Jerry Orbach: Residual Benefits

Aug 25, 2003  •  Post A Comment

He looks so lean, tough, seasoned and sincere playing Detective Lennie Briscoe on the hit series “Law & Order” that you might not realize how genuinely nice, relaxed and easy to be around Jerry Orbach is in real life.
One of TV’s most recognized and acclaimed stars, Mr. Orbach has little to prove. His primary goal these days is to enjoy his life and he does that to the fullest, whether it is being with his beautiful, talented wife, Elaine, a former Broadway dancer, or his family and friends, or playing golf, or through his involvement with a number of animal welfare groups.
Perceived by many as the quintessential New Yorker, he has a shelf full of awards not just from TV, but also for his outstanding character roles in movies such as “Crimes and Misdemeanors” and “Dirty Dancing,” for his many humanitarian efforts and as an acclaimed star of the musical theater. He was singled out earlier this year by the Drama League for having “appeared in more performances of American musicals than any other living actor.”
These days he seems to appear on TV as much as any actor. He can be seen not just on first-run episodes of “Law & Order” on NBC and as the host of “Encounters With the Unexplained” on the Pax network but also in reruns of “Law & Order,” which have multiple airings each day on cable TV.
“L&O’s” success on cable is a double-edged sword for Mr. Orbach. On the one hand, he believes cable helped expose the show to a wider audience, which has been one factor in making the series created by producer Dick Wolf so popular.
On the other hand, Mr. Orbach can’t help but wince at the thought of what a difference it would have made if “Law & Order” had gone the syndication route instead of being repurposed on cable TV. The difference is a great deal of money.
It is a bit complex, but worth explaining to understand Mr. Orbach’s quandary. If a network TV show goes to syndication, a leading actor such as Mr. Orbach by contract gets his original pay on the first run and then 40 percent of scale (about $655 a day in his case) for the second run. After that the percentage drops to 30 percent, then 20 percent and finally, after 13 runs, it stays at 5 percent for all future airings.
When the same show is sold to basic cable, there is no first payment equal to his original salary and the actor’s residual is 6 percent of scale for unlimited runs. And even that small amount doesn’t reach his mailbox for between nine and 18 months after the show first airs on cable.
Mr. Orbach is philosophical about his situation. He loves working on one of TV’s best shows, having unusual security for an actor and being able to stay in his native New York while doing it. He calls himself an “old-fashioned actor who doesn’t want to know anything” about the details of the business of show business. He leaves that to his agent, manager and business manager, all of whom have been on his team for at least a decade.
“I once said that I am too lazy to work and too scared to steal and that’s why I became an actor,” he said with a self-deprecating laugh. “I don’t run around figuring out what makes the project a feature, TV show or in 3-D. I don’t tend to go out and pursue projects.”
He is still well-compensated, but it does annoy him that the difference between syndication and basic cable residuals is so huge. “Collectively, the unions made the deal with the cable people when they thought cable was just a side thing that didn’t amount to much,” Mr. Orbach recalled. “They said, `Oh, let’s give them a break.’ Now, of course, cable is a tremendous factor and show like `Law & Order” and `West Wing,’ which is now on Bravo, are not making anything like [syndicated] reruns.”
A three-time Emmy nominee, Mr. Orbach has another cable-related pet, which has to do with awards: “The thing that is difficult for me is all the restraints and the restrictions that are on network television shows that don’t apply to cable. So that when wonderful shows like `The Sopranos’ or like `Six Feet Under’ or any of these shows are up for the same award as the network shows … it seems unfair. They have gotten to do things that we can’t do as far as nudity, violence and language. I can’t complain personally, but I think there should be a separate kind [of] award for cable. If I’m going to make less money on cable reruns, then let them have a different award for cable shows.”
Though it all, Mr. Orbach would not have any other life, even if he doesn’t love some things about his job. “What I like least is the amount of hours it sometimes takes, and the inconvenience of the weather and the lack of sleep and having to turn off the air conditioning whenever we start to roll. And the waiting and waiting and waiting,” he said. “But we are well paid for our inconvenience. The thing I like most about [being an actor] is the effect on the people that see you. Over the years, people have come up to me and said, `I saw you in [the stage musical] `Carnival’ when I was a kid and it made me fall in love with the theater.’ And cops who say to me `Man, that character in `Prince of the City’ really affected my life.’ They have memories, and their lives have been enriched somehow, and that is really the best gift of all.”
You might say it is the ultimate residual.