Jerry Orbach

Today's wide release of 'Beastly,' a teenage riff on 'Beauty and the Beast,' casts our minds back to Disney's great animated musical version in 1991, which featured a charming performance by an actor who would soon become much better known as a TV detective on 'Law and Order.'

Jerry Orbach played Lumière in 'Beauty and the Beast,' the singing, madly flirtatious French candlestick holder, a role that flowed naturally from his extensive experience in musical stage productions. (He was an original cast member of 'The Fantasticks' and starred in 'Guys and Dolls' and 'Chicago,' among others.) This writer saw him in a revival of '42nd Street' on Broadway in 1982, which rocked my world because I'd seen him the previous year as a corrupt cop in the gritty 'Prince of the City.' How could a dirty cop also be a good singer and dancer?

Personal experience always shapes our perceptions, of course, so maybe your lasting image of Orbach is from his role in 'Dirty Dancing' as the stern Dr. Houseman (pictured above), the father of dance- and boy-crazed heroine Baby (Jennifer Grey). With a scowl on his face and steam blowing out of his ears, he disapproves initially of any kind of relationship between playboy Johnny (Patrick Swayze) and his darling daughter, but finally caves in at the end because he loves his little girl.
Crimes and Misdemeanors

The opposite side of that coin was his chilling appearance in Woody Allen's 'Crimes and Misdemeanors.' He played Jack, the brother of well-respected ophthalmologist Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau). Judah is at his wit's end, in despair because his affair with a possibly unhinged woman is threatening to blow up his comfortable upper-class life. Jack assures him, speaking as a matter of fact, that one phone call is all it will take; he knows people.

What makes the scene so chilling is that Jack looks like he could be a killer himself. Or a doctor. Or a police officer. Or a lusty candlestick holder. He could be, well, anybody. Whatever role Jerry Orbach played, he was always utterly convincing.

You can see it in his very first film performance, even though he's on screen for only about three minutes. 'Cop Hater' (1958), which is available to view via Netflix Instant Watch, is based on the first 87th Precinct novel by Evan Hunter (writing as Ed McBain). It's a police procedural set during a heat wave in a big city, and the police are on edge because they're being targeted in a series of murders.

Orbach, age 22, pops up as a gang member being questioned by the police about 35 minutes into the picture. What's cool is that you can actually see Orbach (or, more accurately, the character) gaining confidence during the little speech that he gives, becoming more defensive and cocky. When he first starts speaking, he's cowed by the detective who has pushed him around; he ends up telling him insolently that "plenty of times the wrong guy gets hit," as a way to explain how his gang accidentally killed a cop.

Two years before that, at the age of 20, Orbach had snared a lead role in an off-Broadway revival of 'Threepenny Opera,' a part that he played for more than three years. His next show in New York was 'The Fantasticks,' and other stage productions followed, including 'The Cradle Will Rock,' 'Carnival,' 'Guys and Dolls,' 'Carousel,' 'Annie Get Your Gun,' 'Promises, Promises' and 'Chicago.'

His final Broadway appearances come in the aforementioned '42nd Street,' beginning in August 1980. He made sporadic film and TV appearances during the 60s and 70s ('John Goldfarb, Please Come Home,' 'The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight,' 'The Sentinel'), but he told Playbill it was 'Prince of the City' that changed his image "for the public and for the business: 'Oh, he's not a song-and-dance guy, he can act.'"

Prince of the City

Directed by Sidney Lumet, 'Prince of the City' explores the climate of corruption that existed in the Special Investigation Unit of the New York City Police Department in the late 60s and early 70s. Orbach plays a detective named Gus Levy in a squad that is led by Danny Ciello (Treat Williams). In his opening scene, Gus, adorned in a leather jacket, busts into an apartment with his mates and has no hesitation about kicking a suspect through a window. He cuts a fine figure, smoking a cigar with gusto, always laughing and supportive of his partners.

When Ciello reluctantly agrees to go undercover for the Chase Commission, charged with investigating wide-ranging accusations of corruption, he insists that he won't testify against his partners. Eventually, they're drawn into the investigation as well, and one of them commits suicide. Ciello confesses to his remaining friends, including Gus, who sardonically reminds him that if he commits suicide, his wife won't get a pension. Even after the other men begin cooperating with the investigation, Gus stubbornly, defiantly refuses.

In this lengthy clip from the film, he appears at the 2:31 mark, working undercover and talking to Ciello. He shows up again at 8:22 into the clip, declaring to Ciello: "I'll never cooperate!" and then letting the district attorney know how he feels.

The dynamic of his personality, his ability to shift gifts from a quiet exchange of confidences to an outsized burst of anger, always stood out for me. There's something very likable about Orbach's portrayal of Gus, even though the character was thoroughly corrupt. And in an odd way, it circled back and referenced his very first role in 'Cop Hater.' This time he was on the side of the law, but he was still defiant and sure of himself, even though more than 20 years had passed.

Orbach began picking up more work on screen in the 80s; he can be seen in small roles as a baseball manager in Walter Hill's 'Brewster's Millions,' for example, and as a machine-gun toting mob informant in 'F/X.'

Then came his attention-getting work in 'Dirty Dancing' and 'Crimes and Misdemeanors,' followed eventually by 'Beauty and the Beast' and 'Law and Order,' in which he inhabited Detective Lennie Briscoe, a world-weary cop who is decidedly not corrupt but is, instead, the very best kind of police officer, a man of integrity and kindness.

He made just a few appearances in films after the demanding requirements of starring in a television series kicked into high gear. He was felled by cancer in December 2004 at the age of 69.

Not long ago, Kevin Daly at Theatre Aficionado wrote: "Even though Orbach hadn't been on Broadway since the mid-80s, he epitomized the essence of NY theatre for so many. You could see him at opening nights, presenting at the Tony Awards or even just riding the subway. While 'Law and Order' gave him that household recognition, he was still just a New Yorker."

The Bronx-born actor never truly left his hometown behind, but that didn't mean he lacked range. Rather, he was a powerful presence who left his mark on stage, on television, and in film.

On a final note, here's his appearance at the Academy Awards in 1991, singing Best Song nominee "Be Our Guest" from 'Beauty and the Beast,' live and in person.

Prince of the City
In Theaters on August 18th, 2001

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categories Features, Cinematical