They called him the King of New York. And it was the most fitting nickname a guy could ever have.
Truth be told, when I traveled to the Manhattan set of NBC's Law & Order series in 1998, I wasn't really looking to meet the guy whose roles had included a spot in the original cast of The Fantasticks and a stint as Jennifer Grey's dad in the '80s classic Dirty Dancing. Back then, co-stars Benjamin Bratt and Carey Lowell _ who were dating Julia Roberts and Richard Gere, respectively _ were hotter news.
But then I met the King, white teeth gleaming in the spring sun, as he and Bratt were headed to Trinity Cemetery in Manhattan's Washington Heights neighborhood. Two steps out of the makeup trailer, Jerry Orbach was greeted with cries of "Hey, Lennie!" from passersby _ a reference to the police detective he would play over 12 years on L&O.
Flashing those impressive chops and waving to his fans, the King smiled while crew members regaled me with tales of Orbach getting a free bus ride and the occasional gratis streetside hot dog _ tributes bestowed by fans who had grown to love his Lennie Briscoe or his Billy Flynn in Chicago or his Julian Marsh in 42nd Street.
Orbach, a relatively low-key guy with a show biz veteran's flair for a quip, punctured all the glowing talk with a Lennie-esque comment on his upcoming scene _ a graveside shot in which Briscoe decides whether to avenge his murdered child.
"I just want someone to die in my arms so I can cry and get an Emmy nomination," he said, drawing peals of laughter from the guys adjusting lights and moving cameras.
So it was with particular pain that I saw news accounts on the death of Jerome Bernard Orbach on Tuesday at age 69 from prostate cancer. An era had already passed on the show that brought his greatest fame when Orbach announced that he would leave L&O in May; the surprise of fans migrated to deep concern as news of his cancer struggle spread this month.
As a longtime Law & Order fan, it took me a while to learn to like Lennie, who first appeared in 1992, replacing Paul Sorvino's Sgt. Phil Serreta. Behind the scenes, diva Sorvino was feeling underutilized by the show's laser-like focus on plot lines, and co-star Chris Noth _ who would later make waves as Mr. Big on HBO's Sex and the City _ had a similar penchant for backstage tantrums.
Compared with Sorvino's massive presence, Orbach first seemed a little small. Still, he brought a weary reality to the show, with his slicked-back, '50s-style coif and angular frame _ perfect for the 10-year-old suits his character undoubtedly would have worn, bought streetside in the Garment District.
Eventually, Lennie's cynical wisecracks would become a signature of the show (my favorite, about a prisoner: "I specifically asked for him to be put on suicide watch. Apparently, here at Riker's, that means that they watch you commit suicide.") The real-life actor's easygoing demeanor also seemed to balance a cast whose backstage friction often spilled into the media and made working difficult.
Those who knew him only as a cop-playing character actor _ Harry McGraw on CBS's Murder, She Wrote, Lt. Garber in Someone to Watch Over Me _ missed out on Orbach's groundbreaking Broadway career, including Tony-nominated turns in Guys and Dolls, Chicago and the Burt Bacharach/Hal David musical Promises, Promises. Even after watching vintage news clips of his work, I rank him with Christopher Walken and Kevin Spacey as show biz's most unlikely song-and-dance men.
Born in the Bronx and raised in Illinois, Orbach's New Yawk attitude nevertheless made him a perfect East Coast character. No wonder the New York Landmark Conservancy declared him a living landmark; with a career that included the 1961 Broadway production of Carnival! and a friendship with New York mobster Joey Gallo that ended hours after their last party together (when Gallo was whacked at a seafood restaurant), Orbach's life was the heartbeat of New York.
I nearly wore a black armband sitting at the TV Wednesday, as the night's L&O episode was prefaced and concluded with a brief photo noting the passing of Orbach, who appeared in that night's rerun. Thanks to the magic of videotape, we're still going to see a lot of him, between endless replays of his L&O work and a half-dozen episodes of his latest series, Law & Order: Trial By Jury, set to debut this month.
In the end, that may be the most fitting tribute possible for the King: eternal life in rerun-land as the quintessential, world-weary New Yorker. Certainly, those of us lucky enough to have met the man couldn't ask for anything more.
Eric Deggans' e-mail address is degganssptimes.com.