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Jerry Orbach had a gift for charming audiences his entire career — first as a song-and-dance man who starred in musicals on and off Broadway, then for 12 years as a sharp-tongued cop on TV’s “Law & Order.”
Along the way, he made films as varied as the gritty crime drama “Prince of the City” and the smash romance “Dirty Dancing.”
Orbach, who died of prostate cancer Tuesday in Manhattan, was beginning another chapter at age 69: He had taken his signature role as Detective Lennie Briscoe to NBC’s upcoming spinoff “Law & Order: Trial By Jury.”
With his hangdog puss and loose-limbed gait, Orbach was unmatched at playing the street-smart tough guy. A quintessential New Yorker, he personified his city’s well-worn but implacable edge, embodying 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.”
Orbach’s long-time “Law & Order” co-star, S. Epatha Merkerson, remembered him as “as a real good guy who knew everything and everybody. He had a real lust for life and the work he did, and it permeated throughout the set.”
Of course, he presented quite a different picture as the world-weary, recovering alcoholic Briscoe. But even as Briscoe drooped from the burden of everything he’d encountered, both on and off the job, he sized up life with sarcastic asides. For instance, standing over a fresh body on which a receipt from a fancy restaurant was found, he muttered: “Dinner for two? Hope he enjoyed it.”
Orbach had announced in early December that he had prostate cancer. His manager said at the time that he had been receiving treatment since spring, but declined to disclose any particulars about the seriousness of his condition.
Orbach is expected to appear in early “Trial By Jury” episodes when the show premieres in March.
‘His loss is irreplaceable’
“I’m immensely saddened by the passing of not only a friend and colleague, but a legendary figure of 20th-century show business,” said Dick Wolf, creator and executive producer of the four “Law & Order” series. “He was one of the most honored performers of his generation. His loss is irreplaceable.”
Orbach started his career as a hoofer who also could carry a tune. Beginning in the 1960s, he starred on Broadway in hit musicals including “Carnival,” “Promises, Promises” (for which he won a Tony Award), “42nd Street” and “Chicago.”
“He was an anchor who brought style, security and razzle-dazzle to our original ‘Chicago’ company,” said Chita Rivera, Orbach’s co-star in that 1975 production. “He was a swell guy.”
In 1960, he was in the original cast of the off-off-Broadway hit “The Fantasticks,” playing the Narrator who sang the evocative “Try to Remember.” That 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 parts in Woody Allen’s “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” “Dirty Dancing” (in which he played Jennifer Grey’s protective dad) and the animated “Beauty and the Beast,” in which he voiced the role of the candlestick Lumiere, singing “Be Our Guest.”
It was his cop role in the 1981 drama “Prince of the City” that inspired his “Law & Order” character.
Born in the Bronx in 1935, Orbach was the son of a vaudeville-performer father and a radio-singer mother. He acted in school plays, then attended Northwestern University’s prestigious drama school in suburban Chicago, 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: He was earning just $45 a week in “The Fantasticks,” but “even married, with a son, we lived all right.”
The original Billy Flynn
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.
In “Promises, Promises,” the Neil Simon-Burt Bacharach-Hal David musical based on the film “The Apartment,” he played Chuck Baxter, the role originated in the movie by Jack Lemmon.
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, based on the classic backstage movie, Orbach played hard-boiled producer Julian Marsh, who brings the young dancer out of the chorus to replace the show’s ailing star.
In “Chicago,” Orbach played money-loving lawyer Billy Flynn, the role Richard Gere inherited in the 2002 film. It was also in that show that he met dancer Elaine Cancilla, whom he married in 1979.
She survives him, as well as sons Chris and Tony from his first marriage.
Orbach’s first shot at series television was a flop. In “The Law and Harry McGraw,” he played a wily but irascible private eye. The show lasted only the 1987-88 season. But four years later he struck gold, succeeding Paul Sorvino at Manhattan’s 27th Precinct as “Law & Order” entered its third season.
“People adored him,” said Merkerson, who plays Lt. Van Buren. She recalled sharing lunch one day with Orbach and co-star Benjamin Bratt, when several fans approached the table. “Jerry stopped eating to talk to them. But after a while, I whispered to him, ‘Your food is getting cold.’
“‘Kid,’ he replied with a big smile, ‘these are the people that keep us going!”’