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Why Is Jerry Orbach's Face Painted All Over This Car?

Brandon Bird / Oscar Mendoza

A very unlikely tribute to Law & Order's late star

When Brandon Bird started binge-watching "Law & Order" reruns back in 2003, he had no idea just how far he'd take his fandom.

Today, Bird is cruising around Los Angeles in the Jerry Orbach Memorial Art Car.

Inspired by the rich custom car culture of southern California and by the actor Bird calls "a familiar uncle figure," the Jerry Orbach Memorial Art Car glows a lustrous gold, with Orbach's image airbrushed on the hood, trunk, and both sides. It's a 2008 Ford Crown Victoria, a beast of a sedan that, fittingly, began its life as a police car before Bird bought it on Craigslist with dreams of honoring the man who played Detective Lennie Briscoe.

A Heroic Career

Orbach's career began long before he joined the cast of "Law & Order" in 1992, of course. He got his start on Broadway in the 1960s, then found big-screen fame in films including "Prince of the City," "Crimes and Misdemeanors," and "Dirty Dancing." He voiced the anthropomorphic candelabrum Lumiere in Disney's animated "Beauty and the Beast," and he played a recurring role on "Murder, She Wrote."

But "Law & Order" was Orbach's longest-running gig — he played Briscoe for 12 years — and it's the one that has kept his face on television at all hours of the day, even now, 13 years after his death.

"Law & Order" also provided the creative spark that launched Bird's career as an artist. As he watched those endlessly available reruns back in the early aughts, Bird found inspiration: He organized an art show, collecting "Law & Order" art from more than 30 fellow artists.

Bird himself painted Orbach as Briscoe over and over, and as part of the show, he created a "Law & Order" coloring book. "Law & Order: An Adventure to Color" is equal parts absurd and reverent, faithfully depicting scenes from a 1998 episode of the TV hit. The coloring book went viral and "snowballed into an entire career making ridiculous pop art," as Bird wrote in the Kickstarter campaign with which he raised funds for the Orbach car.

More than that: The coloring book came to the attention of Orbach himself, when Conan O'Brien pulled it out on an episode of his late-night talk show on which Orbach was a guest. The actor was bemused by the weird homage, chuckling as O'Brien flipped through the pages. And Bird, as a pop artist, had truly arrived.

That Conan O'Brien appearance happened in early 2004. Within months, Orbach's prostate cancer, controlled by hormone therapy for the past 10 years, had returned. He stepped away from Law & Order, though he made plans to take on a reduced role in a spin-off, "Law & Order: Trial By Jury." But before the new show could find its footing, Orbach died on Dec. 28, 2004.

Mourning a Legend

So indelibly was Bird's burgeoning career associated with Orbach and "Law & Order" that, he told me, friends began calling him as soon as they heard the news of the actor's death, offering their condolences. "I didn't know him," Bird reminded his friends. But Orbach was eminently lovable even to those of us who never met the man, in a way that feels like it goes beyond the standard admiration and appreciation of a talented actor.

He was avuncular, as Bird told me: "The sardonic, in-with-a-wisecrack figure that makes everything all right, makes you feel good." But there were more pieces to the puzzle that made this actor special. Orbach donated his corneas after his death, giving a stranger the gift of sight. He wrote daily love poems to his wife. He was lauded by his peers as a kind and encouraging colleague: As "Dirty Dancing" costar Patrick Swayze remembered in an American Film Institute interview, "He would say little things like 'courage,' and it gives me goosebumps to say that. I really, really respected that man."

All these factors added up to make Orbach feel, to Bird, "truly worthy of being commemorated." As he mulled over the Orbach Car project, he thought, "Is this guy going to turn out to be a creep? Is there any secret Jerry Orbach dirt lurking around? No, I don't think so. I think he was actually really cool and good."

So Bird, after more than a decade of creating pop art that includes Mr. T holiday greeting cards and a series of paintings of Sears department stores, began the process of bringing to life his largest-scale project yet. One sticking point: Painting a car is very different than painting a canvas. Bird knew he'd need help, but he wasn't sure where to start.

Bringing a Tribute to Life

"I've done a lot of art, but it's usually just me," he told me. "You know, you make a painting, you don't have to talk to people or do any sort of legwork. But I don't know how to paint cars, and I didn't know who does that sort of thing."

But custom car culture is all over the Los Angeles area, and Bird found his collaborators by showing up at an informal car show and asking around. Most of the cars he saw there didn't have the portrait-quality level of detail he was looking to create — they were more about "pin stripe designs and layered paint jobs" — but Bird networked until he got a lead. "I just walked around and asked people, like, 'Hey, do you know somebody who'd paint a face on a car?'"

Oscar Mendoza's dad was at the car show, and he showed Bird his son's Instagram. It featured custom car projects Mendoza, an artist with an airbrush, had created, including everything from memorial portraits to Davy Jones, the octopus-headed villain from the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie series.

Bird contacted Mendoza and described his project, and Mendoza was in. He recommended Diamond Coats Body Shop to do the paint job. Now, Brandon just had to raise funds to make the project happen.

He turned to Kickstarter. He'd previously had success there funding his Sears art project — it was an almost instant success, meeting its modest goal within a few days of launch. The Orbach car project was bigger, and Bird had to work harder to promote it, but it finally met its goal, days before the deadline.

Helping out the popularity of the Orbach car Kickstarter campaign was the collection of rewards Bird created to offer his backers. They were all car-related, and he managed to make them Orbach-related, too: A "Honk if You Miss Jerry Orbach" bumper sticker, an "Orbach on Board" suction cup window placard, a car air freshener depicting Orbach surrounded by roses.

For the project's biggest backers, a high-end reward awaited: a gold satin driving jacket with Orbach's face on the back. It took a $500 commitment to earn the driving jacket, and today, four people are walking around sporting Orbach on gold satin.

They, along with more than 600 others, made it possible for Bird to bring the Jerry Orbach Memorial Art Car to life. Funding secured, he worked with Mendoza and Diamond Coats to complete the project — Bird provided the concept and direction, while Mendoza did the airbrush art based on his ideas. The result was even better than Bird had imagined it might be. "I didn't do any concrete sketches or anything like that because I was sort of like, 'Hey, you're the artist. You know what's going to look good.' But he just went to town and rolled with it and made it look awesome."

The Jerry Orbach Memorial Art Car: Coming to Your Town?

The car was only recently completed, and Bird has yet to give it a formal debut, but he's taken it a few places — like Comic-Con International in San Diego. He didn't have an event planned for the car at the convention, just parked it outside, where the curious and the bemused could wander over and check it out. They'd take selfies with it, and they'd ask Bird what the deal was: "Is that Jerry Orbach?" Or they'd excitedly share their own love for the actor: "Oh my gosh, I watched that with my wife. I love it. She'd love to see this."

There's more in store for the Orbach car. Now that his vision is a reality, Bird wants to make it even better, adding more flourishes — fancy wheels, decorative interiors — to bring it up to show quality. And he wants to take it on the road.

"Where are you gonna take it?" That's everybody's question for Bird once they've taken in the golden-painted glory that is the Jerry Orbach Memorial Art Car. "And then they'll be like, 'You should take it to my town.' I had somebody say, 'You should take it to [Orbach's] home town in Waukegan, Illinois.'"

Bird wants to do the road trip, but he doesn't have an infinite travel budget, so he's considering launching a Kickstarter sequel. Basic funding will pay for the updates he wants to make to the car, and he'll offer stretch goals to attempt to fund a road trip: "Hey, if you really want to pay for it, I'll take it to Jerry Orbach Way in New York and all the Jerry Orbach fans can have a fan meet-up."  

For now, Bird is driving the car around southern California. When he launched the Kickstarter campaign, he made it clear that he wasn't just trying to fund a new car for himself, noting, "I already have a car to get around in. This car will be driven as little as possible — mostly for cruise nights, auto shows, art events, and wherever else an Orbach car may be needed."

But while the Orbach car was being painted, Bird's other car was totaled, so the golden Crown Vic is now his primary ride. It's wildly impractical, a gigantic gas guzzler, and he worries that if he parks it in the grocery store lot, he'll come out to find it damaged. So he's adapted his lifestyle in order to best care for it, walking and taking public transit whenever he can, keeping the Jerry Orbach Memorial Art Car pristine and beautiful for everyone else who loved the star as much as he did.

• Read more about the life and legacy of Jerry Orbach
• More ideas for unusual ways to memorialize someone