Jerry Orbach’s life in the theatre (& film & TV)

May 19, 2011 – Applause Books has just published John Anthony Gilvey’s biography, “Jerry Orbach, Prince of the City,” which does justice to a remarkable stage actor who made a well-deserved later-in-life transition to film and TV stardom.

Like Angela Lansbury before him, Orbach was a New York stage star for several decades before his perfect casting in a long-running TV role — Det. Lennie Briscoe on “Law & Order” — made him a household name.

Gilvey’s book is more than the story of one extraordinary performer — it’s about the challenge of making a career in the New York theatre, and a life in that expensive city, during an era when job opportunities started to become scarcer on Broadway.

Orbach was part of what might have been the last generation of actors who were able to go from one long-running Broadway show to another — in his case from “Promises, Promises” to “6 RMS RIV VU” to “Chicago” to “42nd Street” — earning enough money to raise a family in the city.

He was one of the very few male Broadway stars of his day — in the company of Alfred Drake and Robert Preston — who could both carry a show and provide able support to leading ladies such as Jane Alexander, Chita Rivera and Gwen Verdon.

As Gilvey shows in his well-researched and well-written book, Orbach had paid his dues with a decade in the off-Broadway trenches before a showy role in “Carnival” in 1961 introduced him to Broadway, paving the way to his “Promises, Promises” star turn seven years later.

Orbach did very well for himself off-Broadway in the 1950s, joining the cast of the legendary production of “The Threepenny Opera” that starred Lotte Lenya and featured such up-and-coming younger talent as Jerry Stiller, Beatrice Arthur and Ed Asner.

The performer also introduced the standard “Try to Remember” as part of the original cast of “The Fantasticks” (below), which Gilvey reminds us took quite a while to become a hit after opening at the Sullivan Street Playhouse in 1960.

“Prince of the City” shows how hard it can be for even the most talented and most popular stage performers to crossover into the more lucrative worlds of film and TV.

Orbach appeared in small film and TV roles throughout the 1960s and 1970s, but it wasn’t until New York-based director Sidney Lumet cast him in a very juicy supporting role in the 1981 police corruption drama, “Prince of the City” that Hollywood began to recognize the actor.

The TV and film roles became more frequent and more noticeable — especially Orbach’s work as Jennifer Grey’s dad in “Dirty Dancing” (1987) and as Martin Landau’s sinister brother in Woody Allen’s “Crimes and Misdemeanors” (1989) — paving the way to “Law & Order” in 1992.

Briscoe became such an emblem of the series and of New York City itself that we tend to forget that Orbach didn’t come on board until the third season of the NBC series — after George Dzundza and Paul Sorvino had come and gone.

“A few actors had already moved on from the show,” ensemble member Dann Florek told Gilvey. “But Jerry walked in, smiled at us and said, ‘Unlike my predecessors, I plan on being here a very long time.’”

In her introduction, Jane Alexander writes about her appreciation of Orbach as a young audience member at “The Threepenny Opera” and “The Fantasticks” and then her good fortune at being able to star opposite him in the 1972 comedy “6 RMS RIV VU”:

“I got lucky…He was everything I imagined him to be and more: buoyant, funny, and a consummate professional. He never missed a performance even when an all-night poker game inched towards a two o’clock matinee. I looked forward to those magical hours on stage with him eight times a week, and when the run of the show ended our friendship had been sealed.”

Joe Meyers

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