Jerry Orbach: From Broadway to Briscoe

When Jerry Orbach (1935-2004) started attaining new heights of prominence in the late 1980s/ early 1990s, I found it hard to reconcile the guy I saw (a sort of thuggish, streetwise New York type) with the Jerry Orbach I had been already familiar with, the slick, legit-sounding guy on my old cast albums of Threepenny Opera and The Fantasticks. The screen star seemed so authentic; yet the stage star so “show biz”. Usually the two qualities are mutually exclusive. Orbach was a rare one who could be both or either.

Both of his parents had been in show biz. His German-Jewish father had performed in vaudeville; his Polish Catholic mother had sung on radio. To make ends meet they also worked other jobs, the father managed restaurants, the mother made greeting cards. Jerry lived in a half dozen cities throughout the northeast and midwest when he was growing up. When he was a teenager they finally settled in Waukeegan, Jack Benny’s hometown. He got his first stage experience in high school, where his high intelligence allowed him to skip two grades. He studied at the University of Illinois and Northwestern before moving to New York and becoming a member of the Actors Studio in the mid 1950s. So the foundations of his later work as a realistic actor were there from the beginning.

But first, oddly enough, Orbach was to be a star of musicals. For thirty years he was primarily a stage star of Broadway and Off-Broadway shows, a truly charmed career whose highlights included playing the Streetsinger, Smith and Macheath in the 1955 revival of Threepenny Opera (a legendary production whose cast also included Charlotte Rae, Ed Asner, John Astin, Bea Arthur, Lotte Lenya and Jerry Stiller. It ran four years); El Gallo in the original production of The Fantasticks (1960); Chuck in the original production of Promises, Promises (1968-1972); Billy Flynn in the original production of the musical Chicago (1975-77), and Julian Marsh in the original stage production of 42nd Street (1980-85). Some of these, like Chicago and Sky Masterson in a 1965 revival of Guys and Dolls hint at the Orbach to come, but certainly not all.

While Orbach began getting film and television work at the same time he was launching his stage career, he took much longer to get any traction in those media. Some notable early stuff included roles in John Goldfarb,Please Come Home (1965), The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight (1971), The Sentinel (1977), Prince of the City (1981), Brewster’s Millions (1985) and Dirty Dancing (1987). In 1985 he began to play a recurring role as a private eye on Murder She Wrote; this led to starring in a short-lived series The Law and Harry McGraw (1987-88). 1989 was a kind of turning point, at least in terms of my own awareness of the actor: he had great roles in Last Exit to Brooklyn and in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors. In 1991 he provided the voice of Lumiere in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, his last great musical role.

Then in 1992, he began playing homicide detective Lennie Briscoe on Law and Order, the part he’ll always be identified with, for he played it over the last dozen years of his life. World-weary and wisecracking, Orbach seemed to personify New York in this long running role, which was ironic given that he didn’t grow up in the Big Apple. His fans didn’t know that Orbach was battling cancer for most of the show’s long run. It finally took him at age 69, just as he was launching a new show, Law and Order: Trial by Jury.