Theatre yesterday and today



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I’m re-running this column from four years ago to honor the 85th birthday of Jerry Orbach (born October 20, 1935). One of the highest compliments I’ve ever received was when shortly after posting it, I got an email from Chris Orbach (who I don’t know) and who wrote: “You captured my dad perfectly.” You can read all about this beloved actor in today’s “Theatre Yesterday and Today.”

Was there anyone more well-liked in the Broadway community than Jerry Orbach? I’ll go further and include the film and television community. Hell, how about the entire community of New York City? The stories of police men and women calling out to him on their street beats and out of patrol cars, in deference to his longtime portrayal of Detective Lennie Briscoe on Law & Order, attest to both his likability and approachability.

Jerry Orbach in “Law & Order” at sometime during his twelve-year run

as Lennie Briscoe (1992–2004).

Born in the Bronx on this day, Jerome Orbach was the son of Leon and Lexy Orbach, both of whom had brief flirtations with show business. His dad had been a stringer in vaudeville and his mother a radio singer. While in the seventh grade, the family moved to Waukegan, Illinois where Orbach attended high school, then onto the University of Illinois. Staying only a year, he transferred to Northwestern in Evanston, where its prestigious drama department was renowned. He left before earning his degree due to the stage work that was coming his way after proving his versatility in summer stock. He would later claim that his days in stock helped him to control his voice and “not to do too much with my eyebrows.”

Jerry Orbach in the role of Mumzer, a juvenile delinquent, in “Cop Hater” (1958).

He was fortunate to be cast in the role of the Street Singer in one of the biggest Off-Broadway hits of all-time: a revival of The Threepenny Opera that starred its composer Kurt Weill’s widow, Lotte Lenya, in the role she had created in its original German production. Opening with it in 1955, he stayed three years, eventually taking over the lead role of Mack the Knife. Orbach was that rare breed of actor who had no problem sticking with a show for years at a time. Most leading actors with an eye on getting stale, hardly ever extended their contracts beyond a year. Orbach was the opposite and a throwback to actors of yore. It applied to his first starring role on Broadway in the musical Carnival, which he stayed with from opening night till closing, almost two years later. With Chicago, he stayed for two years, and, in 42nd Street, for three. It earned him the reputation as a stalwart, as well as a genuine leader whenever he was entrusted with the star status of a given company.

Orbach as Paul the Puppeteer in Carnival (1961).

I never met him, but I admired him so much. I remember waiting by the stage door after I saw him in Promises, Promises back in 1969, but he never came out, which is common for some actors between a matinee and evening performance. Reading the review I wrote when I got home that day, from a twelve-year-old’s perspective it doesn’t appear I took it out on him: “Jerry Orbach is a musical comedy genius, as well as one of the finest actors around.”

Proof of that came when he won the Tony Award that spring for Promises, sharing the evening in the company of his fellow actors in this photo below. It was on this night that James Earl Jones won for The Great White Hope, the first of his first two Tonys; Julie Harris took home #3 for Forty Carats and Angela Lansbury sported win #2 for Dear World. Between the four of them, they would eventually be honored with 14 Tony Awards. Good company, indeed.

Tony night, 1969: James Earl Jones, Julie Harris, Angela Lansbury & Orbach.