Thursday, December 30, 2004

I was so saddened to read about Jerry Orbach's passing. He was a terrific actor and he'll be missed in a big, big way.

Jerry Orbach dies Star of "Law & Order" and Broadway died Wednesday of prostate cancer. He was 69.

December 30, 2004

Photo of Jerry Orbach
Jerry Orbach, the laconic, sharp-edged Det. Lennie Briscoe on NBC's "Law & Order," who came to symbolize New York City as much as any actor of his generation, died yesterday in Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan at age 69. The actor, who also made his mark on stage and screen, had been suffering from prostate cancer, for which he had been treated since his diagnosis last spring.

A spokeswoman for "Law & Order" said there were no other details about Orbach's illness, but his death clearly stunned colleagues. In early December, when his condition was first publicly revealed, Orbach's manager, Robert Malcolm, said that he was expected to recover. Orbach had been set to play Briscoe in a "Law & Order" spin-off, "Trial by Jury," which is expected to launch in March.A show representative told Bloomberg News that the show will continue with the addition of a new cast member.

"L&O" creator Dick Wolf said in a statement, "I'm immensely saddened by the passing of not only a friend and colleague, but a legendary figure of 20th century show business."

Former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said in a statement, "Jerry Orbach was a personal friend to me and a friend to all New Yorkers."

Orbach, who joined "L&O" in its third season (1992-93), remained a constant and unifying presence for a decade. (At his request, he left this past season.)In a Newsday interview last year, he said "a lot" of his own life was reflected in Lennie: "My character's very human, fallible. ... But Lennie's tougher than I am, and he carries a gun. I'm not a recovering alcoholic, and both of my children are alive. Lennie's into fast food; I'm very aware of nutrition."

Orbach's "Law & Order" performance was so persuasive and indelible that it has tended to obscure his Broadway career, which included playing Billy Flynn opposite Chita Rivera and Gwen Verdon in the original production of "Chicago" in 1976, and 1969's "Promises, Promises," for which he won a Tony. Broadway dimmed its lights last night in his memory. Off-Broadway, Orbach was also the first of many El Gallos in "The Fantasticks," which closed in Jan. 2002 after a 42-year run at the Sullivan Street Playhouse in Greenwich Village.

Born Jerome Bernard Orbach in the Bronx in 1935, his father was a former vaudeville performer, and his mother a radio singer. As a teen, his family moved to Illinois, where he picked up acting and made contacts (he briefly chauffeured Mae West). He later trained under Herbert Berghof and Lee Strasberg. He returned to New York in 1955 and starred on stage in "The Threepenny Opera," and landed his first screen role in "Cop Hater," based on an Ed McBain 87th Precinct novel, in 1958.However, it was "L&O," Broadway (and Off-Broadway), along with a handful of movies like Sidney Lumet's "Prince of the City" (1981), that firmly and irredeemably established Orbach in the psyche of many New Yorkers.

Several years ago the New York's Landmarks Conservancy named him one of their "Living Landmarks."

"He was as honest and straight ahead as the day is long and he was also no BS," said Bill Finkelstein, an executive producer of "NYPD Blue" who also worked as an "L&O" producer. "He took me into his dressing room when I first got there and basically said, here's who my character is, here's what I like and I don't like. You got it, kid? ... What he basically said is, I know your pals through 'NYPD Blue' and this isn't 'NYPD Blue.'"

Orbach married Marta Curro, an actress, in 1958, and they were divorced in 1975. He married Elaine Cancilla, a dancer, in 1979. Along with his wife, Orbach is survived by two sons from his first marriage, Anthony and Chris. Funeral arrangements have not been announced.

This story was supplemented with an Associated Press report.
Copyright © 2004, Newsday, Inc.

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