Some actors become legends with one defining role. Some win awards year after year. And some reach greatness through sheer sweat. Jerry Orbach did it all. Over a career that spanned...
Some actors become legends with one defining role. Some win awards year after year. And some reach greatness through sheer sweat.
Jerry Orbach did it all.
Over a career that spanned the off-off-Broadway musical “The Fantasticks” to Woody Allen’s “Crimes and Misdemeanors” to NBC’s “Law & Order,” Orbach went from struggling stage hoofer to sinecured star.
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He also came to seem indomitable — as permanent a TV fixture as Homer Simpson or “60 Minutes.” For 12 years, he played sardonic New York Detective Lennie Briscoe on “Law & Order” and was preparing to reprise the role in an upcoming spinoff.
When Orbach died Tuesday night at age 69 from prostate cancer, it was a shock. He had been recently diagnosed, was receiving treatment in Manhattan and expected back on the set.
“I’m immensely saddened by the passing of not only a friend and colleague, but a legendary figure of 20th-century show business,” said Dick Wolf, creator and producer of the “Law & Order” series, in a statement.
“He was one of the most honored performers of his generation. His loss is irreplaceable.”
Viewers apparently agreed. A Briscoe-less “Law & Order” lost ratings this fall. The double whammy of no Orbach and CBS’ “CSI: New York” has left NBC struggling on Wednesdays.
Had millions of TV viewers been able to see Orbach on the stage, they would have been even more impressed — and found the character of Briscoe taking shape decades ago.
Orbach was an old-school performer who achieved his success in television, film and theater by being able to act, sing and dance. He was a triple threat times three.
Last May, the Museum of Television and Radio in New York featured a compendium of performances taped for the annual Tony Awards and stretching back to the 1960s.
There on the screen was a jaunty Orbach playing manipulative lawyer Billy Flynn in the original “Chicago,” circa 1975. A few minutes later, he resurfaced as the crazed workaholic director of “42nd Street” who belts out the glory of Broadway.
Orbach was nominated for a Tony for Flynn, as well as for the role of Skye Masterson in 1965’s “Guys and Dolls.” He won for another, his portrayal of the apparently caddish bachelor in the Burt Bacharach-Hal David musical “Promises, Promises.”
To many roles, Orbach applied an easygoing cynicism and snake-oil sort of charm, transforming repellent qualities into ones that engaged the public. Perhaps viewers believed the hard shell concealed a soft interior or — as with the alcoholic, world-weary Detective Briscoe — the character had earned his place in the shade.
Certainly, Orbach racked up his credits the hard way.
Jerome Bernard Orbach was, as the show-business line goes, born in a trunk. His father was a vaudevillian and his mother a radio singer who had settled in the Bronx, where they welcomed their first (and only) child in 1935.
The family moved to Illinois. Orbach attended college at Northwestern University, then drama classes in New York.
From the start, he combined a penchant for entertainment with a gift for endless labor. His first big reward came at age 25, as the narrator in the original cast of “The Fantasticks,” which debuted in 1960 and went on to run for more than 40 years.
Orbach’s career would prove even more enduring.
From the 1960s into the 1980s, he went from one stage hit to another, perfecting a loose-limbed, apparently effortless style of dance and a slightly sneering voice that often sounded like it came from the corner of his mouth.
He also set a personal foundation. He met his second wife, Elaine, during “Chicago” and married her in 1979. She survives him, as do sons Chris and Tony from his first marriage.
Like many theater actors, Orbach did work in movies and TV. Here, utilizing his blossoming dramatic talent, he put in years of small roles and small pictures before rising to high-profile projects such as “Dirty Dancing,” “Crimes and Misdemeanors” and “Prince of the City.”
He also voiced the candlestick in the animated “Beauty and the Beast” and as luck would have it, got to sing the tune destined to be Disney’s signature hit, “Be Our Guest.”
But it was seeing Orbach as a jaded police officer in 1981’s “Prince of the City” that gave television executives the notion he could be more than a guest or supporting actor.
The result was the series “The Law and Harry McGraw,” based on a character Orbach had created on “Murder, She Wrote.” It was a dud.
But five years later, opportunity came again. Actor Paul Sorvino had decided to leave “Law & Order” and NBC needed a replacement detective for Manhattan’s 27th Precinct.
(Trivia note: Orbach already had guest-starred as defense attorney Frank Lehrman in a second-season episode called “The Wages of Love.”)
Lennie Briscoe instantly pleased viewers. From the beginning, he fit the show as easily as a well-worn sports coat — one filled by the angular, toughened exterior of an old Broadway song-and-dance man.
Although nominated, Orbach never won an Emmy for “Law & Order.” Maybe he made it look too easy.
Orbach, who counted himself lucky, said in a 2000 interview with The Associated Press that “Law & Order” had brought him “wonderful security.”
“All my life, since I was 16, I’ve been wondering where that next job was gonna come from,” he said. “Now I take the summer off, relax, and I know at the end of July we’re gonna start another season.”
Sadly, the most viewers can hope for in the upcoming “Law & Order: Trial by Jury” is a few early episodes with Orbach. NBC has not announced a debut date for the midseason spinoff, and producer Wolf now will have to grapple with a major loss.
Kay McFadden: 206-382-8888 or email@example.com.
More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists