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A Film by Michael Kantor



Jerry Orbach

Orbach was an actor and singer who created a handful of important roles for the Broadway musical theater, before turning mostly to films and television. The son of a former vaudevillian actor and a radio singer, Orbach spent an itinerant childhood before settling in Waukegan, Illinois. After attending the University of Illinois and Northwestern University, he returned to New York where he studied acting with Lee Strasberg, and singing with Mazel Schweppe. After making his professional debut as the Typewriter Man in a 1952 Illinois version of “Room Service,” he continued to work in regional theater, appearing in stock productions of musicals such as “The King and I” and “The Student Prince.” He made his Off-Broadway debut taking over the roles of the Streetsinger (1957) and Macheath (1958), in the long-running revival of “The Threepenny Opera” that opened at the Theater de Lys in 1955. In 1960 he played the dual role of the Narrator and the bandit El Gallo off-Broadway in Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones’ historic epic “The Fantasticks,” introducing the show’s hit song, “Try to Remember.” During the ’60s he created the character of cynical puppeteer Paul Berthalet in “Carnival” (1961) on Broadway and on tour, played in revivals of “The Cradle Will Rock” (1964 as Larry Foreman), “Guys and Dolls” (1965 as Sky Masterson, with Alan King and Sheila MacRae), “Carousel” (1965 as Jigger Craigin), and “Annie Get Your Gun” (1966 as Charlie Davenport), as well as appearing in several straight plays.

Orbach as Billy Flynn with co-star Gwen Verdon as Roxie Hart in the original production of "Chicago."

In 1969 Orbach won a Tony Award for his portrayal of Chuck Baxter, the sad, lowly office worker who lends out his apartment to senior executives in “Promises, Promises,” and introduced (with Jill O’Hara) Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again.” In 1974, he played in the Neil Simon revue “The Trouble with People … and Other Things” in Miami. Orbach subsequently returned to Broadway, full of assurance, singing “All I Care About” and “Razzle Dazzle,” as Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera’s smart lawyer, the silver-tongued prince of the courtroom, Mr. Billy Flynn, in “Chicago” (1975). Orbach’s last major stage musical role came in 1980, when he portrayed tough producer Julian Marsh in the long-running Broadway adaptation of the famous 1932 Busby Berkeley movie 42ND STREET.

Jerry Orbach

Born: October 20, 1935
Died: December 28, 2004
Key Shows
  • "Carnival!"
  • "Promises, Promises"
  • "Chicago"
  • "42nd Street"
Related Artists
  • Gower Champion
  • Bob Fosse
  • Kander and Ebb
  • Donna McKechnie
  • David Merrick
  • Chita Rivera
  • Gwen Verdon
  • Robin Wagner
Orbach continued to appear in dramatic parts in the theater, but concentrated mostly on television and films. Although he appeared in the popular show MURDER, SHE WROTE, Orbach was best known on television for his portrayal of the hard-bitten detective Lennie Briscoe in the long-running LAW & ORDER. The music connection continued though, and moviegoers saw him as the disapproving doctor/father figure in the hit DIRTY DANCING (1987), and heard his voice behind the hospitable candelabra, Lumiere, singing Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s Oscar-nominated “Be Our Guest,” in Walt Disney’s animated feature BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (1991). Orbach did other voice work for video productions of ALADDIN AND THE KING OF THIEVES (1996), BEAUTY AND THE BEAST: THE ENCHANTED CHRISTMAS (1997), and BELLE’S MAGICAL WORLD (1998). Orbach died of prostate cancer in December 2004.

Source: Biographical information provided by MUZE. Excerpted from the ENCYCLOPEDIA OF POPULAR MUSIC, edited by Colin Larkin. © 2005 MUZE UK Ltd.

Photo credits: Photofest and Martha Swope