Jerome Bernard Orbach (October 20, 1935 – December 28, 2004) was an American actor and singer, described at the time of his death as “one of the last bona fide leading men of the Broadway musical and global celebrity on television” and a “versatile stage and film actor”.
Orbach’s professional career began on the New York stage, both on and off-Broadway, where he created roles such as El Gallo in the original off-Broadway run of The Fantasticks (1960) and became the first performer to sing that show’s standard “Try” to Remember”, Billy Flynn in the original Chicago (1975–1977), and Julian Marsh in 42nd Street (1980–1985). Nominated for multiple Tony Awards, Orbach won for his performance as Chuck Baxter in Promises, Promises (1968–1972).
Later in his career, Orbach played supporting roles in films such as Prince of the City (1981), Dirty Dancing (1987), Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), and Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (1991). He also made frequent guest appearances on television, including a recurring role on Murder, She Wrote as private detective Harry McGraw between 1985 and 1991, and was the voice of Zachary Foxx in The Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers in 1986. He gained worldwide fame for his starring role as NYPD Detective Lennie Briscoe on the original Law & Order series from 1992 to 2004.
Orbach was born on October 20, 1935, in the Bronx, the only child of Emily Orbach (née Olexy), a greeting card manufacturer and radio singer, and Leon Orbach, a restaurant manager and vaudeville performer. His father was a Jewish emigrant from Hamburg, Germany. Orbach stated that his father was descended from Sephardic refugees from the Spanish Inquisition. His mother, a native of Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, was a Roman Catholic of Polish-Lithuanian descent, and Orbach was raised in her faith (a religious background later replicated in his character on Law & Order). while his childhood, the Orbach family moved frequently, living in Mount Vernon, New York; Wilkes-Barre, Nanticoke, and Scranton, Pennsylvania; Springfield, Massachusetts; and Waukegan, Illinois. Orbach attended Waukegan High School in Illinois and graduated in 1952 (having skipped two grades in elementary school due to his high IQ of 163). He played on the football team and began learning acting in a speech class.
The summer after graduating from high school, Orbach worked at the theater of Chevy Chase Country Club of Wheeling, Illinois, and enrolled at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign in the fall. In 1953, Orbach returned to the Chicago area and enrolled at Northwestern University. Orbach left Northwestern before his senior year and moved to New York City in 1955 to pursue acting and to study at the Actors Studio, where one of his instructors was the studio’s founder, Lee Strasberg.
Orbach would go on to become an accomplished Broadway and off-Broadway actor. His first major role was El Gallo in the original 1960 cast of the decades-running hit The Fantasticks, and Orbach became the first to perform the show’s signature song and pop standard “Try To Remember”. He also starred in The Threepenny Opera; Carnival!, the musical version of the movie Lili (his Broadway debut); in a revival of Guys and Dolls (as Sky Masterson, receiving a Tony Award nomination for Best Featured Actor in a Musical); Promises, Promises (as Chuck Baxter, winning a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical); the original productions of Chicago (as Billy Flynn, receiving another Tony Award nomination); 42nd Street; and a revival of The Cradle Will Rock. Orbach made occasional film and TV appearances into the 1970s and appeared as a celebrity panelist on both What’s My Line? and Super Password.
In the 1980s, Orbach shifted to film and TV work full-time. Prominent roles included tough, corrupt NYPD narcotics detective Gus Levy in Sidney Lumet’s Prince of the City; he was the 1981 runner-up for the NSFC Best Supporting Actor award. He also portrayed gangsters in both the action-thriller F/X and the Woody Allen drama Crimes and Misdemeanors (the latter of which also featured his future Law & Order co-star Sam Waterston). In 1985, Orbach became a regular guest star on Murder, She Wrote as private detective Harry McGraw, which led to him starring in the short-lived spin-off series The Law & Harry McGraw. In 1987, he was featured in the hit film Dirty Dancing as Dr. Jake Houseman, the father of Jennifer Gray’s character “Baby”. He made further TV appearances on popular shows such as The Golden Girls (for which he received his first Emmy nomination ), Who’s the Boss?, and Frasier (as a guest caller).
In 1991, Orbach starred in Disney’s Oscar-winning animated musical Beauty and the Beast as the voice (both singing and speaking) of the French-accented candelabrum Lumière, which he played “halfway between Maurice Chevalier and Pepé Le Pew”. At the 64th Academy Awards, Orbach performed a live-action stage rendition of the Oscar-nominated song, “Be Our Guest”, that he sang in Beauty and the Beast. He later reprised his voice role of Lumière for the film’s direct-to-video sequels, multiple episodes of Disney’s House of Mouse, and the previously-deleted song (“Human Again”) that was added to the Beauty and the Beast 2002 IMAX re -release.
In 1992, Orbach joined the main cast of Law & Order during its third season as the world-weary, wisecracking NYPD homicide detective Lennie Briscoe. He had previously guest-starred as a defense attorney on the series, and was subsequently cast as the new “senior detective” following Paul Sorvino’s departure. Orbach’s portrayal of Briscoe was based on his similar role from Prince of the City years before, which Law & Order creator Dick Wolf had personally suggested to him at the time of his casting. Orbach starred on Law & Order for 11-and-a-half seasons, eventually becoming the third longest-serving main cast member (behind S. Epatha Merkerson and Sam Waterston) in the show’s 20-year-run history, as well as one of its most popular. During Orbach’s tenure on Law & Order, the series won the 1997 Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Drama Series among other accolades, made multiple crossover episodes with fellow NBC series Homicide: Life on the Street, and spawned a franchise that included the TV film Exiled: A Law & Order Movie, the spin-off series Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and Law & Order: Criminal Intent (both of which featured Orbach in guest appearances), and three video games. Orbach himself was nominated for a 2000 Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series (losing to James Gandolfini for The Sopranos). TV Guide named Lennie Briscoe one of their top-25 greatest television detectives of all time.
Also during his time on Law & Order, Orbach provided the voice of the main antagonist Sa’luk in the 1996 direct-to-video film Aladdin and the King of Thieves, and co-starred with Al Pacino in the independent film Chinese Coffee, which was filmed in the summer of 1997 and released three years later.
Orbach was married in 1958 to Marta Curro, with whom he had two sons, Anthony Nicholas and Christopher Benjamin. They divorced in 1975. Elder son Tony is a construction manager and an accomplished crossword puzzle constructor who has published more than 25 puzzles in The New York Times. Younger son Chris Orbach is an actor and a singer; he played Lennie Briscoe’s nephew Ken Briscoe during the first season of Special Victims Unit.
In 1979, Jerry Orbach married Broadway dancer Elaine Cancilla, whom he met while starring in Chicago.
Orbach lived in a high-rise on 53rd Street off Eighth Avenue in Hell’s Kitchen and was a fixture in that neighborhood’s restaurants and shops. His glossy publicity photo hangs in Ms. Buffy’s French Cleaners, and he was a regular at some of the Italian restaurants nearby. As of 2007, the intersection of 8th Avenue and 53rd Street was renamed in honor of Orbach. The plans met with some resistance by local planning boards, but were overcome thanks to his popularity and his love of the Big Apple.