Tony-Winner Jerry Orbach Is Dead at 69

Obituaries   Tony-Winner Jerry Orbach Is Dead at 69
Jerry Orbach, the Tony Award-winning star of Promises, Promises and other musicals, died Dec. 28 at the age of 69.
From Top: Jerry Orbach; The Fantasticks (1960); Chicago (1975);
From Top: Jerry Orbach; The Fantasticks (1960); Chicago (1975); "Law & Order" (2004)

Mr. Orbach was widely known as gruff detective Lennie Briscoe on TV's "Law & Order." He left the show in 2004 and at the time of his death this week was part of a new show (tailored just for him) in the NBC franchise: "Law & Order: Trial by Jury."

It was recently revealed that Mr. Orbach was battling prostate cancer.

"Broadway is deeply saddened by the loss of well-loved stage and screen star Jerry Orbach," commented Jed Bernstein, president of the League of American Theatres and Producers, Inc. "Jerry was a true New Yorker. Both his Broadway and television career were based here and our city is just a little sadder without him."

Among Mr. Orbach's famous stage roles were El Gallo in the original Off-Broadway run of The Fantasticks, Billy Flynn in the 1975 musical Chicago, and Julian Marsh in the original 42nd Street. He won a Tony for Promises, Promises.

A character actor with heart, Mr. Orbach had the respect of his colleagues and managed to work in many venues: film, TV, plays, musicals and animated movies (he was the voice of Lumiere in the film "Beauty and the Beast"). The Bronx-born son of a restaurant manager, Mr. Orbach played New Yorkers in such films as "Prince of the City" and "Crimes and Misdemeanors."

According to his NBC "Law & Order" biography, he has been honored with the Crystal Apple Award from the New York City Mayor's Office of Film, Television and Broadcasting for his contribution to the arts, and was presented with a lifetime achievement award from the Friar's Club of New York.

Young New York actors making their first appearance on series TV (sometimes landing a one- or two-scene appearance with Mr. Orbach in "Law & Order") were made, in Mr. Orbach's presence, comfortable on the set. The highly formatted nature of the "Law & Order" storytelling (investigation and then prosecution) had become second nature to the seasoned pro in hundreds of episodes of the Dick Wolf-produced program.

If an actor flubbed a line in an exchange with Mr. Orbach, he might tell them to just "relax and keep going," knowing the director would be able to snag one of several takes.

The 1999-2000 season of "Law & Order" brought additional recognition to Mr. Orbach in the form of a third Emmy Award nomination — his first as Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series — for his portrayal of Det. Briscoe. He earned previous Emmy nominations for his work on "Empty Nest" and Neil Simon's "Broadway Bound."

His film credits also include "Dirty Dancing," "Someone to Watch Over Me" and "F/X" and "Chinese Coffee."

His other television credits include starring in the series "The Law and Harry McGraw," as well as guest appearances on "The Golden Girls," "Hunter," "Murder, She Wrote," "Who's the Boss?" and more.

After studying acting at the University of Illinois and Northwestern University (hi parents had moved the Chicago area), Mr. Orbach made his New York stage debut in the famed Theatre de Lys revival of The Threepenny Opera, playing Mack the Knife in 1955.

While in New York, Mr. Orbach studied acting with Herbert Berghof, Mira Rostova and Lee Strasberg.

He sang "Try to Remember" in Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt's The Fantasticks in 1960 (and is heard on the original cast album), and made his Broadway debut as Paul, the puppeteer, in David Merrick's production of the musical Carnival.

For the City Center revival of Guys and Dolls, he received his first Tony Award nomination, for Best Featured Actor (Musical). Merrick would tap him in 1980 to play driven Broadway director Julian Marsh in the smash hit 42nd Street. . For Chicago, singing "Razzle Dazzle," among other Kander and Ebb songs, he was nominated for a Best Actor (Musical) Tony Award.

He won rave reviews for his virtuoso performance in Bruce Jay Friedman's Scuba Duba, and starred in the comedy 6 Rms Riv Vu and toured for nine months in the national company of Neil Simon's Chapter Two.

Mr. Orbach can also be seen on the PAX network hosting "Encounters with the Unexplained," a reality series featuring new insight and information about the world's great mysteries.

Mr. Orbach is survived by his wife, Elaine. They lived in New York City.

He had two sons, Anthony and Christoper, by actress-wife Marta Curro. The marriage ended in divorce.

Jerry Orbach and Karen Ziemba in the original production of <i>42nd Street</i> (1981)
Jerry Orbach and Karen Ziemba in the original production of 42nd Street (1981)
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