'Law & Order': 5 favorite behind-the-scenes moments

jerry-orbach-s-epatha-merkerson-jesse-l-martin-law-and-order-320.jpgMaybe it's because I started my career as a cop reporter in Manhattan, when the city was wild and cops like the toughest from "Law & Order" worked the beat. Maybe it's because Jerry Orbach and I used to go to work on Broadway at the same time -- him starring in Chicago, me answering phones -- and I always marveled at how gracious he was with the public. Or maybe it's just that as a New Yorker to my marrow, I love this show.

Monday (May 24) night's series finale -- which feels like an excellent sendoff for S. Epatha Merkerson's Lt. Anita Van Buren, but not for the entire series -- makes me reflect on covering "Law & Order" over the years. I was lucky enough to have an endless cup of coffee with the late, great Orbach, a lingering beer with Merkerson, and to do a set visit. I observed that Orbach always finished the New York Times crossword puzzle and Jesse L. Martin had a Marvin Gaye album cover on his dressing room wall.

Here are my Top 5 favorite moments from behind the scenes:

Jerry Orbach had a long-standing poker game with Broadway buddies. And it's perfect that he was in "Guys and Dolls" and "Chicago" because he could shoot a mean game of pool and lived the Damon Runyon life men of that era dreamed of. As a teenager, he was asked to give a starlet a lift. So what if he didn't have driver's license? The starlet was Marilyn Monroe.

S. Epatha Merkerson learned from Orbach to stop whenever a fan approaches. While walking with her for five minutes recently, she was approached four times. But don't try this woman's patience, as some racist contractors recently did. She's renovating her Harlem home, and answered the door, dressed down, scarf on her head. "Is she here?" the contractor kept whispering to Merkerson. "Is who here?" she asked, annoyed. "The lady of the house." "Motherf***er you are looking at her!" she proudly told him.

"Law & Order" was celebrating its 300th episode, which brought an envoy from the mayor's office with a proclamation and the usual NYC event types: aspiring models and actresses who knew someone so they wrangled invites. Young, exquisite females were all but doing a bump and grind for Jesse L. Martin, who remained a gentleman. The next day, I asked him about women throwing himself at him. "It's a tough part of the job, but someone's got to do it," he said, and then burst out laughing.

Orbach originated so many classic roles on Broadway and even shared the stage during a revival of "Gypsy" with none other than Ethel Merman. Irving Berlin (yes, this anecdote goes back a bit) was in a box seat and Orbach decided to sing like Merman (and Merman sang like no one else) to her face on stage at Lincoln Center. This basically defines stones of steel. Berlin cracked up, so Merman, whom Orbach said could have had him fired on the spot, told him to do it exactly that way every night.

Everyone else in the world heard about Emilio Sosa because of "Project Runway." Not Merkerson. He's been her stylist for years, including when she wore that blue number to take home an Emmy for "Lackawanna Blues."  "He loves women size 12 to 16," she says. "He says, 'Mami, I like you curves!' He just makes you feel good no matter what size you are."

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Photo credit: NBC