To lovers of Broadway musicals, Jerry Orbach was a Tony Award-winning song and dance man. Fans of his movies remember the actor as Dr. Houseman, Baby’s father in “Dirty Dancing,” or as Jack Rosenthal in the Woody Allen picture “Crimes and Misdemeanors.” To the New York Landmark Conservancy, he was a Living Landmark. But to millions of TV viewers, Orbach was beloved for playing Lennie Briscoe, the wry, homicide detective on NBC’s “Law & Order.”
Born Jerome Bernard Orbach, the Bronx native was the son of Leon Orbach, a former vaudevillian actor, and Emily Orbach, a radio singer. He majored in drama at the University of Illinois and at Northwestern University, then moved to New York City to break into show business. There he studied with Lee Strasberg and became a member of the Actors Studio.
Orbach’s first professional stage appearance was playing Mack the Knife in Kurt Weill’s version of “The Threepenny Opera.” He created the role of El Gallo in the original run of the off-off-Broadway hit “The Fantasticks” before making his Broadway debut in David Merrick’s production of “Carnival.” Orbach received his first Tony nomination in 1965 for his best actor performance in “Guys and Dolls.” Four years later, he won the award playing Chuck Baxter in the musical “Promises, Promises,” a stage adaptation of Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment.” Portraying Billy Flynn in the original Broadway production of “Chicago” earned Orbach a third Tony nod in 1976.
Over the course of his four-decade career, Orbach acted in more than 60 TV movies and feature films. He provided the voice of Lumiere, the candelabra, in Disney’s “Beauty & the Beast,” and Sa’luk, the metal-fingered thief, in “Aladdin and the King of Thieves.”
Orbach made guest appearances on dozens of TV shows, including “Kojak,” “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century,” “Trapper John, M.D.” and “Empty Nest.” He earned an Emmy nomination for best guest actor in a comedy series playing Glen O’Brien on “The Golden Girls.” From 1987 to 1988, Orbach even headlined his own show — “The Law and Harry McGraw” — a spinoff of a recurring character he played on “Murder, She Wrote.” He also hosted the reality series, “Encounters With the Unexplained,” on the PAX network.
Although Orbach originally appeared as a defense attorney in the second season of “Law & Order,” he returned a few years later to tackle the role of Briscoe, a twice-divorced alcoholic cop with a habit of bending the rules. For 12 seasons, Orbach played the perpetually scowling police officer, solved hundreds of cases, broke in numerous partners and earned an Emmy nomination for outstanding lead actor in a drama series (2000). He left the hit drama last season, but had already begun production on its latest spinoff “Law & Order: Trial by Jury.” That show is expected to debut next year.
Orbach died on Dec. 28 of prostate cancer. He was 69.