Jerry Orbach earned a Tony Award for his work on Broadway and critical acclaim for his film performance in Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors. But it is his portrayal of the stoop-shouldered, cynical, world-weary New York Detective Lennie Briscoe on television's longest-running drama, NBC's Law & Order, for which he will be most widely remembered.
Orbach, who died Tuesday in Manhattan of prostate cancer at age 69, took a thinly sketched TV character and gave it a soul. With an arched eyebrow here, a wisecrack there - and always an uncompromised investigation - Briscoe came to represent the triumph of simple decency and an honest day's hard work over pretense, privilege and lies in a 1990s Manhattan that seemed to be bursting at the seams with murder and greed.
"Jerry Orbach gave a very moral performance in Law & Order, and, as a result, Briscoe became a moral icon in that fictional universe," said David Simon, who wrote and produced one of the crossover episodes between Law & Order and NBC's Homicide: Life on the Street that featured Briscoe in 1999.
"But Briscoe only worked as an icon because, as an actor, Orbach had such a great emotional gyroscope," Simon added. "He was not given to excessive sentiment or melodrama. His performance totally grounded the show. You believed in the moral icon, because you believed in Briscoe as a person."
Orbach himself said in an interview last year with The Sun that after 12 years of playing the hard-bitten, unlucky-in-love detective, he was no longer sure of where he ended and Briscoe began. "But I have absolutely no complaints. Playing this guy has provided a stability that I never imagined."
Born Oct. 20, 1935, in the Bronx to a German-Jewish father who performed in vaudeville and a Polish-Catholic mother who sang on stage and radio, Orbach knew little stability as a child. The family moved frequently in search of stage work before settling in Waukegan, Ill., just as Orbach was about to start high school.
Orbach said he learned to act by being a "chameleon" as a child - always "the new kid at school" trying to fit in. He spent one year at the University of Illinois, and another at Northwestern University studying drama, before leaving school to try his luck in New York in 1955.
He struck paydirt in 1960 in the off-Broadway production of The Fantasticks, which went on to become one of the longest-running plays in New York theater history. Orbach originated the role of El Gallo singing "Try to Remember," and was launched on a dazzling career of song and dance that extended into the 1990s.
He won a Tony Award in 1969 as Chuck Baxter in Promises, Promises, Neil Simon's musical re-invention of Billy Wilder's feature film, The Apartment. In 1975, he was the first to play hype-and-hustle attorney Billy Flynn in Chicago, alongside Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera in an all-star cast. Orbach also originated the role of hardball producer Julian Marsh in the blockbuster 42nd Street, which opened in 1980 and ran for more than 3,400 performances.
His film career always played second fiddle to his work on Broadway, but Orbach did appear in a few noteworthy movies: Prince of the City (1981), Dirty Dancing (1987), Mr. Saturday Night (1992), and a voice role in which he sang "Be Our Guest" in the animated Beauty and the Beast (1991).
And it was a movie role that paved the way for his later triumph in TV: his supporting performance as New York Detective Gus Levy in Prince of the City, a searing study of corruption by director Sidney Lumet.
"The movie changed my image," Orbach said. "Both people in the audience and people in the business said, 'Oh, he's not just a song and dance guy - he can act.'"
One of those people was Dick Wolf, who in 1990 created and launched Law & Order, a procedural cop show and legal drama, on NBC. Two years later when Paul Sorvino left the cast, Wolf came calling on Orbach, and Briscoe was born.
On a show known as a revolving door for actors, the seen-it-all, Jewish detective with the unfailing moral compass graced TV's 27th Precinct for 12 seasons before leaving in May with the promise to return next year in the spinoff, Law & Order: Trial By Jury. "I guess I'm the guy who proves you can have a decent career with Dick Wolf," Orbach said. Several episodes with Briscoe playing a supporting role have been filmed and will air when the new series debuts.
"I'm immensely saddened by the passing of not only a friend and colleague, but a legendary figure of show business," Wolf said in a statement yesterday. "His loss is irreplaceable."
Marquee lights were dimmed last night for one minute on Broadway in memory of Orbach.
"He was captivating to watch - both on-camera and off," Simon said yesterday. "He was so charming and graceful and full of stories - Broadway stories, New York stories, set pieces that he told like a standup comic until you were laughing so hard you couldn't get air. His performance as Briscoe perfectly captured the tonality of a veteran New York City cop, and as such, was the bedrock of the best years of that show."