To elaborate, Dzundza thought that the show was going to be centred on him, as opposed to an ensemble, and he really didn't appreciate having to commute between New York and LA to do the filming, so they killed him off and replaced him with Sorvino.
Raised Catholic: '80s Catholic. It can be somewhat bizarre viewed thirty years later.
We Hardly Knew Ye: He appeared in only one season of the show, which considering its length is absolutely nothing.
"She was a bottomless pit. Always 'give me your undivided attention'. And when my old man couldn't take it anymore and whacked her, she'd turn around and whack me. She got this look in her eye- I knew it was coming. And that cold witch in there... she's got that same look."
Breakout Character: Most people with an opinion say it's not Law & Order without Lennie Briscoe, but there's a good number who don't think it's Law & Order without Lennie Briscoe or Mike Logan. His departure from the show was considered to be the loss of "the heart" of Law & Order.
Hollywood Atheist: Due to his abusive childhood at the hands of religious individuals. Logan has no faith in the Catholic church as an institution, but his thoughts on God are a bit less clear. This thread is tugged again in the Criminal Intent series with a somewhat open resolution. He does make it inside a church again before death.
Hot-Blooded: He's the first through the door when it's kicked down and the most likely to put his hands on a suspect.
It's Personal: After Max is killed, which is ironic given the bad blood between the two actors.
Noble Bigot with a Badge: During his time on the show, he makes comments that could variously be described as sexist, xenophobic, Islamophobic, and homophobic (although he seems to more or less get over that one in his final episode).
He seems to be a misanthropist above all else and does show legitimate remorse when he sees how the black (and offensive) humour common in the force is taken by outsiders.
Suspiciously Similar Substitute: For Max Greevey. They look so similar a casual viewer might not figure it out. Except that only one of them dies for real.
Both of them are rather large men. According to Jerry Orbach, while he was filming one of his first episodes on the streets of New York, a kid said to him, "You're the new fat guy, right?"
We Hardly Knew Ye: One season and eight episodes. Replaced with Lennie Briscoe, the man who became the face of the franchise, so most people don't even remember Phil, even though he was on for longer than Greevey.
Detective Lennie Briscoe
Played by: Jerry Orbach
If I was kidding I'd be wearing a Fez and no pants.
The Alcoholic: A major part of his backstory as well as a plot point in one episode. When introduced, he's sober. In "Aftershock," he falls off the wagon, which starts the chain of events that leads to Claire's death.
The Atoner: To his children. Not surprising, as he was raised Catholic.
Badass Grandpa: Lennie was on the show a long time, so this came to apply, particularly after we got Ed Green.
Breakout Character: There is a large group of people who think it's not Law & Order if it doesn't have Lennie Briscoe. He was the face of the show along with Jack McCoy.
The Cast Show Off: A striking aversion. Despite Jerry Orbach being a Tony Award-winning song and dance man who even recorded a solo album, Lennie Briscoe never sings a single note on the show, and at one point claims to be no good at music. However, Orbach did have a few occasions to display his talents at trick shots in pool.
Cool Old Guy: Lennie Briscoe was the defining example on '90s television.
Disappeared Dad: Because of his drinking and divorce, he wasn't the best father.
Dirty Cop: There are hints of this in his past, when he was a drinker. In the present, it's a role he plays to the hilt to get snitches to trust him, but the audience never sees anything but decency from him. However, his knowledge of the dirty cop play book often gives him the inside track on cases.
Character Death: Upon actor Jerry Orbach's death, both Detective Logan and Detective Green referenced Briscoe's (off-screen) death.
Revolvers Are Just Better: Lennie predates the regular issuing of automatics, so he keeps his .38 to the day he leaves the show.
Sherlock Scan: When he first shows up at a crime scene, he immediately and correctly deduces that the uniformed officer on the scene was lying about what he was doing and where he was, and identifies both: eating donuts at a particular shop, based on the powdered sugar on his blues.
Suspiciously Similar Substitute: Averted; he's notably different from his predecessors. Where they were both fairly reasonable, well-adjusted family men, Briscoe is a snarky, cynical recovering alcoholic with two failed marriages behind him.
Transplant: Orbach left the show to do Trial By Jury, because his prostate cancer was getting worse and Trial By Jury, being a Law Procedural, made his work less demanding. Unfortunately, Orbach succumbed to his cancer, which had made him so weak that they had to re-write his last scene in the series to accommodate him.
UST: Frequently flirts with Dr. Rogers, though it's hard to say what he actually feels. But he did take her to the opera once, according to her.
Limited Advancement Opportunities: She applied to be Captain at one point, but a white woman with less seniority was promoted instead. She then sued the NYPD, which resulted in internal police politics coming into play making things harder for her and her unit, to the point where she was told by her superior she would have to resign; a judge later dismissed her lawsuit, and she never received a promotion in all of her time on the show.
Never Mess with Granny: You will regret it. Granny has a force of personality and intensity that are enough to make you cower in fear, and she carries a gun.
Reasonable Authority Figure: Especially when she first appeared. She replaced Lt. Cragen, who continually harped to his subordinates of what can't be done, she focused on directing her troops on what can be done.
Indeed, Merkerson has often noted that at the time she was hired, no black woman in the NYPD had yet risen to the rank of Lieutenant.
You Look Familiar: S. Epatha Merkerson played a grieving mother in Season 1's "Mushrooms".
Detective Rey Curtis
Played by: Benjamin Bratt
Rey Curtis: No, what you've got is a lot of nerve, Lennie, making it sound like I agree with you, partner. Lennie Briscoe: It never occurred to me that you wouldn't, partner. What, you wanna see this scum bounce? Rey Curtis: I wanna see him strapped down with a needle in his arm but I'm not gonna perjure myself to make it happen!
The Atoner: After cheating on his wife, he does everything he can to salvage their marriage. More generally, he's a faithful Catholic who plays by the rules and the least cynical of all the detectives to appear on the show.
Character Development: He starts off quite judgmental, aloof and self-righteous, which creates tension with the more laid-back Briscoe. A few years on the job (and a slip in his morality after he has a brief affair), he's more relaxed about things and has a better working relationship with Briscoe.
Chick Magnet: While Mike Logan's success with the ladies was more of an Informed Ability, our boy Rey is quite popular with the females. Examples include Jamie from S6s "Aftershock", Lisa from the S7s LA trilogy, his female boss at OCCB who sexually harassed him, and about 80% of the women that are witness, suspects, friends of witnesses and suspects, and plain old friends who help out on cases.
Not just women, either. In one episode, a guest detective makes a man as gay because he was checking Curtis out.
Fair Cop: Considering that Bratt was cast to replace Noth, this was guaranteed.
Happily Married: His wife considers divorce after his affair, but they stay together. When Bratt decided to leave the show, Curtis stepped down to a desk job so he could spend more time with his wife (who had recently been diagnosed with MS).
Inspector Javert: He has an initially unyielding black-and-white view of crime and criminals, but this softens slightly over time.
Raised Catholic: And how. He's still faithful, as demonstrated several times throughout his run, and he often uses his knowledge of the faith to convince other believers to talk.
Your Cheating Heart: Cheats on his wife in the Season Six finale, and is eventually so consumed with guilt over it that he spills the beans to his wife, who wouldn't have found out otherwise. His guilt gets even worse when his wife is diagnosed with MS.
Detective Ed Green
Played by: Jesse L. Martin
Defense Attorney: Detective! Put a leash on your partner!
Lennie Briscoe: We gave up, he chewed through all of ours.
The Gambling Addict: It's referred to several times, though it's never known how severe a problem it was. It even comes back to bite him in the ass during his final episode—he mentions that his despondency over Lennie's retirement and later, his death was enough to trigger a relapse, kicking off a chain of events that led to his downfall.
Scary Black Man (he isn't actually, but he'll often pretend to be during interrogations). Which ironically leads to him being Mistaken for Racist when he makes a sarcastic comment to a perp about the perks he gets for beating up black suspects.
Detective Joe Fontana
Played by: Dennis Farina
Suspect: Is that a threat?
Joe Fontana: A threat? No. A threat would be more like... 'If you stonewall this investigation any more I'm gonna break your jaw. And when you're on the ground, I'm gonna kick you 'till you spit blood you cheap shyster.' That would be a threat. This is more of a request.
Dirty Cop: This was suggested in a long-running B-plot that backed up several episodes, due to the fact that he always had a money clip filled with at least a couple of grand on him, lived in an expensive condo, wore tailored suits, and drove a sports car, all on a cop's salary. But this was averted when...
Secretly Rich: ... it turned out that Fontana's grandfather was "the original Chef Luigi" (a Bland-Name Product alternative for Chef Boyardee), and that Fontana's been living off his share of the family fortune since he was a teenager.
Anita Van Buren: What is your issue Cassidy? You're always leadin' with your chin, always playin' tough. It's not smart. A good cop never takes the bait, never escalates.
"Mr. Glover, if I really had it in for your client, I could have dropped him with a justifiable shooting when I found him stabbing his own daughter to death. But I didn't. Because I exercised the control I learned in my training. That control is why your client is still alive today."
The Stoic: Ben had the emotional range of a brick. It made him all the scarier.
Tranquil Fury: Masterfully portrayed in "Indifference". During the prosecution of a scumbag spousal/child abuser, the look he gives the aforementioned defendant makes it clear that he would beat the crap out of him if he could.
Assistant District Attorney Paul Robinette
Played by: Richard Brooks
"Don't tell me that tearing down a 200-year old justice system, no matter how flawed, is going to alter the consciousness of a society. Now, we're past the separate drinking-fountain stage. We're past legal discrimination. We're at the hearts and minds stage. And believe me, there's no quick fix."
Hidden Depths: The first episode that he guest-starred in proved him to be a more than competent attorney, competent enough to deadlock a jury. In contrast, when he was a regular Stone mostly had him do leg work.
Malcolm Xerox: When he comes back as a defence attorney, and slings race cards like Al Sharpton on meth.
Parental Substitute: For both Stone and McCoy. His relationship with Stone was more nurturing, and Adam was disappointed when Stone chose to resign. Schiff's relationship with McCoy, however, is more adversarial.
Bus Crash (quite literally. Claire was originally supposed to only be paralyzed in the car crash in the Season 6 finale and then Put on a Bus, but when actress Jill Hennesey declined to return for a final episode in Season 7 she was killed off instead)
Interestingly, Jill Hennessey has stated that she wanted to return and was not aware that her character was killed off until someone watched the episode and told her.
Executive Assistant District Attorney Jack McCoy (later District Attorney)
Played by: Sam Waterston
Jack McCoy: Ask me how I sleep at night.
Connie Robirosa: How do you sleep at night?
Jack McCoy: Like a baby.
Abusive Parents: As revealed in "Aftershock" Jack's father was a policeman who drove him to succeed at all times and pushed him into law school rather than become a cop like him. He was also a chain-smoking drunk who regularly beat Jack's mother (and its implied he hit Jack as well). Jack still has something of a Broken Pedestal towards him, telling a Cutter that he still remembers when he realized that his dad was "a son of a bitch."
Breakout Character: He didn't show up until the 5th season, but he became the face of the franchise, arguably even moreso than Lennie Briscoe. This was helped by the fact that, unlike Orbach, Waterston survived the series and Orbach's death made the District Attorney's office much more important.
Character Development: Becomes less reckless and ruthless as he got older, especially when he becomes the District Attonery, and reprimands Cutter's actions, just as other DA's did with him. To wit, in person he actually withdrew a plea deal at a hearing revolving the surgery of young girl, much to Cutter's chagrin.
To elaborate, while his screentime got diminished he still had more of an active role than previous D As.
Determinator (The things he will do to get his way legally...)
Irony: In Arthur Branch's last episode Branch says McCoy may one day fill his seat. McCoy responds that he has no mind for politics. The very next episode, McCoy is filling Arthur's seat as District Attorney.
Specifically: Following Claire's death, McCoy later collaborates with a judge to frame a drunk driver for first degree murder (the driver really killed the people, but was so intoxicated he couldn't form the intent needed for a murder charge. McCoy and the judge collaborated to keep evidence proving that the man was drunk out of court, so McCoy could falsely claim that he wasn't drunk and deliberately killed the people. It is implied that all this was because he was bitter that Claire's killer received a light sentence and wanted to see proper justice done for the victims in this case
When a bit character, ADA Ricci, dies, McCoy suspends habeas corpus.
After Borgia dies, McCoy sets up a show trial with fake evidence and perjured testimony to try to trick the killer into a confession.
Jerkass Façade: Deliberately cultivates a reputation as a hardass, but frequently backs down when confronted with a defendant who legitimately deserves sympathy.
To Jamie Ross, "Then you can tell him he's dealing with a junkyard dog."
McCoy: Four minutes.
Defense Attorney: Always have to play the tough guy, don't you.
McCoy: Tough has nothing to do with this.
Defense Attorney: You feel for the woman, Jack. It doesn't make you weak.
McCoy: Three minutes.
Defense Attorney: I could win this case, y'know.
McCoy: Not when the judge instructs the jury on the definition of legal insanity.
Defense Attorney: Ten years is a long time.
McCoy: She killed a man.
Defense Attorney: A scoundrel. ... Ten years, or until a panel of three medical professionals certifies she's not a threat to herself or others.
McCoy: Doctors to be chosen by my office.
Defense Attorney: But in the private psychiatric facility of her choice.
McCoy: To be approved of by me and located within my jurisdiction. One minute.
Defense Attorney: Done.
McCoy: I tell the judge. [stands up to leave]
Defense Attorney: It's not a bad thing, Jack.
Defense Attorney: Having a heart.
It is made even more explicit in the episode, "Burned," where McCoy prosecutes a boy who is obviously mentally ill and needs to be committed to a mental hospital. However, the boy's grandfather interferes with the plea bargaining and blatantly would rather risk his grandson being sent to regular prison than have a mental commitment draw attention to his own fragile mental health. At this, McCoy goes out of his way to prevent that when he could have simply stayed out of the way and score an easy conviction win.
May-December Romance: Heavily implied with Claire; confirmed a couple of seasons after Claire's death.
Parental Substitute: As noted by Linus Roache, there's a fairly adversarial father-son dynamic between McCoy and Cutter, but generally McCoy acts as a surrogate father to Cutter, who has little-to-no contact with his biological father.
McCoy's relationship with Schiff is a similarly adversarial father-son dynamic. Schiff and McCoy often tend to be at odds and argue far more than Schiff did with Stone but Schiff nonetheless acts as McCoy's surrogate father and mentor. Of note is that fact that McCoy had a terrible relationship with his biological father, a racist Irish Chicago cop who abused him and his mother.
Sleeping with the Boss: Is notorious for having had this kind of relationship with his assistants, all female. When he first came into the District Attorney's office, Claire Kincaid pointed out that he'd slept with all three of his previous assistants (and married one of them), to which Jack replied that all the relationships were mutually consensual. Then Claire declared that nothing of the sort would happen between herself and Jack, to which he agreed...only for them to get intimate later on down the line.
Mama Bear: Her devotion to her daughter occasionally conflicts with the show, such that she debates quitting more than once and eventually is Put on a Bus because of it. Her Amoral Attorney ex-husband uses it against her to help his client.
Re Tool: The character was originally a morally ambiguous ex-defense attorney who became a prosecutor after a client she got acquitted, went on to kill again. As such, she was originally a lot more underhanded and devious when it came to court room trickery. Sadly this was quickly dropped and the character was turned into a single mother Suspiciously Similar Substitute of Claire Kincaid.)
Inspector Javert: Often displays a black-and-white view of crime and criminals, to the point where in early season 9 she has zero sympathy towards a young woman she sent to prison on a minor drug charge who is now accused of arranging the murder of a guard who was abusing her (demanding sexual favors from her and threatening to harm her daughter if she didn't comply). It's especially disturbing considering that Abbie is a rape survivor herself, yet her attitude towards the woman is essentially disbelief mixed with, "It's your fault for doing something that put you in jail in the first place".
She eventually relents and convinces McCoy to set up a good deal for the woman.
Knight Templar: She's very keen to push for the Death Penalty and if that's not an option the most severe charge and sentence. In short, don't expect any merry from her.
Before she was assinged to work with McCoy she workd in Narcotis where she had a 95 % conviction rate.
Rape as Backstory: Abbie was date-raped by a law student when she was a college freshman.
Suddenly Sexuality: Looking backwards you can see the attempts at foreshadowing, but they don't mean anything to anyone without hindsight. When she drops the bombshell in her final scene it's implied even her bosses didn't know.
Interviews with Dick Wolf suggest that he wrote that scene just to shock the viewers and get them talking, implying that any and all foreshadowing was unintentional. This is reflected in viewer response, which was not 'Oh, that's so edgy' like Wolf expected, but more 'Oh, that's so cheap'.
Team Dad: Neither affectionate nor even really nice, but always ready with encouragement or to make an attempt at convincing before he ordered. Even when he fires Serena, he points out that she has the skills and mindset of a superb defense attorney...which simply don't work for a prosecutor.
McLeaned: Rumor has it that her particularly brutal death was a result of actress Annie Parisse refusing to sleep with one of the show's writers.
That has been debunked. Word of God says she left because she felt unfulfilled in her role and wanted to explore different acting opportunities, and the reason she was killed off was because the writers had always wanted to murder an A.D.A.
You Look Familiar: Annie Parisse played a stripper in a Season 12 episode. Supposedly, she wanted to play the same character and have her backstory be that she was working as a stripper to pay for law school, but the idea was vetoed.
Token Twofer: As a woman and an Hispanic. She's willing to call out whites for not understanding racism or men for not understanding misogyny. To be fair, she also calls out a Straw Feminist for going over the line.
Strawman Political: At first, Cutter was portrayed as a Straw Republican, taking the conservative route just to be shot down by Jack. Now his arguments seem to be gaining weight, leading to a few cases of Strawman Has a Point.
UST: At least one person tells Connie that Cutter carries a torch for her. He really does.
What the Hell, Hero?: Gets called on his more questionable actions often. One time when McCoy chews him out, he points out McCoy did the same thing, and McCoy has to remind him he got chewed out for what he did.
A psychologist who often interviews people that are claiming to have insanity defenses, and who also assists with profiling defendants. She comes from an academic background, having earned her degree in psychology through a graduate research program. Olivet is generally non-confrontational when talking to her patients. Often inclined to believe that a given client is insane (or was during the time of the crime), and has disagreed with McCoy vehemently when she feels obligated to do so. Appears in 87 episodes between seasons 2-19.
A psychologist who handles the psych workups required when a defendant pleads an insanity defense, and who also assists in creating profiles of suspects. His background is in practicing medicine; he was a physician with a specialty in psychiatry before becoming an expert witness. Often disinclined to believe that a patient is insane, to the point of arguing with other psychologists (such as Olivet, and in one case, the criminal's victim) about it. Appears in 42 episodes between seasons 8-15, and 3 more in season 20.
You Look Familiar: The actor playing Skoda has made numerous appearances on the show. Most notably, as the main bad guy for the first Law and Order/Homicide: Life on the Streets X-Over.
Dr. Elizabeth Rodgers
Rogers: You get used to the smell.
Det. Ed Green: No you don't.
Wise-cracking doctor who figures out why people died. Blase about her job, to the point of eating lunch in rooms containing corpses. She at least once had to perform an autopsy in a full HAZMAT suit. Appears in 143 episodes throughout seasons 2-20.
Deadpan Snarker: Big time. A scene with her and Briscoe is a sight to behold.
Suspiciously Similar Substitute: Like all of the other Profaci replacements, she does basically the same things running information and manning the phones.
McCoy's friend and rival. Zealous, crusading attorney, who often takes on cases to make political points. Appeared 13 times, between seasons 2-17.
Call Back: After "Open Season," where she is shot in The Tag, she disappears for several seasons. When she returns, she's using a cane.
Characterization Marches On: In her first few appearances, she's just another of the show's revolving door of Amoral Attorneys who will work for anyone with the money to pay them. She didn't start being portrayed as a crusader until the episode "Hot Pursuit."
Crusading Lawyer: Melnick is a civil rights extremist—she even defended a neo-Nazi who had shot a personal friend, because the principles were that important to her. Only problem is, they weren't as important to the defendant...
Well-Intentioned Extremist: ...who asked her to send messages to the outside world, in defiance of a communication ban. She did, believing that the ban was cruel and unusual punishment. The messages turned out to be the next target for her client's associates to kill. Oops.
Worthy Opponent: She and McCoy are on much friendlier terms than he usually is with defense attorneys.
Professor Norman Rothenberg
A law professor who takes cases for rich clientele, Rothenberg delights in setting precedents that will help later cases — even going so far as to throw one case in order to be able to appeal it and have the appellate court rule certain types of searches unconstitutional. He admits that he only cares about the law, not justice. Appeared in 8 episodes, between seasons 4-18.
Generally worked for poor defendants. Was often involved on cases involving systematic oppression such as racism and oppression of mentally disabled people. Appeared in 6 episodes in season 1-4, and one additional episode in season 14.
A jovial and goofy lawyer, nicknamed 'Squirt', who at first disgusts McCoy but eventually earns his respect. His perpetual irreverence irritates judges, and his creative defenses often frustrate the prosecution. Only appears in 3 episodes in seasons 13-16, but memorable nevertheless.
Worthy Opponent: After McCoy learns that his Bunny Ears tendencies are an obfuscation for genuine legal talent. He warns his ADA not to dismiss him.
During one trial they have a serious ex parte moment. They share a drink, each admitting they feel terrible about the trial. McCoy because he hates that he's winning using evidence produced by torture, Dworkin because he's defending a man who's vile trash and glad that he's losing.
Jamie Ross's ex-husband. He started off only defending the innocent, but eventually attracted the attention of a client who was guilty of violent crimes but had very deep pockets. Gorton and Ross got the man acquitted, and he went on to commit more crimes. Gorton is willing to do anything to win a trial, including exploiting the terms of his divorce sesttlement with Ross (which requires them to spend a set number of hours with their children; Gorton, who runs a big law firm, can delegate to his assistants so he can spend the requisite number of hours at home, but Ross, working for the government, can't, putting her custody of the children at risk).
A judge with political ambitions, who wanted to base his campaign around targeting drunk drivers. He collaborated with McCoy to hide evidence in a case involving a drunk driver that killed three people. When McCoy backed out of the scheme, he vowed revenge and went on to run against Adam Schiff. He was backed by Carl Anderton ('Burned'), who wanted revenge on Schiff for his own reasons. Appeared 3 times in Season 8.
A judge whose defining characteristic was disagreeing with McCoy on everything. Notable appearances included setting aside a 'guilty' verdict for three boys convicted of raping a mentally disabled girl ('Damaged') and setting aside a 'guilty' verdict when McCoy convicted a gun dealer of murder due to his unethical business practices ('Gunshow'). In his final episode, 'Dissonance,' Nora Lewin threatened that she would destroy him unless he judged the trial fairly. Appeared in 4 episodes between seasons 8-11.
Depending on the Writer Whether Wright is reasonable or not varies drastically depending on the episode that he's in. In 'Gunshow,' the episode takes his side, indicating that the gun dealer, while evil, hadn't actually violated any law, and that McCoy was basically engaging in prosecutorial misconduct by trying to get him convicted for being a bad guy, not for violating any actual statute. In 'Damaged,' on the other hand, Wright is shown as a heartless and stupid jerk who refuses to even consider that the mentally disabled girl could have been raped, even though McCoy provided ample evidence that the girl was incapable of consenting to sex.
An old friend of Adam Schiff's. When his son was arrested for murder, he refused to allow his grandson to plea to an insanity defense, even though it would get his son better treatment. It turned out that this was because his grandson's insanity was genetic, and if it were known that his son had the illness, people would suspect him of having it too. When Schiff refused to allow him to sacrifice his son, Anderton sponsored Judge Feldman in the forthcoming election for District Attorney. Appeared 3 times in season 8. Played by Robert Vaughn.
Governor Donald Shalvoy
At first an ally of McCoy, he turned against the district attorney when McCoy said he'd reveal that Shalvoy was seeing prostitutes as part of a case. Shalvoy then sabotaged the case and began trying to destroy McCoy, going so far as to sponsor someone to run against him in the next elections. He appeared 4 times in seasons 18-19.
Chronic Backstabbing Disorder (he tries to bring down former ally Jack McCoy after the latter attempts to expose his use of prostitutes, he then offers to take down new ally Joe Chappel, McCoy's rival for District Attorney, to bribe McCoy, and then sells out his own WIFE to keep from losing his position as Governor)