Jerry Orbach

Active - 1958 - 2003  |   Born - Oct 20, 1935 in Bronx, New York, United States  |   Died - Dec 28, 2004   |   Genres - Drama, Comedy, Mystery, Crime, Theater

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Biography by Hal Erickson

Jerry Orbach often commented, without false modesty, that he was fortunate indeed to have been a steadily working actor since the age of 20. Such was an understatement: graced with not only formidable dramatic instinct but one of American theater's top singing voices, Orbach resisted others' attempts to peg him as a character actor time and again and established himself as one of the most unique talents in entertainment per se. Television producer Dick Wolf perhaps put it best when he described Orbach as "a legendary figure of 20th century show business" and "one of the most honored performers of his generation."

A native of the Bronx, Orbach was born to an ex-vaudevillian father who worked full time as a restaurant manager and a mother who sang professionally on the radio. The Orbachs moved around constantly during Jerry's youth, relocating from Gotham to Scranton to Wilkes-Barre to Springfield, Massachusetts and eventually settling in Chicago - a mobility that gave the young Orbach an unusual ability to adapt to any circumstance or situation, and thus presaged his involvement in drama. Orbach later attended Northwestern University, trained with Herbert Berghof and Lee Strasberg, and took his Gotham theatrical bow in 1955, as an understudy in the popular 1955 revival of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's The Threepenny Opera, eventually playing the lead role of serial killer Macheath.

During the Threepenny run, Orbach made his first film appearance in the Manhattan-filmed low budgeter Cop Killer (1958). In 1960, Orbach created the role of flamboyant interlocutor El Gallo in the off-Broadway smash The Fantasticks, and later starred in such Broadway productions as Carnival (1961), Promises Promises (1966), Chicago (1975) and 42nd Street (1983). By day, Orbach made early-1960s appearances in several New York-based TV series, notably The Shari Lewis Show.

In the early years, Orbach's film assignments were infrequent, but starting around 1981, with his pivotal role as officer Gus Levy in Sidney Lumet's masterful urban epic Prince of the City, the actor generally turned up in around one movie per year. His more fondly remembered screen assignments include the part of Jennifer Grey's father in Dirty Dancing (1987), Martin Landau's shady underworld brother in Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) the voice of the Chevalieresque candellabra in the Disney cartoon feature Beauty and the Beast (1990), and Billy Crystal's easily amused agent in Mr. Saturday Night (1992). Orbach perhaps made his most memorable contribution to television, however. After headlining a brief, short-lived detective series entitled The Law and Harry McGraw from September 1987 to February 1988 (a spinoff of Murder, She Wrote), Orbach landed a role that seemed to draw heavily from his Prince of the City portrayal: Detective Lennie Briscoe, a sardonic, mordant police investigator on Wolf's blockbuster cop drama Law & Order.Orbach carried the assignment for twelve seasons, and many attributed a large degree of the program's success to him.

Jerry Orbach died of prostate cancer at the age of 69 on December 28, 2004. Three years later, Orbach turned up, posthumously, on subway print advertisements for the New York Eye Bank. As a performer with nearly perfect vision, he had opted to donate his eyes to two women after his death - a reflection on the remarkable humanitarian ideals that characterized his off-camera self.

Movie Highlights

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  • Made his New York stage debut in 1955, joining the off-Broadway production of The Threepenny Opera.
  • In 1960, originated the role of El Gallo and introduced the classic "Try to Remember" in the off-Broadway show The Fantasticks.
  • His recurring character on Angela Lansbury's Murder, She Wrote led to his title role in the short-lived spin-off The Law and Harry McGraw (1987-88).
  • Auditioned twice to be a series regular on Law & Order and was passed over both times, first for George Dzundza, then for Paul Sorvino. Orbach went on to make a guest appearance as a defense attorney in 1991 and finally signed on as Det. Lennie Briscoe in 1992.
  • Inducted into the Theatre Hall of Fame in 1999.
  • Recorded a solo album, Jerry Orbach—Off-Broadway, in 1961; reissued on CD in 2000.
  • Honored in 2003 by the Drama League for having "appeared in more performances of American musicals than any other living actor."
  • Named a "Living Landmark" by the New York Landmark Conservancy in 2003.
  • Arranged to have his corneas donated following his death in 2004.
  • Remember How I Love You: Love Letters From an Extraordinary Marriage, a compilation of poems he wrote to his wife, Elaine, was published in 2009.