Close friends knew for weeks that he was gravely ill, but the news last week that the legendary Jerry Orbach had passed away at age 69 after an extended bout with prostate cancer still brought shock and tears. The longtime star of “Law & Order,” the stern dad from “Dirty Dancing,” the gifted talent who gave more musical performances on Broadway than anyone in history (among many roles he originated were El Gallo in “The Fantasticks,” Billy Flynn in “Chicago” and Julian Marsh in “42nd Street”), Jerry Orbach seemed as indestructible as he was brilliant.
Lean and lanky, with a kind word for all, he was active and acting until very recently. It was only two months ago my wife and I had dinner with Jerry and his lovely wife, Elaine, who was a Broadway dancer when they met, at their favorite Italian restaurant in mid-Manhattan. Jerry told us how excited he was about his role in Dick Wolf’s upcoming ensemble spinoff “Law & Order: Trial by Jury.” Jerry did appear in several episodes shot before his death. They will be aired, according to NBC Universal.
I first met Jerry on a celebrity cruise through the Mediterranean back in the mid-’90s. One vivid memory from that trip took place in a small lounge late in the evening. Jerry was leaning on the piano, delighting the lounge pianist and a few die-hard fans as he belted out a stream of hit show tunes in that velvet voice. He didn’t have to be there. But he loved to sing, to entertain, to connect with people.
Unlike some celebrities, Jerry didn’t mind giving autographs. He explained why to me during our last in-depth interview, in a New York City coffee shop, which formed the basis of a column (TelevisionWeek, Aug. 25, 2003). That interview is the source of Jerry’s never-before-published quotes in this column.
“I was in my first season of summer stock and [in addition to acting] I was piling gravel and driving the prop truck and doing other things,” Jerry recalled. “Anyway, about the third week, they said, `We need a picture for the lobby of the theater.’ So I drove home and got `the picture’ from `the mantelpiece.’ It was a studio portrait that we’d had done. In those days there were no faxes or copiers, so I brought it in and put it up in the lobby. The first Saturday matinee we had about a hundred Girl Scouts. When I came out of the dressing room, the Girl Scouts were standing there, wanting my autograph. At 16, that was incredible to me. Except they were holding pieces of my picture. My only picture. They said they tore it up to put autographs on. And just then, I realized the price of fame. You know, here was this dilemma. I was near tears because they tore up my picture but I was thrilled they wanted my autograph.”
The New York Landmark Conservancy declared Jerry a Living Landmark. His Det. Lennie Briscoe for a dozen seasons on “L&O” was a New Yorker’s idea of a New Yorker. Born in the Bronx, Jerry actually grew up mostly in Illinois. His father was a former vaudevillian and his mother a radio singer. “We moved around a lot when I was a kid,” Jerry recalled. “My dad kept getting transferred by the chain store he worked with. I noticed, very often, people who when they were kids moved a lot became actors. Because they became chameleons. They kept adapting to new schools and new groups of friends. That is a natural kind of background to fall into acting.”
After college, Jerry headed to the Big Apple. “I wouldn’t want to rekindle the New York vs. Hollywood antipathy that went on ever since silent movies, but to a young actor, in my time,” said Jerry, “New York was the breeding ground of Brando, Montgomery Clift, James Dean and even Spencer Tracy. … That was where a serious actor went to train.”
When he was asked for advice by young actors, Jerry was cautiously encouraging: “Acting is rejection training. Everybody is going to reject you. You are too tall, too thin, too young or too old. If they have that desire to do it, I don’t think you can strap them and say, `You’ve got to be a doctor or lawyer.’ Let them do it. The thing I would always advise is get as much education as possible.”
Jerry became an acting star at the University of Illinois and then Northwestern, where he has long been held up among all its illustrious alumni as a shining example for today’s students.
Jerry left business to the professionals. He had the same manager, agent and business manager for decades. He didn’t want to write, produce or direct. “I’m a real old-fashioned actor who doesn’t want to know anything,” he said. “I have a business manager, wonderful people I’ve been with 30 years. I have an agent that takes care of things. He fields the offers and tells me, `I have to ask, do you want to do this?’ … I don’t pay attention to the business end of it. I like to be the happy grasshopper.”
There were things he wasn’t happy about. He felt dramas on broadcast TV don’t have a fair chance to compete for awards with pay TV, where they spend more money on fewer episodes, which are promoted relentlessly for awards. And he was outraged that the fees and residuals on cable TV, where “Law & Order” plays endlessly, are a pittance compared with network or syndication fees. And throughout his life he remained a staunch supporter of the Screen Actors Guild and his fellow actors, and of charities for animals.
He defended the right of celebrities to push causes. “I don’t think there is such a thing as abuse of celebrity,” he told me. “When John [Glenn] was an astronaut and then became a senator, nobody said anything because he was a smart guy. We have had different actors who, for better or worse, went into politics. … It’s a free country. Everybody has the right to run for office. Just because somebody is a celebrity, they shouldn’t be stopped from that.”
Even after he became wealthy and famous, Jerry’s life and politics reflected his belief in the dignity of all men. “I always go by the saying,” he told me, “that the measure of a great society is how it treats its weakest members.”
Jerry Orbach always measured up.