By Michael Buckley
29 Dec 2004
|Photo by Aubrey Reuben|
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." 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.
"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."
"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. Continued...