Multi-Talented and Much-Loved Jerry Orbach Remembered at Broadway Salute

Special Features   Multi-Talented and Much-Loved Jerry Orbach Remembered at Broadway Salute
 
Those who thought Jerry Orbach had skills enough—actor, singer, dancer, star of stage and television—learned of a few more hidden talents when they attended the March 24 memorial for the late performer, at the Richard Rodgers Theatre.
From Top: Jerry Orbach; Karen Ziemba, Angela Lansbury and Chris Noth at Orbach Memorial
From Top: Jerry Orbach; Karen Ziemba, Angela Lansbury and Chris Noth at Orbach Memorial Photo by Aubrey Reuben

He was an expert joke-teller, for one, who knew every yuk ever uttered and taught "Law & Order" co-star Sam Waterston the only punchline he knows. ("A horse walks into a bar. The bartender says 'Why the long face?'").

He was an all-night poker player who always left the table a victor, once—if you believe Jane Alexander, his co-star in Six Rms Rv Vu—winning a Cadillac.

He was a lover of the American Songbook, who could remember the lyrics of nearly every tune ever written for the American theatre, and often sung them at the drop of a hat.

And, perhaps most surprisingly—given the rough exterior and gruff manner fans associated with the man who played Detective Lenny Briscoe on "Law & Order" for 12 seasons—he was an amateur poet, and wrote a verse for his wife, Elaine, every day of their married life.

Elaine kept all her beloved husband's rhymes in a soup tureen given Orbach by producer David Merrick. ("I never held soup," she said.) Lifelong friend Jane Alexander read a dozen for the gathered crowd. Much had to do with love, such as: I thank you for my birthday
I thank my mother too
She brought me here to start with
The rest is up to you
Cause if I was without you
I don't know what I'd do

Others illustrated Orbach's oft-cited belief that humor be a major part of every day and every activity:

A dark and rainy Monday
It looks like darkest night.
But I don't mind the darkness
Our kitchen's nice and bright.
We'll paint another color, too,
So please don't let that trouble ya'
The thing we have to suffer through
Is four years of George W.

Still, for all of the above, the speakers at the memorial communicated again and again that the greatest talent of Jerry Orbach, who died on Dec. 28, 2004, was one for life and unwaveringly considerate treatment of other people.

"Jerry made kindliness a philosophy of life," said Waterston, who emceed the event. "He puts tense visiting actors at their ease, he keeps people laughing and he keeps things moving... But his kindliness is larger than personal gentlemanliness. I think you can see a little of it in the character he's given Lenny Briscoe, who's seen everything and still looks at the world with a kind eye and the hope of finding in all the daily mess and wickedness, something good. He's just a lovely man."

The words Waterston used—kind, generous, compassionate, funny—came up often. "He had a very up way with his personality," said Alexander. "He was no fair weather friend. If you were down in the dumps, boy, was that the guy who was going to call up and cheer you up and take you out."

"Law & Order" creator Dick Wolf said simply, "In a business where schadenfreuden is a polite emotion, the only person I never heard anyone say a negative word about, as an artist or as a person, was Jerry Orbach." At the end of the program, Wolf presented Elaine Orbach with a check for $1 million dollars for cancer research at Sloan Kettering hospital.

The audience was filled with a heathy contingent of "Law & Order" people, including such past and present cast members as Dennis Farina, Chris Noth, S. Epatha Merkerson, Dann Florek and Angie Harmon. Some of these must have learned something new about their colleague when film clips from his stage triumphs in Promises, Promises, Chicago and 42nd Street were screened.

Waterston mentioned the astounding fact that Orbach gave more performances on the Broadway stage than any male actor in the history of Times Square.

"Someone told me Jerry never quit a show that was running," Waterston said to general laughter. "It's an amazing fact that he was in only one Broadway flop his entire career. The agent Jeff Berger wanted to know how he pulled that off. Jerry said, 'I'll tell you my secret and you can tell all your clients. Whenever I needed money, I said yes.' Jerry's talents were very precious, but he wasn't precious about them."

Angela Lansbury talked of working with Orbach not on the stage but on her series "Murder She Wrote," on which he played brash cop Harry McGraw—a character so popular he was spun off into his own series "The Law and Harry McGraw."

"We tried to get Broadway stars out to the coast, because we knew we needed that kind of polished, expert quality that only stage actors have," Lansbury said. "To have Jerry on the set with me was like a breath of Broadway."

Perhaps the event's most moving moments came not from an actor or producer, but from Orbach's friend Prof. Richard Brown. Brown initially sought out Orbach to participate in a film class he was teaching which featured the Orbach movie "Crimes and Misdemeanors." Searching for the actor's publicist, Brown couldn't find one. "I discovered Jerry didn't have people," said Brown. "When I called to go through that usual labyrinth, Jerry answered the phone, and I was taken aback. I told him about my class, and would he do it, and he said. 'Sure.' I said, 'We'll send a limo.' He said, 'I'll take the subway."

Soon, Orbach and Brown and their wives began traveling, taking cruises together. Their final shared vacation included a stop on a small Greek isle. While idling in a taverna, a grizzled old man approached Orbach speaking Greek. No one was able to translate, so the elderly fellow wrote down his message. Once docked on the mainland, Brown took the note to the first bilingual person he could find. The befuddled man replied, "I don't know what it means, but in Greek it is 'We love you 'Dirty Dancing' daddy.'"

Orbach commented: "It's Jake," mentioning his character in the wildly popular 1987 musical film. "He follows me all over the world."

Brown and his then girlfriend and future wife first saw Orbach playing El Gallo in The Fantasticks at the Sullivan Street Playhouse. The musical's signature song "Try to Remember" became their song; they danced to it at their wedding. The couple heard it again on their 35th anniversary.

"We were in the Adriatic," he said, "and it's lovely, and they bring the cake, and behind me I hear the strains of 'Try to Remember' a capella, sung by Jerry Orbach," related Brown, choking up at the memory. "That tells you so much about the generosity of spirit. He decided to make his life not about fame, not about celebrity, not about wealth, not even about talent—and he loved the theatre more than anything, except Elaine—he chose to make his life about compassion and kindness."

The afternoon closed with a video of an older Orbach, still in good voice, singing "Try to Remember" with simple piano accompaniment.

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