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'Law & Order' Star Jerry Orbach Dies at 69

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 30, 2004; Page B07

Jerry Orbach, the versatile stage and film actor whose portrayal of the wry Detective Lennie Briscoe helped make NBC's long-running "Law & Order" show a hit for a dozen seasons, died of prostate cancer Dec. 28 at a New York hospital.

The 69-year-old actor filmed his last episode of the show in the spring and was scheduled to start production of a spinoff, "Law & Order: Trial By Jury."

Tony Award winners James Earl Jones, left, Julie Harris, Angela Lansbury and Jerry Orbach share spotlight in 1969. (AP)

TV Critic Tom Shales on Jerry Orbach

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A Tony Award-winning stage star -- his résumé includes landmark productions of "The Threepenny Opera," "The Fantasticks," "Carnival!" "Promises, Promises," "Chicago" and "42nd Street" -- he was best known in recent years for "Law & Order."

For that program, Mr. Orbach used his wit and extensive knowledge of New Yawkese -- as well as his friendship with doomed mobster Joseph "Crazy Joe" Gallo -- to shape the script when problems arose. He told the New York Daily News: "We had a line where I said, 'Well, it's your job to break the guy's balls, right?' Well, I couldn't say that because of censors."

When a writer changed it to "gumballs," Mr. Orbach grew flustered. "I looked and I said 'gumballs!' 'Who the . . . says gumballs? So I changed it to breaking chops . . . which is another nice New Yorky, Brooklynese thing. So whoever was in California writing 'gumballs,' I mean, that's just silly!"

Jerome Bernard Orbach was born Oct. 20, 1935, in the Bronx, N.Y., the son of a restaurant manager who had some vaudeville experience and a mother who had sung on the radio. As a child, he showed great talent as a mimic of radio voices, from Al Jolson to the Lone Ranger, and his early stage ambitions were encouraged by his family.

Raised in Waukegan, Ill., where his family had settled, Mr. Orbach excelled in sports and was mentored by a high school speech teacher.

He said his goal was to become a rebel acting icon in the mold of James Dean and Marlon Brando, a dream that frustrated him later when he was unable to find such anti-hero leading man parts.

After high school, he worked in regional theater, learning, he once said, "how not to do too much with my eyebrows . . . and not to do too many 'takes' " when performing comedy. He attended Northwestern University briefly, worked as a personal driver for Mae West and then moved to New York in 1955.

Within months, he became an understudy for Tige Andrews as the Streetsinger, in essence the narrator, of Theatre de Lys's legendary production of "The Threepenny Opera." He later played Mack the Knife, a leading role opposite Lotte Lenya.

"I was so young for it, it was a joke," he said, "but I had the saber scar, the hair and everything. It worked."

He stayed with the show four years while taking acting classes with Herbert Berghof and Lee Strasberg.

In 1960, he turned down a large salary from a Broadway producer to take a leading role in an off-off-Broadway production called "The Fantasticks." The pay was $45 a week, but the show, in which Mr. Orbach played the all-knowing narrator, became one of the mainstays of New York theater, running for more than 40 years.

He was praised for his "controlled voice and clear intelligence" by Walter Kerr in the New York Herald Tribune, and the show led to an offer in 1961 to appear in the Gower Champion-directed musical "Carnival!" The musical was an adaptation of the film "Lili," about an orphaned girl who joins a traveling carnival. He played a bitter puppeteer who wins Lili's love over a suave magician. For his role, Mr. Orbach studied puppetry and mastered a character who must convey some degree of romantic charm.

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