Jerry Orbach, 69; Actor Portrayed Det. Briscoe on TV’s “Law & Order”

Times Staff Writer

Jerry Orbach, the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical star who achieved his widest fame on television playing sardonic New York City police detective Lennie Briscoe for 12 years on NBC’s acclaimed series “Law & Order,” has died. He was 69.

The Bronx-born Orbach, whose film and television work earned him a reputation for playing the quintessential New Yorker, died of prostate cancer Tuesday night in a Manhattan hospital, said his agent, Robert Malcolm.

Although the New York Daily News first reported on Dec. 2 that Orbach had been undergoing treatment for prostate cancer since last spring, Malcolm told The Times on Wednesday that the actor had been fighting the disease for more than 10 years.


“He’s obviously been working through bad times and good times,” Malcolm said. “He was a tremendous fighter.”

Malcolm said Orbach, who began a new round of chemotherapy last spring, told the cast and crew of “Law & Order” that he had prostate cancer in April before leaving the show to play Briscoe in an upcoming spinoff series, “Law & Order: Trial by Jury.”

The show, featuring an ensemble cast that includes Bebe Neuwirth, is scheduled to debut next year. Orbach will appear in some early episodes.

“I’m immensely saddened by the passing of not only a friend and colleague, but a legendary figure of 20th century show business who was a star of screen, stage and television,” Dick Wolf, creator and executive producer of “Law & Order,” said. “He was one of the most honored performers of his generation. His loss is irreplaceable.”

Orbach began his rise in New York theater in 1960 playing El Gallo in the original cast of the long-running, off-Broadway hit “The Fantasticks,” in which he introduced the standard “Try to Remember.”

He then co-starred in a string of hit Broadway musicals: “Carnival!,” “Promises, Promises” (which won him a Tony Award in 1969), “Chicago,” “42nd Street” and a major revival of “Annie Get Your Gun,” starring Ethel Merman.

“Jerry’s strong spirit will be with me forever,” Chita Rivera, who starred with Orbach in the 1975 Broadway production of “Chicago,” said. “He was an anchor who brought style, security and razzle-dazzle to our original ‘Chicago’ company.”

Among Orbach’s 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 sang in the Oscar-winning Disney animated feature “Beauty and the Beast,” as the voice of the charming French candlestick Lumiere (complete with Orbach’s droopy eyes).

For his television work, he earned three Emmy nominations -- in 2000 for “Law & Order,” in 1992 for an ABC production of Neil Simon’s “Broadway Bound” and in 1990 for an episode of “The Golden Girls.”

Orbach was inducted into the Broadway Hall of Fame in 1999. As a tribute to the actor, the lights on Broadway were dimmed at 8 p.m. Wednesday.

An only child, Orbach was born Oct. 20, 1935. His restaurant manager father was a former vaudeville actor and his mother was a radio singer. The family moved frequently while he was growing up, settling in Waukegan, Ill., when Orbach was 12. By then, he was displaying a flair for show business.

“They always picked me for the class play and this and that from the time I was about 9,” he told the New York Daily News in 1997. “And I always sang, sang with my mother, sang in the choir. I won the state singing contest in the baritone division without really any training; didn’t know what I was doing.”

After graduating from high school at 16, he landed a summer stock apprentice job at the Chevy Chase theater in Wheeling, Ill. Unable to afford tuition in his junior year in Northwestern University’s prestigious drama school, he dropped out and moved to New York City in the fall of 1955.

That December, he received his first break in a major off-Broadway revival of “The Threepenny Opera.”

Orbach, who studied acting with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio, said it took years to persuade producers that he was more than a musical comedy performer. Even fellow actors, he said in a 1993 Los Angeles Times interview, thought that he was only a song-and-dance man. “When I would get a straight play like ‘Six Rms Riv Vu’ or ‘Scuba, Duba,’ they would get shocked.”

Orbach starred in the 1987-88 series “The Law and Harry McGraw,” a spinoff featuring a character he played on the Angela Lansbury series “Murder, She Wrote.”

In 1992, the producers of “Law & Order” asked Orbach to replace series regular Paul Sorvino, who was leaving the show.

Orbach relished the role of the rule-bending, old-school detective, a twice-married recovering alcoholic. He played the part with a distinct New York edge.

Standing over a corpse on which a receipt for an upscale restaurant was found, Orbach’s Briscoe muttered, “Dinner for two? Hope he enjoyed it.”

And to a homeless man who claimed to have spoken to St. Francis of Assisi, he said, “Been there, pal.”

On the streets of New York City, where “Law & Order” is shot, the sight of Orbach would stop traffic, drivers shouting out his name or complimenting him on the show.

Among Orbach’s biggest fans were members of the New York City Police Department.

“The police treat me very nicely,” Orbach told the Philadelphia Inquirer last December.

“If it’s raining and I can’t get a cab, sometimes a squad car will come by and they’ll say, ‘Where are you going?’ I say, ‘I don’t want to get you guys in trouble.’ They say, ‘Get in the back. We’ll pretend you’re under arrest.’ ”

Orbach is survived by his wife, Elaine, whom he met in 1976 when they were in the cast of “Chicago”; two sons by a previous marriage, Tony and Chris; two grandchildren, and his mother, Emily.

A memorial service is pending.