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Friends, co-stars remember Jerry Orbach

Actor eulogized as quintessential New Yorker at funeral service
/ Source: The Associated Press

Jerry Orbach was mourned with music, memories and meditation Friday during a funeral where he was eulogized as the quintessential New Yorker on the long-running police drama “Law & Order.”

“He always knew his lines — and yours too,” joked co-star Sam Waterston, who joined about 300 people for the hourlong secular service at Riverside Memorial Chapel on Manhattan’s West Side.

Orbach, a Broadway song-and-dance man who achieved his widest fame as wisecracking Detective Lennie Briscoe on TV’s “Law & Order,” died of prostate cancer Tuesday at 69.

The secular service drew dozens of show business figures, including Chris Noth, Olympia Dukakis, Danny Aiello, Tony Roberts, Michael Imperioli, Brian Dennehy, Benjamin Bratt and Malachy McCourt.

Broadway legend Chita Rivera remembered Orbach from their “Chicago” onstage partnership in the 1970s. “This huge silhouette would appear in a fedora, smoking a cigar,” she said. “There was our anchor. There was our rock in a pinstriped suit.”

Ed Sherin, executive producer of “Law & Order,” called Orbach “my best friend — and I imagine there are a lot of people here who would say the same.”

He described Orbach as a man who would “break into song” at any moment, while also enjoying a reputation as “a deadly poker player” and avid golfing partner.

“I loved playing golf with Jerry more than I loved golf,” said Sherin, adding that Orbach was not a strict scorekeeper when playing with a friend.

The actor was equally gracious on the set of “Law & Order,” the director said, pouring juice for nervous, dry-mouthed colleagues or whispering lines to them if they forgot them.

Orbach lay in a simple wooden coffin draped with white blossoms under the chapel’s blue and gold vaulted ceiling. A half dozen pews marked “Friars Club” were filled with fellow members of the New York organization famed for its celebrity roasts.

The service was led by family friend Elizabeth Hepburn, who started and closed the ceremony by leading mourners in a breathing meditation, interspersed with John Denver’s “Perhaps Love” played on a guitar.

The service ended with a guitar rendition of “Lullaby of Broadway” and “Try to Remember” — the signature song of the off-Broadway hit “The Fantasticks” that launched Orbach’s rise in New York theater in 1960, as El Gallo.

Orbach costarred in a string of hit Broadway musicals including “Carnival!,” “Promises, Promises,” “Chicago” and “42nd Street,” and in the off-Broadway hit comedy, “Scuba Duba.”

Among his film credits were “The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight,” “Prince of the City,” “Postcards From the Edge,” “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” and “Dirty Dancing.” He also was the voice of the candlestick Lumiere in the Disney animated feature “Beauty and the Beast.”

Orbach, who won a Tony Award in 1969 for “Promises, Promises,” played Briscoe on “Law & Order” for a dozen years and was already at work in an upcoming spinoff series, “Law & Order: Trial by Jury.”

“He chose a certain life, lived it as himself — and it worked out,” said Waterston, struggling to keep his composure as he addressed the mourners.

Even in the last weeks before he died, Waterston said, Orbach still tried to enjoy everything from the company of friends and family to what he saw from his window at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.

“He didn’t quit the show before it was over,” he said.