Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Try to Remember: Jerry Orbach, the Prince of the City
By Nicholas Stix

He was born on Oct 20, 1935 in New York City, lived seemingly everywhere else, and died back in the city of his birth. His friend, the comic and actor Robert Klein, called him “a poker-playing, cigarette-smoking, New York actor.”

He was a star of the musical stage for over 30 years, before becoming an “overnight sensation” on TV’s Law & Order. His name was Jerry Orbach.

Jerry Orbach Singing “Try to Remember,” accompanied by a lovely photo montage of his career

Jerry Orbach was the original star of the off-Broadway musical, The Fantasticks, which would run for 17,162 performances from 1960-2002, making it the longest-running stage show ever. He was later the original star, on Broadway, in the puppet musical, Carnival!, Promises, Promises, 6 Rms Riv Vu, Chicago and 42nd Street. He was nominated three times for Tonys for musicals: In 1965 (a Guys and Dolls revival), 1969 (Promises, Promises, for which he won), and 1976 (Chicago). In 1969 and 1976, he was nominated for the Drama Desk Award, which he won, as well, for Promises, Promises.

Orbach married twice: First to the former Marta Curro, from 1958 until their divorce in 1975, and with whom he had two sons, and from 1979 until his death, to the former Elaine Cancilla.

Cancilla was a musical stage performer who, according to the official story, had first met Orbach circa 1976, while they worked together in Chicago. However, she had been a dancer in the musical Fiorello!, when it opened in 1959. Although Orbach’s Internet Broadway Database page does not list him has having performed in that show, a photograph I just saw in the photo montage depicts a scene with him, Fiorello! star Tom Bosley, and a few other men—possibly from the number, “Politics and Poker”—argues for Orbach having joined the cast at some point during its 23-month run, which may be where he and Cancilla first met.

During 2007, Orbach’s widow campaigned for six months to get part of 53rd Street at Eighth Avenue named after her husband. On September 17, 2007, one of the corners at that intersection, near the apartment the Orbachs had lived in for 25 years, was renamed Jerry Orbach Way. After Community Board 4 rejected Mrs. Orbach’s petition, Community Board 5 approved it. Lucky for her, Eighth Avenue was the border of the two boards.

During his second marriage, Orbach used to write little poems on pages from a cat calendar before shoving off for his early morning TV shoots, and leave them for his wife to read when she woke up. At his funeral, his widow read some of them, and friends encouraged her to publish them. She published them in book form, with biographical material, as Remember How I Love You: Love Letters from an Extraordinary Marriage.

The book was published on November 3. A Publisher’s Weekly reviewer quipped, “Orbach's love for his wife is evident throughout these cheerful, lyrical tear sheets, a calendar of cats chased by doggerel.”

Unfortunately, Elaine Orbach did not live to see the book published: She had died of pneumonia at 69 years of age, on April 1.

I first saw Jerry Orbach in the movie The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight in 1972, a comedy about the Bonanno (“Bananas”) crime family—I recall Orbach as crime family scion “Kid Sally Bananas” being dragged around by his pet tiger (or was it a lion?)—which bombed, but made lots of money for the author of the eponymous novel, my old friend, Jimmy Breslin. (Another story, for another time.) And that was pretty much it for Orbach’s career as a movie star. In 1989, I saw him play the career criminal brother of the shaky pillar of upper-class, New York City Jewish society, played by Martin Landau, in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors. Orbach was good, but I recall that the role was brief, with little dialogue.

In 2005, the Screen Actors Guild posthumously gave Orbach its Award for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Drama, for his work in L&O. He was nominated for at least 17 other awards for his TV work.

Orbach died in New York on December 28, 2004, at 69. He had just left Law & Order, whose star he had been for 13 seasons and, according to IMDB, 274 episodes. He had just begun work on a new trial show, Law & Order: Trial by Jury for the same producer, socialist Dick Wolf, and had completed two episodes playing his old L&O character, Det. Lennie Briscoe. He had been diagnosed with prostate cancer while working on L&O, been getting treatment, and at one point, seemed to be doing well. The prognosis was excellent. But alas, it was wrong.

L&O: Trial by Jury could not overcome the death of its star, and was cancelled after 12 episodes had aired on NBC from March 3, 2005, until May 6, 2005. A 13th episode that had been filmed was broadcast by Court TV (since renamed TruTV) the following January 21.

In addition to L&O and Trial by Jury, Orbach played Det. Lennie Briscoe as a guest character on the Barry Levinson-Tom Fontana show, Homicide: Life on the Street, and on two other Dick Wolf series: Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and Law & Order: Criminal Intent.

Orbach’s L&O character was a recognizable New York type. Investigating cases, Lennie Briscoe would trade in gallows humor, the jokes often Orbach’s improvisations.

* * *

(Investigating the murder of an art/art history instructor)
Briscoe’s young partner, Rey: "An art teacher... Who'd she ever hurt?"
Briscoe: "Yeah. An algebra teacher I can understand."

* * *

Divorce lawyer: "Do you know how many matrimonial attorneys were attacked last year?"
Briscoe: "I know one who should've been."

* * *

"Love - a dangerous disease instantly cured by marriage."

* * *

"There's no such thing as hooker-client confidentiality."

* * *

(After being told a killing was the work of the devil): "No, this was done by someone who knows the neighborhood. Satan's not a local."

* * *

Talent agent: "The man has--had--a lot of energy. I, on the other hand, have a wife."
Briscoe: "My condolences."

* * *

"Great. if we knew who it was, we'd know who it was."

* * *

"Maybe some guy didn't wear his aluminum hat and some rays told him to knock on doors and kill people."

* * *

The show’s writers also borrowed from Orbach’s life, in making Lennie Briscoe the son of a Jewish father and a Catholic mother.

In 2002, Orbach told TV Guide’s Charlie Mason,

“It may sound a little off the wall to say this, but having the opportunity to do this in this long an arc has given me — and is continuing to give me — a feeling that I'm doing something for the city and for the people of it and for the cops," the 66-year-old Bronx native says. "I see it every day on the street — the profile of Law & Order has gotten bigger and bigger. And the way the city feels about us [cast members]... it's like we're part of the good things that happen in the city."

At the end of his life, Jerry Orbach was the prince of the city. L&O was shot in New York, he was instantly recognizable, and unlike so many of today’s stars and “celebrities,” was a sweetheart to fans who greeted him in eateries. He was also known for private kindnesses, such as when he had delivered groceries, unasked, to then struggling screenwriter, Joe Eszterhas. According to IMDB, “The New York Landmark Conservancy declared him a Living Landmark.” He died on top.

When New York TV channels notified viewers that Orbach had died, at least one local news show ended its broadcast with a recording of the young Orbach singing “Try to Remember,” and a photo montage of his career (I guess the one that John posted). The city watched, and wept for its prince.

A 1960 recording of Orbach singing “Try to Remember.”

Both of the above videos were posted by Youtuber john170252, whom I thank for his efforts. John has assembled a video page full of different performances of the song, by Roy Orbison, Ed Ames, Julie Andrews, even a duet between Harry Belafonte and Nana Mouskouri, as well as other video memories of Orbach, (John has also posted a 1960 performance by Orbach of “Try to Remember,” which I placed at the end of this essay.)

John’s backgrounder follows:
Try to Remember is a song from the musical comedy The Fantasticks. It is the first song sung in the show, to get the audience to imagine what the sparse set suggests. Its lyrics, written by Tom Jones, famously rhyme "remember" with "September", "so tender", and "December." Harvey Schmidt composed the music.

Try to Remember was originally sung by Jerry Orbach in the Original Off Broadway production of The Fantasticks. "Try To Remember" made the Billboard Hot 100 pop chart three times in 1965 in versions by Ed Ames, Roger Williams and the The Brothers Four. However, in 1975, Gladys Knight & The Pips had a huge international hit with their version of "Try to Remember," combining it into a medley with a cover of Barbra Streisand's "The Way We Were". It reached #11 on the Hot 100 chart. In Knight's version, she recited some of the lyrics from "Try To Remember" in spoken-word fashion before beginning to sing "The Way We Were." The Greek singer Nana Mouskouri also recorded it in three languages: German, French, and Italian.

Try to Remember was also used in the soundtrack of the film The Man Who Fell to Earth, the video game Chrono Trigger, and the Hong Kong film City of Glass (Boli zhi cheng).

P.S. Should it be the case that Dick Wolf considers himself a communist, I want to apologize for calling him a “socialist.”

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

The Book, Alien Nation, now available online in .pdf

Alien Nation

  • Zebra: The True Account of 179 Days of Terror in San Francisco, by Clark Howard (free download!)
  • Nicholas Stix, Uncensored
  • Wikipedia Follies
  • A Different Drummer
  • Chicago Newspapers, the Blog
  • Archives