly in the main series until 2008, his death was implied in 2005 and confirmed in 2007 in ‘Criminal Intent,’ a ‘Law & Order’ spinoff.

Briscoe’s duty weapon is a Smith & Wesson Model 36 .38 Special, snub-nosed revolver. He carries the Model 36 as his sidearm since he was a long serving veteran police officer with the NYPD having been a ‘Member Of the Service’ (MOS) prior to 1986. In 1986 the department started issuing Smith & Wesson Model 64 .38 Special revolvers to MOS. All NYPD officers who were hired after 1986 had to carry stainless steel finished revolvers. After 1992 the NYPD started issuing 9mm semiautomatic pistols (certain authorized S&W, Glock, and SIG Sauer 9mm pistols) to their officers.

The Model 36 was a very popular revolver with NYPD detectives and plainclothes officers because it is reliable and easy to conceal, and the .38 Special cartridge has a good reputation among police officers for reliability. It is carried by several other characters on ‘Law & Order,’ including Max Greevey, Donald Cragen, Mike Logan, Phil Cerreta, and Anita Van Buren In season 7, episode 5, Briscoe is shown on a firing range using a Smith and wesson model 5946 pistol. He explains to another officer that he is being forced to switch from his revolver to a semi-automatic pistol, but continues to carry his S&W 36 for the rest of his time on the series.


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