STAGE TO SCREENS: A Chat with Theatre Veteran Jerry Orbach

STAGE TO SCREENS: A Chat with Theatre Veteran Jerry Orbach This month we look at the stage career of Jerry Orbach, currently enjoying his 11th season in the Emmy-nominated role of Det. Lennie Briscoe on the NBC-TV series, "Law & Order."
Jerry Orbach
Jerry Orbach

The well-liked actor's theatre credits include successes Off-Broadway — The Threepenny Opera, The Fantasticks (he originated the role of El Gallo), Scuba Duba — and on: Carnival!, Promises, Promises (for which he won a Tony), and the original productions of Chicago and 42nd Street.

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"I think of myself as sort of the 'stealth bomber,'" says Jerry Orbach, "especially these days with the movie of 'Chicago' getting all the press." The first Billy Flynn attended the premiere, and "thought it was terrific! Marty Richards [a producer of the original, as well as for the film] fought tooth and nail to get back a lot of the stuff that's not in the revival that's on Broadway now."

While Orbach jokingly views himself as an "invisible" aircraft, his "flights" captured many a fancy. Bookends of his Broadway career, to date (1961-81), are musicals directed and choreographed by Gower Champion, produced by David Merrick, and based on hit movies, made 20 years apart: Carnival!, adapted from MGM's 1953 "Lili," and 42nd Street, the 1933 Warner Bros. backstage story.

"Carnival! was a wonderful experience," recalls Orbach, "and a show that touched people in a very special way — especially young girls. Every now and then, somebody comes up to me and says it changed their whole life, and made them fall in love with the theatre." His Broadway debut cast him as Paul Berthalet, a bitter puppeteer, who wins Lili (Anna Maria Alberghetti) through his puppets: Carrot Top, Horr'ble Henry, Marguerite, and Renardo. "It was slightly unrewarding. I did all the puppet voices and handled all the puppets — and the puppets were reviewed as a separate entity, as though it was Jim Henson and the Muppets. It was really me, but nobody knew it. They said, 'Oh, he's good, but the puppets are terrific!' I'd say, 'Wait a minute, I am the puppets.' That's the way it goes sometimes when you're the 'stealth bomber.' [Laughs]"

Another incident when Orbach's vocal abilities were not duly acknowledged occurred in Chicago. "I did the number, 'We Both Reached for the Gun,' with Gwen Verdon sitting on my knee. I did ventriloquism, using a falsetto voice with Gwen mouthing the words. Bobby [Fosse] wanted Gwen's mouth just to go up and down, but she couldn't help mouthing the words. My sort of scratchy falsetto sounded a lot like Gwen and people thought she was singing. I had to explain it to them later. I'm there — not moving my lips, being very proud of how I'm doing — and people said, 'Oh, really; you were doing that?' [Laughs]"

42nd Street, Orbach says, "was a mixed blessing — mixed with tragedy, with Gower dying on the afternoon of opening night [8/25/80, when David Merrick announced it during the curtain call to obtain maximum media coverage]. None of us knew about it; it was a total shock." Orbach played director Julian Marsh, who, "like Billy Flynn, is the impetus for the story. The secret, of course, is the more serious that Julian Marsh is, the funnier it is [in] all of that 'The show must go on' and 'You're going out a youngster. . .' stuff. Playing that energy, that dead seriousness — that's where the fun is."

For Orbach, the fun began early on. "It was just sort of understood," he says, that it would be an actor's life for him. "It was never a decision that I made at a certain point. When I was nine years old, they picked me for the leading role in the school play. I was in the choir, and they sent me down to the University of Illinois for a singing contest, and I won a gold medal. It went on and on. I think I always knew I was going to be a performer."

The performer's father is deceased, but Orbach's mother, Emily, "is still around. She just hit 92 in December. She lives here in the city." Since he possesses good genes, might we see the actor on "Law & Order" for another couple of decades? He laughs. "Well, you know, [producer] Dick Wolf wants to break the 'Gunsmoke' record [of 20 seasons]."

An only child, Orbach was born in the Bronx. "We moved all over the country, and wound up in Waukegan, IL, when I was half-way through the seventh grade. I went all through high school there. My first summer stock was at the Chevy Chase Playhouse in Wheeling, Illinois. My high-school drama teacher had a job there, and she got me and a girl named Judy Jones on as apprentices. I was 16. That was 1952 — a long time ago. [Laughs]" Orbach made his debut as the Typewriter Man in Room Service.

After attending the University of Illinois for a year, he transferred to Northwestern. In summer stock, Orbach appeared in Picnic and The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial. Instead of returning for his senior year, Orbach journeyed to New York, where he quickly got a job, making his Off-Broadway debut in the heralded production of The Threepenny Opera. "I played the Streetsinger for almost six months. I got to play Mack [the Knife] with [Lotte] Lenya [in her Tony-winning role], which was amazing because I was 20 years old. I turned 21 when Jimmy Mitchell [later Marco the Magnificent in Carnival!] came in to play Macheath."

During his three-and-a-half years in Threepenny, Orbach studied with Herbert Berghof, Mira Rostova and Lee Strasberg, "and became a member of the Actors Studio." Afterwards, he did a season of stock in Ohio, appearing as Mannion in Mister Roberts ("with [buddy] David Janssen, who played 'The Fugitive' [on TV]"), as the Kralohome in The King and I, as Dr. Sanderson in Harvey, as Benny in Guys and Dolls, and in The Student Prince. He then returned to New York to do a new Off-Broadway musical.

Asked to try to remember The Fantasticks experience, Orbach says, "We thought it could close in a week, or catch on and become sort of a legend, like Threepenny. People would say, 'If you go to the Village, you have to see. . . .' At that time, there wasn't that much Off-Broadway — Little Mary Sunshine, a couple of others. We thought if it became a legend, it could run — who knows? — maybe three or four years."

Carnival! followed, and then a brief stint in Hollywood. In November 1964, Orbach played the role of Foreman in an Off-Broadway revival of The Cradle Will Rock, "directed by Howard DaSilva, who had played [the role] originally, when Orson Welles did it. Leonard Bernstein came in and helped us with the music, because his friend, Marc Blitzstein, had written it."

Orbach received a Tony nomination as Sky Masterson in a 1965 City Center production of Guys and Dolls. "It was the first time someone was nominated from a [musical] revival, so that was a pleasure." The cast included Alan King (Nathan), Sheila MacRae (Adelaide), Anita Gillette (Sarah), "and [boxer] Jake LaMotta was Big Julie," notes Orbach.

"Jake used to say I was the only guy who ever knocked him down — eight times a week. [Laughs] Even Sugar Ray Robinson [LaMotta's opponent in three fights] never knocked him down." So, this, too, was an instance when Orbach didn't receive full credit. "That was okay," he admits. "I didn't want anybody to think I really could knock down Jake LaMotta."

At Lincoln Center, Orbach played Jigger Craigin in a 1965 production of Carousel. "Working with Richard Rodgers [who produced the revival] was a great experience. I also covered John Raitt [re-creating his role] as Billy. John saw me in an understudy rehearsal one day, and said, 'You are never going on. I don't care how sick I am.' [Laughs] Billy's almost a tenor's role — kind of high for me and tough, but it was all a lot of fun." He then went on the road with the show.

The following year, Orbach returned to Lincoln Center to play Charlie Davenport, manager of the Buffalo Bill troupe, in Annie Get Your Gun, which had Ethel Merman reprising her original role. Was it exciting to be in a show where "There's No Business Like Show Business" was sung by the star who introduced it? "Especially opening night — with Irving Berlin sitting in a box. When [Merman] sang the first eight bars of the chorus, the whole audience burst into applause and gave her a standing ovation. Quite a night!" After a tour, the show was taped for TV (NBC, 3/19/67): "I looked like Milton Berle," says Orbach, laughing.

He toured as Tom in The Glass Menagerie and came back to Broadway in The Natural Look, a comedy that closed opening night (3/11/67). "My only flop. I did it for a friend, [director] Marty Fried, who at that time was married to Brenda Vaccaro [the female lead]. We played a couple of weeks of previews. It had a wonderful cast — [including] Gene Hackman, Ethel Griffies, Doris Roberts, Zohra Lampert — but it was a first-time lady writer [Leonora Thuna], and she wouldn't change a word, wouldn't take any suggestions.

"But I got to keep the wardrobe. I figured I ought to get something out of it. The day they asked us to clear out the dressing rooms, the stage manager said, 'Oh, by the way, the producers asked if you want to buy any of the wardrobe.' There were a couple of Cardin blazers, a great suit, Gucci loafers — it was beautiful. I said, 'No, I don't think so,' grabbed it all off the rack, and walked out. [Laughs]" (Paging Lennie Briscoe.)

Next came the Off-Broadway comedy, Scuba Duba, in which Orbach's role as Harold Wonder kept him onstage the entire time. "Oh, yeah," he says, savoring the memory. "[Playwright] Bruce Jay Friedman! And it was directed by Jacques Levy — a great guy who later did, among other things, Oh, Calcutta." I ask if Orbach auditioned for that, and he laughs: "No, no!"

He won a 1969 Tony Award as Chuck Baxter in Promises, Promises, the Neil Simon-Burt Bacharach-Hal David musical version of Billy Wilder's "The Apartment." Says Orbach, "Physically, I was all wrong for the part. He should have been shorter, a Bobby Morse type — his opening number is called 'Half as Big as Life' — but it worked out great. Neil Simon wrote the book, and Doc had me talk to the audience a lot because I'd done that in Scuba Duba. He liked me sharing thoughts with the audience."

In the playwright's memoir, "Rewrites," Simon states that, two weeks into rehearsals, he called David Merrick in a panic, claiming that Orbach "seemed sullen, dark, not really likable" in the part. Merrick had not attended rehearsals, but did so the next day — after calling China to try to reach an on-location actor whom Simon had suggested as a replacement. Overnight, Simon writes, Orbach "went from sullen to charming, from grim to delightful, from unlikable to winning — in short, he was terrific."

Orbach later toured (1978-79) in Simon's Chapter Two. He also appeared in TV adaptations of Simon plays: with Lee Grant in a 1982 cable presentation of "Plaza Suite"; opposite Anne Bancroft in 1992's "Broadway Bound," for which he received an Emmy nomination.

6 Rms Riv Vu, in which Orbach co-starred with Jane Alexander, "was a terrific, terrific experience. Ed Sherin, Jane's husband, directed it. It's an amazing feat of staging; it's almost a two-character play, with no furniture on the stage." He also toured in the comedy. Orbach played opposite Maureen Stapleton (reprising her Tony-winning role) in a 1973 Philadelphia production of The Rose Tattoo. "Tennessee Williams came in one night, and said that I was the best Mangiacavallo he had ever seen. Later, Maureen told me, 'He says that to everybody.' [Laughs]"

Orbach thinks that Chicago, for which he earned a third Tony nomination (and in which he later toured), "was a little bit ahead of its time, as far as the dark humor. We opened five nights after Chorus Line, which took all the reviews and the awards that year.

"The original [as compared to the revival] had a lot of values, like the costumes and the movie-dissolve changes from one scene to another. When I did the striptease with the girls and the feathers ["All I Care About Is Love"], I walked out of that [number] in shorts and a T-shirt — into my office, where a tailor is fitting me for a new suit. It was filled with that kind of stuff." When Gwen Verdon underwent an operation, Liza Minnelli filled in as Roxie Hart, and Orbach had to "totally adjust my performance and the relationship. I couldn't beat up on her, the way I did on Gwen, because Liza was more like a wounded bird. I had to play it more big-brotherly, or the audience would have booed me off the stage. [Laughs]."

Which role has given Orbach the most satisfaction? "Oh, I don't know. I think maybe El Gallo in The Fantasticks. I have fond memories of that."

Playing Harry McGraw, a private detective, on several episodes of Angela Lansbury's "Murder, She Wrote" led to a spin-off series, "The Law and Harry McGraw" (1987-88). "That was such fun. He was the detective who, when he punches someone, breaks his hand; his car won't start. He was a little funnier than Columbo. But it wasn't meant to be. We did 17 of them. [Its success] would have changed my life. Everything would have been different. It would've meant living in L.A."

Among Orbach's movie credits: "Dirty Dancing," as Jennifer Grey's doctor-father ("That was huge, huge"); Woody Allen's "Crimes and Misdemeanors" ("a personal favorite — something you could get your teeth into"); and "Beauty and the Beast," in which, as the voice of the candelabrum Lumiere, he "reminded people that I could sing."

His performance as a seasoned police detective in "Prince of the City" proved important to Orbach's career. When he was signed for "Law & Order," Orbach remembers, "Dick Wolf told me, 'I want the kind of quality you had in 'Prince of the City.' [The movie] changed my image — for the public and for the business: 'Oh, he's not a song-and-dance guy, he can act.' [Laughs]"

A father of two sons from his first marriage and also a grandfather, Orbach has been married since 1979 to the former Elaine Cancilla.

His only solo album, "Jerry Orbach — Off Broadway," recorded in 1961, is now available as a Decca Broadway CD, and includes such selections as "Try to Remember," "Mack the Knife," "Lazy Afternoon," and "There's a Small Hotel."

On Monday, Feb. 24, Orbach is being honored by the Drama League for having, it states, "appeared in more performances of American musicals than any other living actor." The 2003 Musical Celebration of Broadway Gala takes place in the Pierre Hotel's Grand Ballroom. On the bill: Hinton Battle, Richard Belzer, Christine Ebersole, Judy Kaye, Jesse L. Martin, Donna McKechnie, Liz Smith, Sam Waterston, Dick Wolf, Karen Ziemba, The Fantasticks' Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, and the Carnival! puppets. For ticket information, call Meghan Coleman at 212-244-9494, Ext. 4.

A second-season episode of "Law & Order" featured Orbach as a defense attorney. He had twice tried out to be a series regular, but producers chose other actors: George Dzundza (who quit after a season) and Paul Sorvino (who left after a year-and-a-half). The third time proved to be the charm, and Orbach (probably referring to his predecessors' characters being shot, one fatally) was quoted in a 1992 interview: "They'll really have to shoot me to get me out of here." Eleven years later, he seems a man happy in his work.

Is there a chance, I ask, that Lennie Briscoe may break into song — and "give 'em the old Razzle Dazzle" — on a "Law & Order" episode? "We talked about Lennie falling off the wagon and getting drunk at a karaoke bar," replies Jerry Orbach, "but I think that'll be the point at which 'Law & Order' 'jumps the shark!' [Laughs]."

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END QUIZ: The TV version of "The Fantasticks" (NBC, 10/18/64) had John Davidson and Susan Watson as the couple, with Bert Lahr and Stanley Holloway playing their fathers. Was El Gallo played by: a) Robert Goulet; b) Elliott Gould; c) Ricardo Montalban? (Answer: Next column, March 16)

The Jan. 19 question was: In what short-lived Broadway musical did the original Kiss Me, Kate leads, Alfred Drake and Patricia Morison, appear together 10 years earlier: a) My One True Love; b) The Two Bouquets; c) Three Wishes for Mimi? The answer is: b.

—Michael Buckley also writes for TheaterMania.com and The Sondheim Review.

(L-R) M. O'Haughey and Jerry Orbach in the original production of Chicago.
(L-R) M. O'Haughey and Jerry Orbach in the original production of Chicago. (Photo by Cheryl Sue Dolby)