For 12 seasons, Jerry Orbach and S. Epatha Merkerson were a team on Law & Order. He was the series' signature seen-it-all police detective, Lennie Briscoe. She was his all-business lieutenant, Anita Van Buren. Because he was fighting prostate cancer, Orbach left for a less strenuous role on L&O creator Dick Wolf's latest spin-off, Trial by Jury, which debuts on NBC in March. (He'll be seen in several episodes.) The 69-year-old Orbach's passing on Dec. 28 left both fans and colleagues shocked and saddened.

"It just never occurred to me that Jerry wouldn't make it," Merkerson tells TV Guide Online. "It just seemed that even death couldn't beat him."

The actress already felt devastated when Orbach exited the original series, she says. "It didn't hit me until the day we said goodbye to him, and there was such an outpouring of love for this dude. I bet it was a 20-minute ovation. It was more than I could take. He's all I'd ever known on the show."

Orbach — who'd always affectionately called her "Eep" — was her "guide," Merkerson recalls. "He knew everyone in New York. When I needed a lawyer for an apartment, he got me a lawyer. I needed furniture, [so] he introduced me to someone with furniture. My husband [Toussaint Jones] built a house, and we wanted a pool table; he helped me get a pool table."

A while back, Merkerson remembers lying on her chiropractor's table when the chatty doc brought up a singer she didn't know. "I said, 'I think I know who does.' I got up from the table and called Jerry," she chuckles. "I asked him if he would talk to my chiropractor. He said, 'Sure, kid,' and he talked to him for five minutes straight. The guy gets off the phone, and totally forgets he hasn't finished my adjustment because he just had this incredible conversation with Jerry Orbach! Two days later on the set, and I said to Jerry, 'I just wanted you to know you made this man's life, so if he doesn't live another day, he'll die happy.'"

Along with his knowledge, his kindness and his ability to do a crossword puzzle "in seconds," Merkerson most admired Orbach's love for his wife, Elaine. "Every morning before he left the house, he wrote a poem to her," she says. "And it was really something to hear him talk about her — and her cooking. I said, 'Jerry, you old fart, you're a [expletive] romantic, aren't you?" He just said, 'Ah, you know...'

"I know she's going through a difficult period," Merkerson adds, "but I also know that she had a guy in her life who gave her unconditional support and love. He was like that with everybody."

Her new L&O costar Dennis Farina has been a comfort. "Dennis is an ace of a guy," she says, "probably the only guy who could come in after Jerry. He's got a great sense of humor. Not everybody can win me over like that damn Dennis Farina has."

And there's one quirk Farina shares with his much-missed predecessor: He never pronounces the name Epatha correctly. "He's called me Urethra, Exmargarita... He always messes with my name."

For more colorful memories from Jerry Orbach's Law & Order costars, read the current issue of TV Guide, on newsstands now.