Everett Collection Jerry Orbach starred in ‘The Law & Harry McGraw,’ a ‘Murder, She Wrote’ spin-off
Before they voiced Mrs. Potts and Lumiere in the Disney classic Beauty and the Beast, Angela Lansbury and Jerry Orbach were longtime friends who tread the boards of the Great White Way before moving onto their iconic TV roles – Lansbury as Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote and Orbach as detective Lennie Briscoe on Law & Order.
Once Lansbury took on her role as the mystery writer/amateur detective, she became famous for getting her old friends of stage and screen fame guest spots on the long-running CBS hit. Everyone from former Hitchcock blondes Janet Leigh and Tippi Hedren to future stars like Bryan Cranston, George Clooneyand a very young Joaquin Phoenix (when he still went by Leaf) guest-starred as either killers, victims, or innocent bystanders caught up in Jessica’s weekly murder mystery.
So knowing Lansbury often invited her friends to guest-star, it’s not a surprise to see Orbach pop up as down-on-his-luck gumshoe Harry McGraw in the first season episode “Tough Guys Don’t Die” to help Jessica solve the murder of the week. What is a surprise is to witness how closely McGraw – who would eventually get his own Murder, She Wrote spin-off The Law & Harry McGraw – resembles L&O’s tough-talking Lennie Briscoe, whom Orbach later played for 12 seasons until his death in 2004.
CBS Jerry Orbach as Harry McGraw in his first ‘Murder, She Wrote’ guest appearance
A private eye instead of a police detective, McGraw has the same kind of hard-boiled, wise-cracking demeanor and rumpled suits that Briscoe would later make famous, and Orbach’s way with a one-liner in both roles remains unparalleled. Whereas Briscoe was an old school New York City cop born and bred, McGraw was obviously modeled on the kind of fast-talking, no-nonsense PIs that used to populate film noirs and Mickey Spillane novels. Sporting a black eye on more than one occasion after someone took a pop at him for mouthing off, McGraw’s also a hard drinker, so it’s easy to see him as what recovering alcoholic Briscoe might have been like before he gave up the sauce permanently.
But while both characters have similarities, McGraw is far shadier than the straight-shooting Briscoe, even drugging Jessica in one episode to get a look at a victim’s secret diary that he’s hoping to make a buck on. (He apologized for it later.) Even in his first guest appearance though, it’s obvious Orbach was having a blast with the role and he popped enough on screen that it’s easy to understand why. Murder, She Wrote‘s co-creator Peter S. Fischer decided to spin his character off into his own show, since detective shows have been a staple of TV since its inception.
Orbach’s third appearance in the season 3 episode “Death Takes a Dive” served as a backdoor pilot for the McGraw series and featured the rather over-packed cast of LeVar Burton, Adam WestErnest Borgnine, John Amos, and Harold Sylvester. None of those actors would be in the cast of the new series but the story set in Boston’s gritty boxing world seemed a far way away from Jessica Fletcher’s charming – if strangely murder-prone– town of Cabot Cove, Maine.
CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images Jerry Orbach In ‘The Law & Harry McGraw’
When The Law & Harry McGraw debuted in September 1987, Orbach was paired with frequent Murder, She Wrote guest star Barbara Babcock as uptight lawyer Ellie Maginnis, who hired McGraw to do her investigative work around Boston, despite being aggravated by his unorthodox methods. As the intro demonstrates, the show was based on the classic TV trope of two opposites being forced to work together and learning to get along in the long run. The remaining regular cast was filled out with Shea Farrell, Peter Haskell, and Juliana Donald.
Whereas Murder, She Wrote ran for 12 seasons and had several TV movies afterwards, its spin-off wasn’t so fortunate. The show lasted only 16 episodes before it was canceled for poor ratings – although in 1987-88 terms that meant 11 to 15 million viewers, which would be a blockbuster number for a TV show today. At the time, however, it pulled in half the viewers Murder, She Wrote did, so it got the axe.
But even though the show was short-lived, Orbach came back to guest on Murder, She Wrote as Harry McGraw three more times, with his final two appearances in 1991. Shortly after his last guest spot, he started his Law & Order run as Lennie Briscoe once Goodfellas stars Paul Sorvino decided to leave the show in 1992. He told EW at the time of his casting that he was so glad for the job that when he saw Sorvino at a Friars’ Club roast for Billy Crystal he hugged him and said, “My whole family thanks you.” Legendary TV producer Dick Wolf has mentioned that Orbach’s role in the Sidney Lumet film Prince of the City influenced his decision to hire Orbach, but Briscoe’s wise-cracking deadpan manner shows that although The Law & Harry McGraw didn’t last, the ghost of Harry McGraw still lived on in Lennie Briscoe.
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