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'Law & Order' Star Jerry Orbach Dies at the age of 69

Article courtesy of Associated Press & MSN Entertainment


NEW YORK - Actor Jerry Orbach, who played a sardonic, seen-it-all cop on TV's "Law & Order" and scored on Broadway as a song-and-dance man, has died of prostate cancer at 69, a representative of the show said Wednesday.

Orbach died Tuesday night in Manhattan after several weeks of treatment, Audrey Davis of the public relations agency Lippin Group said.

When his illness was diagnosed, he had begun production on NBC's upcoming spinoff "Law & Order: Trial By Jury," after 12 seasons playing Detective Lennie Briscoe in the original series.

His return to the new show had been expected early next year.

On Broadway, Orbach starred in hit musicals including "Carnival," "Promises, Promises" (for which he won a Tony Award), "Chicago" and "42nd Street."

Earlier, he was in the original cast of the off-off-Broadway hit "The Fantasticks," playing the narrator. The show went on to run for more than 40 years.

Lights on Broadway marquees were expected to be dimmed for one minute at curtain time Wednesday night in Orbach's memory.

Among his film appearances were roles in "Dirty Dancing," "Prince of the City" and "Crimes and Misdemeanors." In the animated feature "Beauty and the Beast," he voiced the role of the candlestick, and got to sing a key song, "Be Our Guest."

Orbach is expected to appear in early episodes of "Law & Order: Trial by Jury," for which he continued as Briscoe in a secondary role, when the show premieres later this season, Davis said.

"I'm immensely saddened by the passing of not only a friend and colleague, but a legendary figure of 20th century show business," said **** Wolf, creator and executive producer of the "Law & Order" series, in a statement. "He was one of the most honored performers of his generation. His loss is irreplaceable."

With his hang-dog face and loose-limbed gait, Orbach was adept at playing the street-smart tough guy, but could also hoof and carry a tune. And not only was he a beloved star, he also personified New York's well-worn but implacable edge. A lifelong New Yorker, he inhabited and embodied the Big Apple like few other actors.

Former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani called Orbach "a friend to all New Yorkers" and "a devoted ambassador of the city."

Born in the Bronx in 1935, Orbach was the son of a vaudeville-performer father and a radio-singer mother. He started his acting career in school plays, then attended Northwestern University's prestigious drama school, though he couldn't swing the money to finish. In 1955, he returned to New York to hit the stage.

In a 2000 interview with the Associated Press, Orbach remembered those days fondly. Money was tight, even with his early successes: In 1960 he was earning just $45 a week in "The Fantasticks," but "even married, with a son, we lived all right."

He then began an association with producer David Merrick, appearing in three of Merrick's biggest musical successes, starting in 1961 with "Carnival!", in which he played an embittered puppeteer opposite Anna Maria Alberghetti's winsome Lili.

Orbach won a Tony for his performance in Merrick's "Promises, Promises," the Neil Simon-Burt Bacharach-Hal David musical based on the film "The Apartment." In the show, Orbach played Chuck Baxter, the role originated in the movie by Jack Lemmon.

Yet his biggest hit for Merrick was "42nd Street," which opened on Broadway in 1980 and ran for more than 3,400 performances. In the show, which is based on the classic Warner Bros. backstage movie musical, Orbach played hard-boiled producer Julian Marsh, who brings the young hoofer out of the chorus to replace the show's ailing star.

Orbach also was in the original production of "Chicago" in 1975, which also starred Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera. He played Billy Flynn, the role Richard Gere inherited in the 2002 film.

"It was gift to work with him," recalled actress Brenda Smiley, who co-starred with Orbach in the Off-Broadway stage hit "Scuba Duba," a dark comedy by Bruce Jay Friedman, in 1967-68. "He was a master at that kind of performing and he made it so easy for everyone else."

From early, obscure films like "Cop Hater" and "Mad Dog Coll," Orbach rose to appearances in Woody Allen's "Crimes and Misdemeanors" and the 1981 crime drama "Prince of the City," in a cop role that presaged his "Law & Order" character.

In 1987-88, he starred in the series "The Law and Harry McGraw," a spinoff featuring a character he created in "Murder, She Wrote." It flopped, but five years later he struck gold, following Paul Sorvino as a detective in Manhattan's 27th Precinct.

In a 2000 Associated Press interview, Orbach said "Law & Order" brought him "wonderful security" rare in the life of an actor.

"All my life, since I was 16, I've been wondering where that next job was gonna come from," he explained. "Now I take the summer off, relax, and I know that at the end of July we're gonna start another season."

He said he didn't know "where I stop and Lennie starts, really. ... I know he's tougher than me and he carries a gun. And I'm not an alcoholic."

"I know I wouldn't want to be him," Orbach summed up. "I guess THAT'S where I stop and he starts."

Orbach is survived by his second wife, Elaine, whom he met doing "Chicago" and married in 1979, and grown sons Chris and Tony from his first marriage.

Farewell, Detective Lennie Briscoe... :~(


  • That's sad news. Jerry was a great actor. He was the original Billy Flynn in the original Broadway production of "Chicago", and he was also an original cast member of the longest running off-Broadway show in history, "The Fantasticks", but of course most people know him as Baby's father in "Dirty Dancing" and more recently, as acerbic-witted homicide detective Lenny Briscoe on NBC's "Law & Order". You will be missed, Jerry! :(
  • this is so sad! i really like his character in LAW & ORDER. such a loss!
  • & also, He played the voice of Lumiere in Disney's "Beauty & The Beast" :)... May his soul rest in peace...
  • What a shock. I didn't even know he was sick.

    Apparently he's filmed a few episodes of the new Law and Order spin-off. Producers still don't know how they will write his character out of the series.
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