It’s a cliché: the tough guy with the gentle touch. One of New York’s recurring characters, a man’s man who knows how to be sensitive with the ladies. But that was Jerry Orbach-or Lennie Briscoe, or Billy Flynn, or Mack the Knife, or any one of the dozens of memorable characters he played off and on Broadway, on TV screens or in the movies. And his passing on Dec. 28 touched many of us, including cops, actors, politicians, maître d’s, pool-hall owners, card sharks and his tailors at Ms. Buffy’s French Cleaners on Eighth Avenue.
Rita Gardner, co-star in The Fantasticks
I remember first meeting him. We all got together on the first day of rehearsal-it must have been February 1960. When we all sang, I certainly knew who was the real star. I looked over and there was this wonderful actor-so strong and alive. And he was always coming up with things. I would just say, “Oh, and he can juggle, too,” because he’d come out and he’d be throwing up oranges and balls …. He was the glue of that show, someone who made you feel that everything would be all right. There’s a scene where I stood up on this chair, he was in back of me, and every time I fell back in his arms, I just knew he would catch me …. Years later, I did a few episodes of Law and Order, but I never worked with him; they were still with Paul Sorvino. I was always somebody crying-the crying lady.”
Tony Noto, associate producer of The Fantasticks
“I was about 9 when I first met him. I remember seeing him in the show, it must have been May of 1960, when my father [Lore Noto] produced the show. What I remember about him was that he was larger than life, he was the rock that The Fantasticks built its church on. He set a standard that has rarely been equaled; he was the perfect person for that role. There were very subtle contributions that Jerry made: in the initial staging, that line, “Scooby-Dooby-Dooby,” little jazz invention, the juggling-all of those things Jerry had a hand in creating …. I remember the pool games he played with my father years later. They would go to McGrath’s on Eighth Avenue and 49th, a downstairs pool hall; my father had his office over there. He would play, and they were both very good. There were all kinds of shady characters-a mob guy named Tony the Sheik and, a little actor, a dwarf, who was in that show Wild, Wild West. He used to play on a stool. It was straight pool. If they played for money, they probably would have won-they were that good …. His son, Chris, used to work with us. He’s had some roles in Law and Order. The last time I saw him was when Peter Vallone ran for Mayor in 2001-they had a fund-raiser at the Third Street Playhouse, and Jerry was the host. I don’t know his political beliefs, but trust and integrity were important to him.”
Chita Rivera, co-star in Chicago
“Jerry was that guy, that Rock of Gibraltar. He had an entrance that was phenomenal. You’d look up and there he was-in his pin-stripe suit and fedora, smoking his pipe. When the lights hit him, he was like a rock. He always told this story about this one time, there was a number I did with the chair [“When Velma Takes the Stand”], I would say to him, ‘Hey Billy, can I show you what I would do on the stand?’, and he’s supposed to say, ‘Yeah, kid.’ So on this particular night, he pulled up the chair, straddled it, looked me right in the eye and he said, ‘No, you can’t do it.’ I didn’t know what to say-I almost whispered, ‘Jerry, what are you doing? That’s not the line …. ‘ I just said, “But I gotta,” and he shouted, “Gotcha!” He surprised the heck out of me. At the memorial, I was thanking Jerry for all the great memories, going back to the 60’s, when I saw him in Carnival! And he was amazing in Promises, Promises-he was just fabulous. Where are the leading men now? … I don’t remember him clowning around that much. When you work with Fosse, you’re busy, it’s hard work …. He was a guy’s guy. I just remember him in the basement of the theater playing gin or poker with the stagehands …. I remember when he met Elaine [Orbach’s wife], I came out to see them while they were doing Chicago at the Chicago Theater in Chicago, Ill. I was talking to them about coming back in the company to take it to L.A. and San Francisco. And I came down to the basement, and there he was playing cards with the guys, and just over his right shoulder, there was this cute little redhead. From that day on, I don’t remember them being separated. It’s the kind of relationship you envy.”
Treat Williams, co-star in Prince of the City
“We were taking a break before shooting a scene for Prince. We went to lunch at an Italian restaurant, one of those joints on the Upper West Side, and we might have had a glass of wine. And we get back and we had one of those lines like, “I won’t tell if you don’t tell, because you know that I know what you know.” And we just couldn’t get our tongues around it. Jerry had the giggles, and it went from the ridiculous to the sublime. Sidney [Lumet, the director] loved to finish by 4:30, 5, and there we were, on the floor. It was just one of those things. One thing I don’t like about Jerry Orbach is that he stole the movie from me …. I come from musicals myself-I did Hair-and we had a kinship; we both worked in all three mediums-theater, TV and movies. I felt a real kinship because very few people are able to bridge that gap …. We had a lovely get-together about a year ago, he was extremely happy, he loved his gym-I think he went to the New York Health Club-I could tell that he was really happy in his life and work.”
Jimmy Breslin, author
“I met him when he was shooting The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight. It was down in Red Hook. We were setting up a picture from the set for Look magazine …. He did a movie that never came out, it was A Fan’s Notes, the book by Fred Exley. Exley was crazy, walking around with nitroglycerin patches while smoking. And they would play cards …. He let me get friendly with [mobster] Joey Gallo, whom he met from doing Gang. Gallo wanted to meet him because Jerry was playing that character. They became friends. Jerry liked that a little bit-having wise guys around him. Everybody does. His [first] wife, Marta, she got along with Gallo, too. She was going to do a book on him. They were doing the shoot on President Street, around the corner from where Gallo was headquartered. Gallo might have been in jail at the time, because his boys always came over, and they introduced him once Joey was out. Armando the Dwarf came by-he was famous, he used to walk around saying he was Joey’s bodyguard. He used to come around to see another actor, Hervé Villechaize, the dwarf. That little guy was starving if he didn’t have two dollars. And he said that he wasn’t making enough money-Bobby De Niro was getting $750 a week. He got very mad-that fucking little runt! …. And then Jerry was with Gallo the night he got killed. Yeah, they were at the Copa before Gallo went down to Umberto’s. I remember when he got killed, Orbach said to me on the phone, “We didn’t understand him,” saying how good a person he was. He was shocked. He couldn’t believe it …. Jerry was unique. He acted like another working man, none of that celebrity bullshit. He could do Broadway musical comedy-one out of five million can do that. Law and Order-he did it so well and so easily, he could go to sleep and do it …. The last time I saw him, he was sitting in a luncheonette at First Avenue and 69th and 70th Street. I was with my daughter, and we were coming from Sloan-Kettering. He wasn’t in a mood to talk, and I knew that something was wrong. Nobody was in much of a mood-my daughter was sick. Nothing to say when you’re there.”
Dick Wolf, producer of Law and Order
“It must have been 1992, when Paul Sorvino was leaving the show, and I called Jerry. We had met prior to this, and I said, ‘I’d like to sit down and talk to you about Law and Order.’ The interesting part of the story was that it was the only acting note I gave him in 13 years. Jerry said, ‘I’m interested, but I’m not quite sure how you see this guy. And I said, ‘ Prince of the City would be fine,’ and he looked at me and said, ‘Got it.’ And that’s the last acting advice I ever gave him. When Lennie Briscoe walked onstage, it was a fully formed character-there were no tweaks, no agonizing over the back story, just a guy who knew all that was required was essentially him …. I got an e-mail from a writer who worked with Jerry about 18, 19 years ago, and he wrote that the thing that he never forgot about Jerry was that he always ate lunch with the crew. The crews all loved him; he never forgot what it was like to have to worry about his next job …. I have an 11-year-old son, and a lot of times we go down to the set, and he loved Jesse [Martin, Orbach’s co-star on Law and Order] and Jerry. When he found out that Jerry died, he was really crushed. He said, ‘Oh my God, Jerry taught me how to use a yo-yo.’ He was extraordinary with a yo-yo. He could do around-the-world, walk-the-dog, he could make a yo-yo talk …. He was the very embodiment of Spencer Tracy’s words about acting: show up on time, know your lines and don’t bump into the furniture. The only line changes that he ever came up with were sometimes to make the jokes better, or to change words that he didn’t think a cop would have the vocabulary for …. It’s extraordinary when you know how hard he worked-he was working up until three and half weeks ago. He was there. Everybody knew he was sick, but nobody thought it would happen now.”
The Transom Also Hears That ….
Dexter Wansel and Vincent Montana Jr. may have produced some of the smoothest love songs of the 60’s and 70’s, the soundtrack to the conception of plenty of thirtysomething New Yorkers. But that doesn’t mean these creative geniuses are soft. Mr. Wansel, Mr. Montana and several members of MFSB, the band that helped create the signature Philly sound of soul music, have filed papers announcing their intention to sue their former record label, Philadelphia International, in New York State Supreme Court. “Dexter Wansel has not received royalty payments for over 30 years, with respect to the people he produced and in his own right,” explained Jay Berger, legal coordinator of the Artists Rights Enforcement Corporation, which helps musicians recover royalty payments. “With MFSB, it’s probably worse-they wrote the theme song for ‘Soul Train,’ they were the in-house band at Philly International, they had 14 solo albums and have appeared on 150 compilations, and they never received a royalty report.” A representative for Philadelphia International didn’t return calls for comment.