Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

New York

Try To Remember: Jerry Orbach, Prince Of The City, Prince Among Men

By HARRY FORBES, CNS | Published March 31, 2005

To most of the world, he was the droopy-eyed, tough-talking Lennie Briscoe on television’s longest-running crime series, “Law & Order.” But to New Yorkers, the late Jerry Orbach was a seasoned Broadway stage actor equally at home in musicals, comedy or drama.

Which is why the Great White Way’s Richard Rodgers Theatre was filled to capacity March 24 to pay fervent tribute to the beloved star of “The Fantasticks,” “42nd Street” and “Chicago” who died Dec. 28 at age 69. (The Bronx-born Orbach was the son of a Jewish father and a Catholic mother, and was raised Catholic.)

With numerous film and video clips of his most famous roles, there were heartfelt remembrances from many of his colleagues, including Angela Lansbury, Jane Alexander (and her husband, director Ed Sherin), New York University film professor Richard Brown, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and “Law & Order” co-star Sam Waterston, who presided over the proceedings. “Hope you brought your Kleenex,” he warned at the outset.

And yet there was less a sense of sadness than a satisfying feeling of a full life lived most admirably. Throughout the ceremony, words like compassion, kindness, generosity and empathy poured forth from the speakers. As “Law & Order” creator Dick Wolf said, “In a business where ‘schadenfreude’ (delight at another’s misfortune) is a polite emotion, I never heard a negative word about him.”

Though the emphasis was on Orbach’s theatrical days, “Law & Order” was hardly ignored. Chris Noth, S. Epatha Merkerson and Richard Belzer were in the audience, while Wolf and NBC Television head Jeff Zucker took the stage not only to honor a remarkable performance, but to present Orbach’s visibly moved widow, the former Elaine Cancilla, with a check for $1 million for the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center’s research into prostate cancer, the disease to which Orbach succumbed.

What emerged from the afternoon was a portrait of a magnanimous, caring man who took young colleagues like Broadway hoofer Karen Ziemba under his wing. Ziemba sang a beautifully apt song from “The Fantasticks” in tribute to Orbach, who had originated the popular song “Try to Remember” in that show.

Apart from Ziemba, there was a surprising paucity of live performances on stage, but the healthy stream of Orbach clips was perhaps preferable after all. Astonishingly, he had played more performances in musicals than any other actor in Broadway history. And he only appeared in one Broadway flop. His secret? As one wag put it: “Whenever he needed money, he said yes.”

Bloomberg dubbed him the “quintessential New York actor.” Brown talked of their friendship and introduced clips of Orbach’s movies, including “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” “Prince of the City” and “Dirty Dancing.”

Lansbury admitted how hard it was to “talk of Jerry in the past tense.” She cast him as detective Harry McGraw on “Murder She Wrote,” and he was such a hit he got his own series out of it, albeit short-lived. Still, “The Law and Harry McGraw” was a sort of precursor to his “Law & Order” role. And Lansbury pointed out that Jerry’s “Be Our Guest” on Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” is loved by “every kid who ever heard the soundtrack.”

Wolf spoke glowingly of Orbach’s work on “Law & Order.” A trouper till the end, Orbach shot his last scenes just three weeks before he died.

Finally, Elaine, his wife of 25 years—who willingly gave up a budding Broadway career for the role of Mrs. Jerry Orbach—spoke of Orbach’s devotion to her, and how he’d get up every morning, shower, shave, have his coffee, and write her a little poem, all of which she has kept in a soup tureen. Alexander read a dozen of them, and spoke of his prowess at pinochle.

Besides induction into the Theatrical Hall of Fame, Orbach was once dubbed a “living landmark.” When asked what that meant, he quipped, “I think it means they can’t tear me down.”

An unpretentious man, he took subways everywhere, eschewing fancy limos and other trappings of stardom. Most refreshingly, he never surrounded himself with handlers.

In his last interview for Brown’s film class, Orbach talked about the beauty of his life. He knew how to appreciate what he had, or as Waterston put it, “how to live simply in the midst of fame.”


Forbes is director of the Office for Film & Broadcasting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.