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A Star Is Gone

With Jerry Orbach's Death, a Light Dims On Broadway and TV

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 30, 2004; Page C01

On television, he was Detective Lennie Briscoe, one of the hardest-boiled characters ever to populate a cop show. On the off-Broadway stage, he introduced a sentimental ballad whose lyrics included the very soft-boiled line: "Try to remember when life was so tender that no one wept, except the willow."

Jerry Orbach was a prodigiously versatile actor who could slip comfortably into roles so tough that, as Bob Hope once said of a movie mobster, he could crack walnuts with his eyelids -- and then just as comfortably play a sentimental song-and-dance man who radiated authority and sincerity when issuing the musical invitation "Come along and listen to / the lullaby of Broadway."

Jerry Orbach, in hat, in 1968 in "Promises, Promises," a Broadway role that won him a Tony. (Associated Press)

Audio: Tom Shales Remembers Jerry Orbach
Video: Actor Jerry Orbach Dies at 69

Broadway's lights were to dim at curtain time last night in Orbach's honor. He died Tuesday night at 69 of prostate cancer even as plans continued for him to star in a spinoff of the hit NBC crime series "Law & Order," the show on which Orbach made Detective Briscoe immortal over 12 hard-charging TV seasons.

He will appear in a few episodes of the new series "Law & Order: Trial by Jury" when it premieres next year, still in the role of Briscoe. As Orbach played the part, Briscoe had a rumpled aura even though fastidiously dressed; he was, if such a thing is possible, inwardly rumpled. The look in his eyes suggested a man who'd seen more tragedy and anguish than most people could ever handle.

Skeptical but not cynical, Briscoe made quips even at murder scenes, but as a defense mechanism to keep from becoming emotionally involved. Viewers became emotionally involved with Briscoe, however. They loved him and his wry, wisecracking attitude. "Law & Order" is so plot-driven that viewers know little if anything about the private lives of the recurring characters, but Briscoe, a recovering alcoholic, went through his own wrenching ordeal when facing the murder of his own daughter even as he investigated a different crime on the same episode.

A tragedy befalling one of the regulars was a rare event for the show, and Orbach made it memorable for viewers -- especially the faithful who felt they knew Briscoe as a friend.

Singing "Lullaby of Broadway" in David Merrick's musical smash "42nd Street" (based on the Depression-era Warner Bros. film) came naturally to Orbach because New York knew him as a friend, too. Having been born in the Bronx, Orbach could walk the streets of Manhattan exchanging greetings with fellow New Yorkers like a regular guy. He was presumably forgiven for also starring in the musical "Chicago," about New York's perennial second fiddle, and also appeared in "Carnival!" with Anna Maria Alberghetti (based on the MGM film "Lili") and "Promises, Promises," where he sang songs by Burt Bacharach and Hal David and won a Tony Award for the performance.

Orbach personified the city he adored -- rough-and-tumble, brash and bold, but with a big fat pulsating heart, just as innumerable cliches would have it.

Fans of "Law & Order" familiar with the Briscoe persona might be surprised that Orbach was the man to introduce the unashamedly sentimental "Try to Remember" in the intimate off-Broadway musical "The Fantasticks," which went on to run for 40 years and become more a tourist attraction than a mere show. As the narrator in the musical, the story of two young lovers, Orbach sang, "Try to remember the kind of September when you were a tender and callow fellow."

Orbach found time to make movies, too. He played the rigid father who opposed his daughter's summer romance in "Dirty Dancing" and also appeared in Sidney Lumet's grim "Prince of the City" and Woody Allen's "Crimes and Misdemeanors." For the last two, he didn't even have to leave New York. In a 1993 interview with Frasier Moore of the Associated Press, Orbach said he liked working in television more than films: "There's a pace in TV I like. I like to work fast. I don't like to dwell all day over one scene as you do in a big feature. Big feature films are another world."

The beauty of a weekly series wasn't lost on him either: "All my life, since I was 16, I've been wondering where that next job was going to come from. . . . Now I take the summer off, relax, and I know that at the end of July, we're going to start another season."

He was also asked to compare himself to the character he played on "Law & Order." Orbach said he wasn't sure "where I stop and Lennie starts" but that "I'm not an alcoholic" and that Briscoe was "tougher than me and he carries a gun."

"I know I wouldn't want to be him," Orbach said. "I guess that's where I stop and he starts."

"Law & Order" is generally considered a star-proof show. Actors who go diva on producer Dick Wolf and demand extravagant raises after a season or two can find their characters simply written out of the series, with new actors brought in to replace them in new roles -- whether in the police department where the first half of the show is set or in the district attorney's office, whose staff dominates the second half.

Orbach, however, had grown to be indelibly part of the scheme of things. Even Wolf said, in a statement, "His loss is irreplaceable." Wolf also called Orbach "a legendary figure of 20th-century show business" and "one of the most honored performers of his generation."

"Deep in December, it's nice to remember, although there's snow, the spring will follow," Orbach sang in that brave little musical. "Deep in December, it's nice to remember, without a hurt, the heart is hollow." Orbach found a place in the hearts of tens of millions of viewers. Today, those hearts are hurting, too.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company