Orbach in a 1965 publicity photo
October 20, 1935|
Bronx, New York, U.S.
|Died||December 28, 2004
New York, New York, U.S.
Cause of death
|Spouse(s)||Marta Curro (1958–1975; divorced; 2 children)
Elaine Cancilla (1979–2004; his death)
Jerome Bernard "Jerry" Orbach (October 20, 1935 – December 28, 2004) was an American actor and singer, described at his death as "one of the last bona fide leading men of the Broadway musical and global celebrity on television" and a "versatile stage and film actor".
Orbach's professional career began on the New York stage, both on and off-Broadway, where he created roles such as El Gallo in the original Off-Broadway run of The Fantasticks and became the first performer to sing that show's standard "Try To Remember", Billy Flynn in the original Chicago and Julian Marsh in the original 42nd Street. Nominated for multiple Tony Awards, Orbach won for his performance as Chuck Baxter in Promises, Promises.
Later in his career, Orbach played supporting roles in various films, such as Prince of the City, Dirty Dancing, Crimes and Misdemeanors and Disney's Beauty and the Beast. He also made frequent guest appearances on television, including a recurring role on Murder, She Wrote. However, he gained worldwide fame for his starring role as NYPD Detective Lennie Briscoe on the long-running NBC crime drama Law & Order.
Orbach was born on October 20, 1935 in the Bronx, the only child of Emily (née Olexy), a greeting card manufacturer and radio singer, and Leon Orbach, a restaurant manager and vaudeville performer. His father was a Sephardic Jewish immigrant from Hamburg, Germany. His mother, a native of Pennsylvania, was a Roman Catholic of Polish-Lithuanian descent, and Orbach was raised in her faith (a religious background later replicated in his character on Law & Order). Throughout his childhood, the Orbach family moved frequently, living in Mount Vernon, New York; Wilkes-Barre, Nanticoke, and Scranton, Pennsylvania; Springfield, Massachusetts; and Waukegan, Illinois. Orbach attended Waukegan High School in Illinois and graduated in 1952 (having skipped two grades in elementary school due to his high I.Q.). He played on the football team and began learning acting in a speech class. The summer after graduating from high school, Orbach worked at the theatre of Chevy Chase Country Club of Wheeling, Illinois, and enrolled at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the fall. In 1953, Orbach returned to the Chicago area and enrolled at Northwestern University. Orbach left Northwestern before his senior year and moved to New York City in 1955 to pursue acting and to study at the Actors Studio, where one of his instructors was the studio's founder, Lee Strasberg.
Orbach was an accomplished Broadway and Off Broadway actor. His first major role was El Gallo in the original 1960 cast of the decades-running hit The Fantasticks, and Orbach became the first to perform the show's signature song and pop standard "Try To Remember". He also starred in The Threepenny Opera, Carnival!, the musical version of the movie Lili (his Broadway debut), in a revival of Guys and Dolls (as Sky Masterson, receiving a Tony Award nomination for Best Featured Actor in a Musical), Promises, Promises (as Chuck Baxter, winning a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical), the original productions of Chicago (as Billy Flynn, receiving another Tony Award nomination), 42nd Street, and a revival of The Cradle Will Rock. Orbach made occasional film and TV appearances into the 1970s and appeared as a celebrity panelist on both What's My Line? and Super Password.
In the 1980s, Orbach shifted to film and TV work full-time. Prominent roles included a superb performance as tough, effective, but "allegedly corrupt" NYPD narcotics detective Gus Levy in Sidney Lumet's Prince of the City; he was the 1981 runner-up for the NSFC Best Supporting Actor award. He also portrayed gangsters in both the action-thriller F/X and the Woody Allen drama Crimes and Misdemeanors (the latter of which also featured his future Law & Order co-star Sam Waterston). In 1985, Orbach became a regular guest star on Murder, She Wrote as private detective Harry McGraw, which led to him starring in the short-lived spin-off series The Law and Harry McGraw. In 1987, he was featured in the hit film Dirty Dancing as Dr. Jake Houseman, the father of Jennifer Grey's character "Baby". He also made further TV appearances on popular shows such as The Golden Girls (for which he received his first Emmy Award nomination), Who's the Boss? and Frasier.
In 1991, Orbach starred in Disney's Academy Award-winning animated musical Beauty and the Beast, as the voice (both singing and speaking) of the French-accented candelabrum Lumière; whom according to Orbach was played "halfway between Maurice Chevalier and Pepé Le Pew". He later reprised the role for the film's direct-to-video sequels, multiple episodes of Disney's House of Mouse, and the previously-deleted music number added to the Beauty and the Beast 2002 IMAX re-release. In 1992, Orbach joined the main ensemble cast of Law & Order as the world-weary, wisecracking, streetwise NYPD homicide detective Lennie Briscoe. He had previously guest starred on the series as a defense attorney in the episode "The Wages of Love", and was subsequently cast as the new "Senior Detective" following Paul Sorvino's departure. Orbach's portrayal of Detective Briscoe was based on his similar role from Prince of the City years before, which Law & Order creator Dick Wolf had personally suggested to him at the time of his casting.
Orbach starred on Law & Order for twelve years; ultimately becoming the third longest-serving main cast member (behind S. Epatha Merkerson and Sam Waterston) in the show's 20-year-run history, as well as one of its most popular. During Orbach's tenure on Law & Order, the series won the 1997 Emmy Award for Outstanding Drama Series among other accolades, made multiple crossover episodes with fellow NBC series Homicide: Life on the Street, and spawned a franchise that included the TV film Exiled: A Law & Order Movie, the spin-off series Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and Law & Order: Criminal Intent (both of which featured Orbach in guest appearances), and three video games. Orbach himself was nominated for a 2000 Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series for his performance in the episode "Marathon" (losing to James Gandolfini for The Sopranos). TV Guide named Lennie Briscoe one of their top 25 greatest television detectives of all time. Also during his time on Law & Order, Orbach co-starred with Al Pacino in the independent film Chinese Coffee, which was filmed in the summer of 1997 and released three years later.
Orbach was married in 1958 to Marta Curro, with whom he had two sons, Anthony Nicholas and Christopher Benjamin; they divorced in 1975. Elder son Tony is a crossword puzzle constructor for The New York Times and also guest starred on the Law & Order episode "Doubles" as a reporter. Younger son Chris Orbach, who is an actor and singer, played Lennie Briscoe's nephew Ken Briscoe in the first season of Special Victims Unit. In 1979, Jerry Orbach married Broadway dancer Elaine Cancilla, whom he met while starring in Chicago.
Orbach lived in a high-rise on 53rd Street off Eighth Avenue in Hell's Kitchen and was a fixture in that neighborhood's restaurants and shops. His glossy publicity photo hangs in Ms. Buffy's French Cleaners, and he was a regular at some of the Italian restaurants nearby. As of 2007, the intersection of 8th Avenue and 53rd Street was renamed in honor of Orbach. The plans met with some resistance by local planning boards, but were overcome thanks to his popularity and his love of the Big Apple.
In January 1994 (less than two years into his stint on Law & Order), Orbach was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He initially received radiation therapy as treatment, but switched to hormone therapy after the cancer had metastasized by December 1994; he remained on this medication until it ran out in March 2004. Following his departure from Law & Order that year, Orbach went through chemotherapy, but he ultimately succumbed to his cancer on December 28, 2004 at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York (at the age of 69). Despite being diagnosed with the cancer more than a decade before his death, Orbach's illness was kept a complete secret from the public until just weeks before he passed away. Prior to his death, Orbach was signed to continue in the role of Lennie Briscoe on the new spin-off Law & Order: Trial by Jury (which was to accommodate his illness by giving him a lighter workload than he had on the original Law & Order), but he was only featured in the first two episodes of the series (both of which aired in March 2005, after his death).
The day after Orbach's death the marquees on Broadway were dimmed in mourning, one of the highest honors of the American theatre world, while NBC re-aired the Law & Order episode "C.O.D." (the last episode of the original series to feature Orbach) in honor of him. The Criminal Intent episode "View from Up Here" and the Trial by Jury episode "Baby Boom" were dedicated to Orbach, and the Law & Order episode "Mammon" featured a pictorial memorial of him.
In addition to his sons, wife and former wife, Orbach was survived by his mother and two grandchildren, Peter and Sarah Kate Orbach, children of his older son Tony. His mother died on July 28, 2012, at the age of 101. His wife Elaine died in 2009 at the age of 69, and his former wife Marta died in 2012 at the age of 79. Having had perfect 20/20 vision his whole life, Jerry Orbach requested while he was alive that his eyes be donated after his death. His wish was granted when two individuals – one who needed correction for a nearsighted eye and another who needed correction for a farsighted eye – received Orbach's corneas. His likeness has been used in an ad campaign for Eye Bank for Sight Restoration in Manhattan. The interment of his remains was at Trinity Church Cemetery.
In addition to his Tony Award and nominations, Jerry Orbach is also a member of the American Theater Hall of Fame, having been inducted in 1999. In 2002, Orbach was named a "Living Landmark" by the New York Landmarks Conservancy, along with his Law & Order co-star Sam Waterston. Orbach quipped that the honor meant "that they can't tear me down."
On February 5, 2005, he was posthumously awarded a Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Drama Series for his longtime role on Law & Order.
On September 18, 2007, a portion of New York City's 53rd Street near Eighth Avenue was renamed Jerry Orbach Way in his honor.
Also in 2007, the Jerry Orbach Theatre was named for him in the Snapple Theater Center at 50th Street and Broadway in New York City. The naming occurred as a tribute to him during a revival of The Fantasticks at the theatre.
After Law & Order was cancelled in 2010, executive producer René Balcer was quoted by the Wall Street Journal; "I always think about the show as before Jerry and after Jerry. . . You saw the weariness of 25 years of crime-fighting in New York written on his face."
Author Kurt Vonnegut was a fan of Orbach, and during an Australian radio interview in 2005 he said, "People have asked me, you know, 'Who would you rather be, than yourself?'," and he replied "Jerry Orbach, without a question... I talked to him one time, and he's adorable."
New York Times writers Ben Brantley and Richard Servero analyzed the breadth and scope of Orbach's career:
Whether singing "Try to Remember" as the dashing narrator of "The Fantasticks" in 1960 or trading barbs with fellow detectives and reluctant witnesses on television in recent years, Mr. Orbach exuded a wry, ragged masculinity that was all his own. As a star of musicals, he created a new kind of hero who was leagues away from suave, swaggering Adonises like John Raitt, Howard Keel, and Alfred Drake... And he flourished at a time when the Broadway musical hero was fast becoming an endangered species... His rough-edged individuality may account for his endurance on the Broadway stage in an era when other promising musical actors - including Larry Kert, Robert Goulet, and Robert Morse - proved unable to follow through on their breakthrough successes. Mr. Orbach may have been the last of a breed: no male star since has matched the breadth and continuity of his career in musicals... It wasn't until the 1990s, when he started appearing as Lennie Briscoe in "Law & Order," that Mr. Orbach became a familiar name throughout the country. The rough edge that distinguished him on Broadway eased his transition to character roles like Briscoe, the recovered alcoholic who seemed to greet the discovery of each episode's crime with a world-weary shrug.
Dirty Dancing co-star Patrick Swayze memorialized Orbach after his death:
Jerry Orbach has been one of the most successful actors who ever lived to make that transition from musical theatre into real, organic, break-your-heart kinds of reality in his work as a film actor, but transition back and forth seamlessly... it was a very interesting time for me, when I was shooting Dirty Dancing, I think probably the eyes I trusted if I was real, and it worked, and I had nailed it, [were] Jerry Orbach's eyes. I would go over to him and under my breath "What did you think?" and he goes "No, go there further, I think there's more you can get." He would say little things like "courage", and it gives me goosebumps to say that. I really, really respected that man. I watched his career from the time I was little. I think it was a great loss when he passed.
|1955-1961||The Threepenny Opera||Streetsinger|
|1960||The Fantasticks||El Gallo|
|1961-1963||Carnival!||Paul the Pupetteer|
|1964||The Cradle Will Rock||Larry Foreman|
|1965||Guys and Dolls||Sky Masterson||Nominated—Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Musical|
|1966||Annie Get Your Gun||Charlie Davenport|
|1967||The Natural Look||Malcolm|
|1967||Scuba Duba||Harold Wonder|
|1968-1972||Promises, Promises||Chuck Baxter||Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Actor in a Musical
Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical
|1972-1973||6 Rms Riv Vu||Paul Friedman|
|1975-1977||Chicago||Billy Flynn||Nominated—Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Actor in a Musical
Nominated—Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical
|1980-1985||42nd Street||Julian Marsh||Nominated - Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical|
|1955||Guys and Dolls||Barbershop extra||Uncredited|
|1958||Cop Hater||Gang Leader- "Mumzer"|
|1961||Mad Dog Coll||Joe Clegg|
|1965||John Goldfarb, Please Come Home||Pinkerton|
|1971||The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight||Kid Sally|
|1972||A Fan's Notes||Fred|
|1975||Fore Play||Jerry Lorsey|
|1977||The Sentinel||Michael Dayton|
|1981||Underground Aces||Herbert Penlittle|
|1981||Prince of the City||Det. Gus Levy||Nominated—National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Supporting Actor
Nominated—New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Supporting Actor
|1985||Brewster's Millions||Charlie Pegler|
|1986||The Imagemaker||Byron Caine|
|1987||Dirty Dancing||Dr. Jake Houseman|
|1987||Someone to Watch Over Me||Lt. Garber|
|1988||I Love N.Y.||Leo|
|1989||Last Exit to Brooklyn||Boyce|
|1989||Crimes and Misdemeanors||Jack Rosenthal|
|1991||Dead Women in Lingerie||Bartoli|
|1991||California Casanova||Constantin Rominoffski|
|1991||Out for Justice||Capt. Ronnie Dozinger|
|1991||Toy Soldiers||Albert Trotta||Uncredited|
|1991||Beauty and the Beast||Lumière (voice)|
|1992||A Gnome Named Gnorm||Unknown|
|1992||Straight Talk||Milo Jacoby|
|1992||Universal Soldier||Dr. Christopher Gregor|
|1992||Mr. Saturday Night||Phil Gussman|
|1993||The Cemetery Club||Unknown||Uncredited|
|1996||Aladdin and the King of Thieves||Sa'luk (voice)||Direct-to-video|
|1997||Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas||Lumière (voice)||Direct-to-video|
|1998||Beauty and the Beast: Belle's Magical World||Lumière (voice)||Direct-to-video|
|2000||The Acting Class||Unknown|
|2000||Chinese Coffee||Jake Manheim|
|2000||Prince of Central Park||Businessmes|
|2002||Beauty and the Beast: Special Edition||Lumière (voice)||IMAX release|
|2002||Manna from Heaven||Waltz Contest Announcer|
|2003||Broadway: The Golden Age, by the Legends Who Were There||Himself|
|2003||Try to Remember: The Fantasticks||Himself|
|2003||Mickey's PhilharMagic||Lumière (voice)||Short film|
|1961||Twenty-Four Hours in a Woman's Life||Cristoff||Television film|
|1967||Annie Get Your Gun||Charles Davenport||Television film|
|1973||Love, American Style||Homer||Episode: "Love and the Hoodwinked Honey"|
|1975||Medical Center||Josh||Episode: "The Captives"|
|1975||Kojak||Brubaker||Episode: "A Question of Answers"|
|1980||Buck Rogers in the 25th Century||Lars Mangros||Episode: "Space Rockers"|
|1983||The Magic of Herself the Elf||King Thorn (voice)||Television film|
|1983||An Invasion of Privacy||Sam Bianchi||Television film|
|1985||Our Family Honor||Brian Merrick||2 episodes|
|1985-1991||Murder, She Wrote||Harry McGraw||6 episodes|
|1986||Dream West||Capt. John Stutter||Television film|
|1986||The Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers||Zachary Foxx (voice)||7 episodes|
|1987||Tales from the Darkside||Robert||Episode: "Everybody Needs a Little Love"|
|1987||Out on a Limb||Mort Viner||Television film|
|1987||Love Among Thieves||Spicer||Television film|
|1987-1988||The Law and Harry McGraw||Harry McGraw||16 episodes|
|1988||Simon & Simon||Harrison/Malcolm Stanley III||Episode: "Ain't Gonna Get It From Me, Jack"|
|1989||Perry Mason: The Case of the Musical Murder||Blaine Counter||Television film|
|1989||The Flamingo Kid||Phil Brody|
|1990||Hunter||Sal Scarlatti||Episode: "Son and Heir"|
|1990||The Golden Girls||Glen O'Brien||Episode: "Cheaters"
Nominated—Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series
|1990||Who's the Boss?||Nick||Episode: "Starlight Memories"|
|1990||Kojak: None So Blind||Tony Salducci||Television film|
|1990||In Defense of a Married Man||Alan Michaelson||Television film|
|1991||Perry Mason: The Case of the Ruthless Reporter||Vic St. John||Television film|
|1991||Law & Order||Frank Lehrmann||Episode: "The Wages of Love"|
|1992||Empty Nest||Arthur||2 episodes|
|1992||Neil Simon's Broadway Bound||Jack Jerome||Television film
Nominated—Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Miniseries or a Movie
|1992||Quiet Killer||Dr. Vincent Califano||Television film|
|1992||Mastergate||Clifton Byers||Television film|
|1992-2004||Law & Order||Detective Leonard W. "Lennie" Briscoe||273 episodes
Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Drama Series
Nominated—Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series
Nominated—Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Drama Series (1995-2004)
Nominated—Viewers for Quality Television Award for Best Supporting Actor in a Quality Drama Series (1998-2000)
|1996||Frasier||Mitch||Episode: "High Crane Drifter"|
|1996-1999||Homicide: Life on the Street||Det. Lennie Briscoe||3 episodes|
|1998||Exiled: A Law & Order Movie||Det. Lennie Briscoe||Television film|
|1999-2000||Law & Order: Special Victims Unit||Det. Lennie Briscoe||3 episodes|
|2001||Law & Order: Criminal Intent||Det. Lennie Briscoe||Episode: "Poison"|
|2001-2002||Disney's House of Mouse||Lumière (voice)||9 episodes|
|2005||Law & Order: Trial by Jury||D.A. Investigator Lennie Briscoe||2 episodes|
|2002||Law & Order: Dead on the Money||Det. Lennie Briscoe|
|2003||Law & Order: Double or Nothing||Det. Lennie Briscoe|
|2004||Law & Order: Justice is Served||Det. Lennie Briscoe|
His love poems to his wife Elaine were published in Remember How I Love You: Love Letters from an Extraordinary Marriage (Touchstone, 2009). Another biography, Jerry Orbach, Prince of the City: His Way From The Fantasticks to Law & Order by John Anthony Gilvey, was published on May 1, 2011.
- Brantley, Ben; Severo, Richard. "Jerry Orbach, Stage and TV Actor, Is Dead at 69", The New York Times, December 30, 2004. Retrieved July 12, 2014
- Bernstein, Adam (December 30, 2004). "'Law & Order' Star Jerry Orbach Dies at 69". The Washington Post. Retrieved July 12, 2014.
- Gilvey, John Anthony (2011). Jerry Orbach:Prince of the City. Applause Theatre & Cinema Books. p. ix. ISBN 978-1423488453.
- Jones, Kenneth (2004), Tony-Winner Jerry Orbach Is Dead at 69, Playbill, retrieved July 12, 2014
- John Anthony Gilvey (May 1, 2011). Jerry Orbach, Prince of the City: His Way from The Fantasticks to Law & Order. Hal Leonard Corporation. ISBN 978-1-4234-8845-3.
-  The Associated Press, 12/29/2004
- Jerry Orbach profile, filmreference.com; accessed January 16, 2014.
- Orbach had stated that his father was descended from Sephardic refugees from the Spanish Inquisition
- Brady, James (February 27, 1994), "In Step With...Jerry Orbach", Parade Magazine: 26
- Horwitz, Simi (February 28, 1993). "Jerry Orbach; His `Law & Order' Role Fits Him Like a Glove". The Washington Post. Reprinted in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel on April 7, 1993 as "Orbach Gives `Law & Order` Seedy Side" and Bangor Daily News on March 6, 1993 as "Orbach likes new role as cynical cop."
- Hiltbrand, David (January 4, 2004). "Jerry Orbach gets his due on the sidewalks of New York". The Boston Globe. Knight Ridder. Retrieved April 12, 2013.
- Thompson, Lorraine (December 31, 2004). "Local woman went to school with actor". St. Augustine Record. Retrieved April 12, 2013.
- Brantley, Ben; Severo, Richard (December 29, 2004). "Jerry Orbach, Star of 'Law & Order', Dies at 69". The New York Times. Retrieved April 12, 2013.
- "Jerry Orbach". biography.com. A&E Networks. Retrieved April 12, 2013.
- McLellan, Dennis (December 30, 2004). "Jerry Orbach, 69; Actor Portrayed Det. Briscoe on TV's "Law & Order"". Los Angeles Times.
-  Sydney Morning Herald, 10/7/2004
- TV Guide Book of Lists. Running Press. 2007. p. 218. ISBN 0-7624-3007-9.
- Brantley, Ben; Severo, Richard. "Jerry Orbach, Stage and TV Actor, Is Dead at 69", The New York Times, December 30, 2004. Retrieved August 11, 2009.
- NY Times article 3/7/07
-  People, 12/2/2004
- Obituary for Jerry Orbach, New York Times; accessed January 16, 2014 at legacy.com archive online]
- "On Stage: New class of theater hall of famers". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Retrieved February 13, 2014.
- . New York Landmarks Conservancy.
- Street renamed in Orbach's honor
- Chosick, Amy and Gamerman, Ellen."'Law & Order' School of Drama"The Wall Street Journal, May 21, 2010
- October 6, 2005. Kurt Vonnegut interviewed on ABC Radio National Audio by Phillip Adams. Available on the Slaughterhouse-Five Region 4 DVD, released by Umbrella Entertainment Pty Ltd in 2007
- Servero, Richard (December 29, 2004). "Jerry Orbach, Star of 'Law & Order,' Dies at 69". The New York Times. Retrieved July 12, 2014.
- Patrick Swayze Talks About Working With Jerry Orbach. American Film Institute.
- Orbach, Jerry; Orbach, Elaine; Waterson, Sam (November 3, 2009). Remember How I Love You: Love Letters from an Extraordinary Marriage. Touchstone. ISBN 978-1-4391-4988-1.
- Jerry Orbach at the Internet Movie Database
- Jerry Orbach at the Internet Broadway Database
- Jerry Orbach at the Internet Off-Broadway Database
- Jerry Orbach at Find a Grave
- Jerry Orbach obituary (The Washington Post)
- Biography and Interview from "Broadway; The American Musical"
- Jerry Orbach sings "Try to remember" on YouTube
- Law and Order Star Jerry Orbach Dies MSNBC
- Jerry Orbach Memorial, Richard Rodgers Theater, March 24, 2005