This tall, sleepy-eyed character actor and leading man from the Broadway musical stage who, whether sinister or sympathetic, often was cast in roles that connoted a slightly seedy "New Yorkness," eventually finding widespread recognition on television as a cynical police detective on the long-running crime series "Law & Order. "
Although Jerry Orbach made his first film in 1958 (a B flick called "Cop Hater"), film roles were sporadic during the 1960s and 70s while he appeared onstage in such efforts as "6 Rms Riv Vu", "Scuba Duba" and the original cast of the long-running Off-Broadway sensation "The Fantasticks". In the latter, Orbach, in the role of El Gallo, introduced "Try to Remember", a song perennial with which he was long associated. A breakthrough on the Great White Way came several years later with his Tony-nominated turn as Sky Masterson in the 1965 revival of "Guys and Dolls". He later won the Tony for "Promises, Promises" in 1969 .
Boosted by his stage success, Orbach played his first lead in features in the gangster spoof, "The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight" (1971), but the modest success of the film and his subsequent ventures kept Orbach primarily onstage for some time thereafter. His long face, saturnine expression and intriguingly glum magnetism didn't quite make him movie star material, but onstage he toured with Neil Simon's "Chapter Two" for nine months, and starred on Broadway in a musicalized version of the 20s black comedy "Chicago" (1975-76). Orbach also brought real edge to the role of obsessed theater director Julian Marsh in the smash Broadway remake of the classic Warner Bros. musical film "42nd Street" in 1980.
One of Orbach's rare film roles in the early 80s, as a crooked cop in Sidney Lumet's crime saga "Prince of the City" (1980), though, suggested the direction his career would soon take. 1985 saw increased feature film work, but it was really his memorable performance as the gentle, concerned father in the surprise hit "Dirty Dancing" (1987) which insured a prolific career in features. Orbach was also excellent as the shady, mob-connected brother of Martin Landau (whom he somewhat resembles in build and manner) in Woody Allen's "Crimes and Misdemeanors" (1989) and his likably world-weary ways also suited his detectives in "Someone to Watch Over Me" (1987) and "Out for Justice" (1991). He has, however, enjoyed a good variety of roles in films ranging from "Last Exit to Brooklyn" (1989) to "Delirious" (1991) to "Mr. Saturday Night" (1992). He perhaps reached his widest audience and engaged views from toddlers to their grandparents providing the French-accented voice of the candelabra Lumiere in Disney's Oscar-nominated animated feature "Beauty and the Beast". Among the highlights of that classic was Orbach's delivery of the showstopping number "Be Our Guest". He again reprised Lumiere for the direct-to-video sequels "Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas" (1997) and "Belle's Magical World" (1998), as well as the Disney TV series "House of Mouse" (2001-2002) .
Beginning with an HBO adaptation of Neil Simon's "Plaza Suite" (1982), Orbach also found increased activity in TV, with miniseries work including a performance as gold-seeking John Sutter in the historical epic "Dream West" (CBS, 1986). TV-movies included "Invasion of Privacy" (CBS, 1983) and "Quiet Killer" (CBS, 1992), and a recurring role as slightly shabby but egotistical detective Harry McGraw on "Murder, She Wrote" led to his own short-lived spin-off series, "The Law and Harry McGraw" (CBS, 1987-88).
Orbach had better luck on series TV when, in 1992, he joined the cast of NBC's acclaimed bipartite police and courtroom drama, "Law & Order" in its thrid season as the cynical but professional Detective Lenny Briscoe, who had a sardonic one-liner ready for any crime scene (he'd previously guest-starred as defense attorney Frank Lehrman in a second season episode). The actor became the rock of the long-running series as it endured through a regular revolving door of cast changes--Orbach's character was partnered with Chris Noth, Benjamin Bratt and Jesse Martin over the years, and it was to Orbach's credit that he developed strong chemistry and camraderie with each new cast mate. Many New York police officers claimed Orbach's portrayal was as close as TV could come to the real thing--Former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani called Orbach "a friend to all New Yorkers" and "a devoted ambassador of the city." He also carried the Briscoe character over to guest on the many "Law & Order" spin-off series and TV-movies, as well as several crossovers with the NBC series "Homicide: Life On the Streets" and even lent his voice to a series of spin-off video games. Orbach left the original series in 2004 after a dozen years to star in the latest venture from creatorn Dick Wolf, "Law & Order: Trial by Jury" (2005 - ), with Briscoe now as an investigator for the district attorney's office. The actor had filmed a handful of episodes when he lost a lengthy battle with prostate cancer.