Few actors have ever achieved such popular and critical acclaim in so many media stages (musical and dramatic), film, television, voicing for animation film and even computer games as did Jerry Orbach.
Born in the Bronx, Jerry's family moved around a good deal in his early years, finally settling in Waukegan, Illinois. At home and in school, Jerry's natural talent and interest in music and theater were fostered. So evident were his abilities that he decided to proceed to more advanced theatrical studies, including Stanislavsky technique, at the University of Illinois and Northwestern University, before heading to New York City and training with, among others, Lee Strasberg and the Actors' Studio.
Jerry's first professional New York engagement was in a celebrated Off-Broadway revival of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht's The Threepenny Opera. Beginning as an understudy, Jerry soon progressed to principal roles. Offers for the other projects came his way and, after several seasons in Threepenny, Jerry faced an important and enviable career decision: a lucrative role on Broadway, or a lead in a small, unusual and beguiling new Off-Broadway musical entitled The Fantasticks (1960). Jerry chose the later, and his performance as El Gallo changed his life, marking the auspicious start of a remarkable career of classic musical theater roles.
Broadway soon summoned again, this time in the form of producer David Merrick's Carnival! (1961), Bob Merrill's musical adaptation of the film Lili, in which Jerry's starring performance as the dark, complex and wounded puppeteer Paul Berthalet was a sensation. Other major stage roles followed consistently, including Sky Masterson in a revival of Guys and Dolls (1965), for which Jerry was first nominated for a Tony Award; Charlie Davenport in the revival of Annie Get Your Gun, opposite Ethel Merman (1966); Chuck Baxter in Promises, Promises (1968), for which he won a Tony for Best Performance by a Lead Actor in a Musical; Paul Friedman in 6 Rooms Riv Vu, opposite Jane Alexander (1972); Billy Glynn in Chicago (1975 - his third Tony nomination); and Julian Marsh in 42nd Street (opened 1980). Jerry holds the record for the most lead performances by any single actor in Broadway history.
Also in the 1980's and early 90's, Jerry's film career flourished. He played such memorable roles as Gus Levy (co-starring opposite Treat Williams) in Sidney Lumet's Prince of the City (1981); Dr. Jake Houseman, father of Jennifer Grey's character 'Baby', in Dirty Dancing (1987); cold-blooded killer Jack Rosenthal in Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989); and the voice of the candelabra Lumiére in Disney's animated musical Beauty and the Beast (1991).
Jerry also made numerous television guest appearances. His character Harry McGraw in Angela Lansbury's Murder she Wrote prompted a television series of his own, The Law and Harry McGraw, the single season of which importantly foreshadowed Jerry's greatest and most widely-known television role, that of Detective Lennie Briscoe in the series Law & Order (1992-2004).
Jerry first appeared on Law & Order as a defense attorney in the series' 1991 season, but in 1992 he began an unparalleled dozen years of character exploration and elaboration as Briscoe, culminating with the close of the 2004 season, at which time the character was intended to move to the associated new show Law & Order: Trial by Jury. Only two Lennie Briscoe episodes aired, posthumously, in 2005.
The evening following the announcement of Jerry's untimely passing at the age of 69, the lights of every Broadway marquee were dimmed in his honor - the highest dignity the Great White Way can accord one of its own.
Jerry had been named a "Living Landmark", along with fellow Law & Order castmate Sam Waterston, by the New York Landmarks Conservancy in 2002.
In 2005, Jerry was posthumously awarded a Screen Actors' Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Drama Series, for his work on Law & Order.