The Law & Order star, who first made his name in stage musicals, succumbs at age 69
Law & Order star Jerry Orbach has died of prostate cancer at the age of 69, his manager confirmed Wednesday.
Orbach died Tuesday night in Manhattan. Earlier this month, it was revealed that Orbach had been diagnosed with the disease, but his manager, Robert Malcolm, said at the time that the actor should be fine, that he was playing golf and continuing to shoot episodes of his TV program.
Orbach starred as the fast-talking Detective Lennie Briscoe for 12 seasons in the original Law & Order series (he joined the cast in 1992), but left to head the spinoff Law & Order: Trial by Jury, which was set to debut next year.
Born in the Bronx, Orbach (whose parents had showbiz aspirations) studied acting at Northwestern University but dropped out because he couldn’t afford the tuition. Soon after, he landed a part in the landmark 1955 Greenwich Village production of The Threepenny Opera, in which he eventually played the lead character, Mack the Knife. He had started out as an understudy.
He followed that with another landmark, The Fantasticks, still the longest-running Off-Broadway show in history. In the musical fable, he introduced the hit song “Try to Remember.” Orbach finally left that show in 1961 to make his uptown debut in the musical Carnival! – and with that he became a Broadway star.
Other smashes he starred in were the musicals Promises, Promises (in which he sang the title song and “What Do Get When You Fall in Love,” among other Burt Bacharach-Hal David hits) and the original production of 42nd Street, in which he sang “The Lullaby of Broadway.”
Orbach won a Tony award in 1969 for Promises, Promises and was also nominated for a Tony for his roles in both Chicago and Guys and Dolls.
“I really wanted to be a serious film actor like Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift,” Orbach told PEOPLE in 2000, adding that his profile turned off producers. “They’d say, ‘Your nose is too big, your eyes are too droopy. You’re no Tyrone Power.’ But because I could sing, I kept getting jobs in musicals.”
Orbach’s movie career was sporadic but memorable, and included roles in Sidney Lumet’s 1981 Prince of the City, 1986’s F/X, 1987’s Dirty Dancing – and as the voice of Lumiere, inviting Belle to “Be Our Guest” in Disney’s animated 1991 Beauty and the Beast.
In 1958, Orbach married his Threepenny Opera castmate Marta Curro and had two sons, Anthony and Christopher. The couple divorced in 1975. In 1979, Orbach married actress Elaine Cancilla, who, along with his sons, survive him.