Who Was Jerry Orbach?
American actor Jerry Orbach left college in 1955 to begin his acting career. He played El Gallo in The Fantasticks and won a Tony Award in 1969 for his role in Promises. Moving to television, Orbach was a recurring guest star on Murder, She Wrote and The Golden Girls. In film, he played the father of Jennifer Grey in Dirty Dancing. Orbach's best known TV role was as Detective Lennie Briscoe on Law & Order.
Jerome Orbach was born on October 20, 1935, in the Bronx, New York. The only child of Emily (nee O'Lexy), a greeting card manufacturer, and Leon Orbach, a restaurant manager. Since neither of his parents were strangers to the performing arts (his father had tried vaudeville and his mother once had a stint as a radio singer), they were always supportive of Orbach's desire to be an actor. While Orbach was still in grade school, the family moved frequently but finally settled in Waukegan, Illinois, where he joined the football team and began learning basic acting techniques from his speech teacher. In 1952, following his high school graduation, he worked in summer stock at the Chevy Chase Country Club in Wheeling, Illinois, where he got to try his hand at everything from minor performances to set building. After attending the University of Illinois for one year, Orbach transferred to Northwestern University, where he continued to study the Stanislavsky method of drama.
Breaking into Broadway
In the fall of 1955, Orbach decided to forego his senior year at Northwestern and move to New York City, where he found work as an understudy in The Threepenny Opera. He stayed with the show for over three years, eventually playing the lead character, Mack the Knife. During this time, he continued to study acting under the tutelage of Herbert Berghof, Mira Rostova and Lee Strasberg of The Actor’s Studio. In 1959, he received two simultaneous acting offers, one for a Broadway production paying $250 a week and the other for an off-Broadway show paying only $45 a week. Orbach chose the latter and created the role of El Gallo in the off-Broadway production The Fantasticks, which was met with exceptional reviews and became the longest-running off-Broadway show in history. Orbach left the show in 1961 to make his Broadway debut in David Merrick’s production of Carnival! and won rave reviews for both his singing and his acting.
Following this success, Orbach experienced a brief slump; discouraged about being typecast in musicals, he spent a few miserable months trying unsuccessfully to break into films in Hollywood. However, he hit his stride once again when he returned to the East and earned a Tony nomination for his portrayal of Skye Masterson in Guys and Dolls and made a stunning, critically acclaimed performance as a neurotic Jewish intellectual in Scuba Duba. He then went on to win a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical in 1969 for his portrayal of Chuck Baxter in Promises, Promises, a Neil Simon adaptation of Billy Wilder’s 1960 film The Apartment. In 1976, he received another Tony nomination for his role in Chicago. He last appeared on Broadway in 1981, playing Julian Marsh in 42nd Street at the Majestic Theatre in New York.
Film and Television Career
Launching off from his illustrious theater career, Orbach began to move increasingly toward roles in film and television in the 1980s and 1990s. He was a recurring guest star on Murder, She Wrote and played the title role in its short-lived spin-off, The Law and Harry McGraw. His stint in Simon’s Broadway Bound (1991) and his frequent appearances on the sitcom The Golden Girls both earned him Emmy nominations. His first major supporting film role came in Sidney Lumet’s drama Prince of the City (1981), and he followed up with the crime-thriller F/X in 1986. In 1987, he changed pace, playing the stern but loving father of a rebellious teenage girl in the runaway hit Dirty Dancing, costarring Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze, which is still his best-known movie role. He then lent his voice and personality to the loquacious lantern, Lumiere, in the animated musical Beauty and the Beast (1991). He starred in Chinese Coffee (2000) with longtime friend Al Pacino, who also produced and directed the film.
Orbach first appeared on the critically acclaimed NBC series Law & Order in 1990, and in 1992, landed a regular role on the show, playing the quick-witted and sharp-tongued Detective Lennie Briscoe.
Personal Life and Death
Orbach and actress/writer Marta Curro, who was a fellow understudy in The Threepenny Opera, married in June 1958 and had two sons, Anthony and Christopher, before divorcing in 1975. In 1979, Orbach married Elaine Cancilla, who had replaced Chita Rivera as his co-star in the 1975 production of Chicago.
Orbach died at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center Manhattan on December 28, 2004, after suffering complications from prostate cancer. The actor was 69.
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