Joanna Merlin

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Joanna Merlin
JoAnn Delores Ratner

(1931-07-15)July 15, 1931
Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
DiedOctober 15, 2023(2023-10-15) (aged 92)
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
Occupation(s)Actor, teacher, author, casting director
Years active1956–2017
Martin Lubner
(m. 1950; div. 1955)
David Dretzin
(m. 1965; died 2006)
Children2, including Julie

Joanna Merlin (born JoAnn Delores Ratner; July 15, 1931 – October 15, 2023) was an American actress and casting director who worked with Stephen Sondheim and starred in the original Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof. She wrote two acting guides[citation needed] and was a faculty member of New York University's graduate acting program.[1] From 2000 to 2011, she was known for her recurring role on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit as Judge Lena Petrovsky.

Early life[edit]

JoAnn Delores Ratner, who later took her mother's maiden name, was born in Chicago, Illinois, in 1931, to Toni Merlin and Harry Ratner, a Jewish grocer.[2][3] Her parents had immigrated to the United States from Russia.[4] Her family also included her older sister, Harriet Glickman, who would go on to gain recognition for helping persuade Charles M. Schulz in 1968 to add a black character to his Peanuts strip, which he did with the introduction of Franklin.[4]

Merlin first acted on stage at age 11, joining a community theatre production, Too Many Marys.[5] Merlin's family moved to Los Angeles when she was fifteen.[3] She attended UCLA, though did not graduate,[3][6] and later studied under Michael Chekhov, learning his world-renowned acting technique. She was described as the last student of Chekhov who was still alive and teaching.[1]


Merlin made her first screen appearance in Cecil B. DeMille's film The Ten Commandments in 1956.[3] Five years later, she made her Broadway debut in Becket[3] before playing Tzeitel in Harold Prince's production of Fiddler on the Roof. She left the cast of Fiddler on the Roof before the end of its tour to take care of her two small children,[5] but Harold Prince gave her the opportunity to become involved in casting with a more flexible schedule. Company was the first musical for which Merlin served as the casting director. She was also in charge of casting for such plays as Follies, Evita and Sweeney Todd.[3]

In 1986, she served as casting director for the John Carpenter film, Big Trouble in Little China.

After making appearances in several feature films, including the movie Fame, in which she played Miss Olivia Berg, a classical dance teacher; Merlin appeared in the NBC crime drama Law & Order in 1992 as a defense attorney. Like many actors from that show, she went on to play other characters in the Law & Order franchise - another defense attorney in the original show and a more recurring role as Judge Lena Petrovsky, a judge who was very stern, by-the-book, and scolded or sanctioned, at various times, ADAs Casey Novak (Diane Neal) and Alexandra Cabot (Stephanie March) and Detective (now Lieutenant) Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay), in its first spin-off Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. In the latter role, she appeared in 43 episodes, across every season between the years 2000 and 2011.[3]

Merlin taught in New York University's graduate acting program at the Tisch School of the Arts[1] and in 1999, founded the Michael Chekhov Association where she taught acting workshops.[7]


After a marriage to Martin Lubner in the 1950s ended in divorce, Merlin was married to David Dretzin from 1965 until his death in 2006, from an injury sustained in a car accident. They had two daughters: Rachel, a documentary filmmaker; and Julie, an actress.[3]

Merlin died from myelodysplastic syndrome at the Los Angeles home of her daughter, Rachel, on October 15, 2023, at the age of 92.[3][8][9]



Year Title Role Notes
1956 The Ten Commandments Jethro's Daughter
1958 Weddings and Babies Josie
1975 Hester Street Jake's Landlady
1979 All That Jazz Nurse Pierce
1980 Fame Miss Berg
1982 Soup for One Allan's Mother
1982 Love Child Mrs. Sturgis
1983 Baby It's You Mrs. Rosen
1984 The Killing Fields Sydney Schanberg's Sister
1985 Year of the Dragon Casting Director
1986 Big Trouble in Little China Casting Director
1987 Prince of Darkness Bag Lady
1987 The Last Emperor Casting Director
1988 Mystic Pizza Mrs. Araújo
1990 Mr. and Mrs. Bridge Casting Director
1991 Class Action Estelle Ward
1992 The Lover Casting Director
1993 Little Buddha Tibetan Casting: New York
1993 M. Butterfly Casting Consultant
1993 Mr. Wonderful Loretta
1995 Jefferson in Paris Casting Director
1995 Two Bits Guendolina
1996 MURDER and Murder Doris
1998 City of Angels Teresa Messinger
2001 The Jimmy Show Emily
2003 Just Another Story Sadie
2007 The Invasion Joan Kaufman
2008 Beautiful Hills of Brooklyn Producer, Co-writer and the role of Jesse Sylvester
2008 The Wackness Grandma Shapiro
2010 Sarah's Key Mme. Rainsferd
2017 Active Adults Miriam


Year Title Role Notes
1960 CBS Repertoire Workshop Musya Episode: "The Seven Who Were Hanged"
1962 Naked City Gloria Werminski Episode: "King Stanislaus and the Knights of the Round Stable"
1963 The Defenders Katy Martinez Episode: "The Bagman"
1964 East Side/West Side Lucia Lopez Episode: "It's War, Man"
1967 The Winter's Tale Paulina TV movie
1978 The Last Tenant Mrs. Farelli TV movie
1980 Nurse Nan Riley TV movie
1981 ABC Afterschool Specials Inez Marin Episode: "Starstruck"
1982 Another World Dr. Emily Cole Soap Opera
Unknown episodes
1983 Jacobo Timerman: Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number Unknown TV movie
1986 Amazing Stories Marie / Wealthy Lady Episode: "Gather Ye Acorns"
1989 CBS Schoolbreak Special Marian Rosenberg Episode: "A Matter of Conscience"
1990 Murder in Black and White Dr. Bromberg TV movie
1991 L.A. Law Assistant District Attorney Ellen Kennedy Episode: "Pump it up"
1991 A Marriage: Georgia O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz Dolly Stieglitz TV movie
1991 In a Child's Name Frances Silvano TV movie
1992 Baby Talk Unknown Episodes: "Scenes from a Marriage"
1992–1993 Law & Order Carla Bowman 2 episodes
1993 Love, Honor & Obey: The Last Mafia Marriage Rose Profaci TV movie
1993 Northern Exposure Nadine Fleischman Episode: "Birds of a Feather"
1995 Everyman Casting Advisor
1996 The Prosecutors Unknown TV movie
1996–1997 New York Undercover Carmella McNamara 4 episodes
1997 All My Children Judge Brauer Soap Opera
Unknown episodes
1994–1998 Law & Order Deirdre Powell 3 episodes
1999 Black and Blue Ann Benedetto TV movie
1999 Witness Protection Mrs. O'Connor, Cindy's Mother TV movie
2004 The Jury Jackie Ochs Episode: "Too Jung to Die"
2008 The American Experience Family Member
2010 Frontline Herself Episode: Digital Nation"
2011 The Good Wife Loni Goslin Episode: "In Sickness"
2000–2011 Law & Order: Special Victims Unit Judge Lena Petrovsky 43 episodes
2013 Homeland Grandma Lois Episode: "Tin Man Is Down"


Year Title Role Notes
1961 Becket Gwendolyn
1961 A Far Country Replacement Performer
1964 Fiddler on the Roof Tzeitel
1970 Company Casting Director
1971 Follies Casting Director
1973 A Little Night Music Casting Director
1976 Pacific Overtures Casting Director
1978 On the Twentieth Century Casting Director
1979 Evita Casting Director
1979 Sweeney Todd Casting Director
1981 Merrily We Roll Along Casting Director
1982 A Doll's Life Casting Director
1987 Into The Woods Casting Director
2014 Absence Helen Bastion

Awards and nominations[edit]

Year Award Category Film or series Result
1988 Casting Society of America Artios Award Best Casting for a Feature Film, Drama The Last Emperor Won
2009 Strasbourg International Film Festival Award Best Actress Beautiful Hills of Brooklyn Won


  1. ^ a b c "Graduate Acting Faculty Directory". New York University. Archived from the original on August 27, 2012. Retrieved June 20, 2012.
  2. ^ "Joanna Merlin" Profile. Accessed October 2015.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i Sandomir, Richard (October 28, 2023). "Joanna Merlin, Known for Her Work Both Onstage and Off, Dies at 92". The New York Times. Retrieved October 28, 2023.
  4. ^ a b Slotnik, Daniel E. (April 3, 2020). "Harriet Glickman, Who Pushed 'Peanuts' to Add a Black Character, Dies at 93". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved June 15, 2023.
  5. ^ a b Eaker, Sherry (November 10, 2000). "Audition Advice From an Industry Vet: Joanna Merlin". Back Stage. Retrieved June 20, 2012.
  6. ^ Erickson, Hal. "Joanna Merlin - Movie and Film Biography". All Movie. Retrieved June 20, 2012.
  7. ^ "Joanna Merlin". The Michael Chekhov Association. Retrieved June 20, 2012.
  8. ^ Greg Evans (October 16, 2023). "Joanna Merlin Dies: Original Fiddler On The Roof Tzeitel, Longtime Judge On Law & Order: SVU Was 92". Deadline Hollywood. Retrieved October 16, 2023.
  9. ^ Michael Starr (October 16, 2023). "Fiddler on the Roof actress Joanna Merlin dead at 92". New York Post. Retrieved October 16, 2023.

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