It makes me particularly happy to find out that the people I’m writing about are/were genuinely nice. For example, Joe Eszterhas claims that, when he was having financial problems, Jerry Orbach would give him a station wagon full of groceries every now and again. I’m not sure anyone had a bad word to say about Jerry Orbach. He pushed Patrick Swayze to do his best in Dirty Dancing, a film that relies in part on the strength of a character who might be a caricature in a different coming of age movie—the solemn dad who doesn’t want his little girl to grow up.
But Orbach had been an established actor for 27 years by then. He had moved to New York in 1955 and went to the Artists’ Studio, where he worked with Marilyn Monroe. In 1960, though, he was cast as El Gallo in the original off-Broadway run of The Fantasticks. He was also the original Billy Flynn in Chicago. The original Julian Marsh in the musical of 42nd Street. He won Tonys for his performances as Chuck Baxter in the original Broadway production of Promises, Promises and Sky Masterson in a revival of Guys and Dolls. He did decades of Broadway and off-Broadway and was one of the most acclaimed actors in the theatre world, eventually having a portion of 53rd Street near 8th Avenue named “Jerry Orbach Way” in his honour, as well as a Jerry Orbach Theater at 50th and Broadway.
And that is enough career for some people, but there’s also his movie career, which started in 1958 with a performance as “Gang Leader—Mumzer” in a movie called Cop Hater. A lot of his roles are frankly similarly obscure, but he was in Crimes and Misdemeanors, for people who still watch Woody Allen movies. He was also in two of the most iconic films of the Women’s+ Canon. He appeared as Lumiere the Candlestick in Beauty and the Beast, in which he sang the Oscar-nominated “Be Our Guest.” He was also Jake Houseman, Baby’s father, in Dirty Dancing. In that role, he gives an emotional center to the movie that many other coming of age movies lack. He wants his little girl to be everything she can be provided she also stays his little girl.
Oh, you want TV? Jerry Orbach did TV. His TV credits go back to 1961 and something called Twenty-Four Hours in a Woman’s Life, wherein he played Cristof. He did an episode of Love, American Style, and he has your basic ’80s TV Character Actor Set of appearances. Trapper John, M.D. Tales From the Darkside. Simon & Simon. Who’s the Boss? A couple of Perry Mason movies. And enough Murder, She Wrote episodes as private detective Harry McGraw that he actually got a spin-off that lasted a hot minute (The Law and Harry McGraw). Even an episode of Law & Order as defense attorney Frank Lehrman. Not a great career, before 1992, but better than some other actors. He also voiced King Thorn in a TV movie of Herself the Elf, a character I had literally forgotten existed until just now.
Okay, yes, his TV career from 1992 on is probably what people will talk about most. Because that is when he joined the cast of Law & Order on a permanent basis. Detective Lennie Briscoe was world-weary and wisecracking. He’d been working for NYPD for so long that, when Orbach left the show, he was actually well past the mandatory retirement age for New York City cops. The only people on the show longer were Sam Waterston as the shouty Jack McCoy and S. Epatha Merkerson, another person who did an episode of the show as a minor character before joining the regular cast, in her case as Anita Van Buren. To be honest, that’s great for me, because the combination of the three makes any given episode Prime Law & Order for me.