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Jerry Orbach gets his due on the sidewalks of New York

Tinseltown blues have melted away for 'Law & Order' star with a following

NEW YORK -- It's only a couple of blocks from Jerry Orbach's trailer to the Mulberry Street bar where he's shooting a scene for "Law & Order." But everyone the actor passes on the narrow streets of Little Italy calls out to him. "Enjoy your show!" "Saw you last night!" "Go get 'em, Jerry!" The actor acknowledges all of them with a grin.

Two minutes later, with the cameras rolling, he's got his grim game face on, approaching a tableful of wise guys with Detective Lennie Briscoe's perpetual scowl.

It's the expression of a guy who has heard too many lies, swallowed too much bad take-out coffee, and seen entirely too much of the dark side of human nature.

How does such a crusty character become so popular that he's practically a Big Apple mascot? With his wry resilience, Briscoe embodies the spirit of the city. Plus he's a consummate professional; just look at how many cases he has cleared.

And it doesn't hurt that "Law & Order" has become a TV juggernaut, tied for seventh place out of 156 shows in this season's ratings. In its 14th year, the program stands a realistic chance of overtaking "Gunsmoke," which went 20 years, as the longest-running series in TV history. The original "Law & Order" with Orbach (10 p.m. Wednesdays) and the spinoffs, "Special Victims Unit" and "Criminal Intent," are on weekly on NBC and nightly on cable.

It's gotten to the point that Orbach literally stops traffic, because drivers hit the brakes to give him a shout-out. But his biggest fans are the men in blue.

"The police? Oh, my God. It's a straight-up love affair with the man," says Jesse L. Martin, who plays Briscoe's partner, Detective Ed Green. "It's as if he really is a detective."

"The police treat me very nicely," Orbach, 68, confirms. "If it's raining and I can't get a cab, sometimes a squad car will come by and they'll say, `Where you going?' I say, `I don't want to get you guys in trouble.' They say, `Get in the back. We'll pretend you're under arrest.' "

Landing such a popular and steady role is particularly gratifying for Orbach, who joined the show in its third season, because there were times in his knockabout showbiz career when he could not get arrested.

"My idols were Brando and Montgomery Clift," he says, sitting in his trailer. "What I really wanted to do was movies, but they weren't offering them to me."

Orbach has been acting so long that his first troupe mates, in summer stock at the Chevy Chase Playhouse in Wheeling, Ill., were Mae West, Vincent Price, and John Ireland. It was 1952 and he had just graduated from high school.

The actor was born in the Bronx to a Polish Catholic mother from Pennsylvania and a German Jewish father whose ancestry was Spanish Sephardic. The family moved frequently when he was a boy, living for a time in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., where his grandfather was a coal miner, before settling outside Chicago. Orbach studied drama at Northwestern University and with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio.

His first movie was "Cop Hater" in 1958. "I was a teen-age hoodlum," he recalls. "Bobby Loggia was the young cop, and Telly Savalas was a police sergeant. . . . This was before he shaved his head."

Soon afterward, Orbach created the role of El Gallo in "The Fantasticks," singing "Try to Remember" in the Off-Broadway play, which ran for 40 years. His vocal talent landed him a string of musicals, including "42nd Street," "Chicago," and a revival of "Guys and Dolls." He won a Tony Award in 1969 for his starring role in "Promises, Promises."

But he couldn't get traction in Hollywood, he says: "I went out to Los Angeles with the national company of `Chapter Two,' and I figured the studios will notice me now because I was getting notices my mother could have written. They said, `He's fabulous. Neil Simon was crying. He said Orbach finally made him understand his father.' But I found out credits in the theater mean absolutely nothing in the film community."

He did get sporadic supporting roles in such movies as "Prince of the City," "Brewster's Millions," and "Crimes and Misdemeanors." He had a brush with cult status as the father in "Dirty Dancing," in 1987.

Usually he was cast as either a cop or a crook. "They're the opposite sides of the same coin," Orbach says. "They're both guys who put on a gun in the morning and go out to work and don't know if they're going to come home at night."

He supplemented his acting income by doing voice work, most famously as the singing candelabra, Lumiere, in the Disney cartoon feature "Beauty and the Beast." "I played him halfway between Maurice Chevalier and Pepe Le Pew," Orbach says.

There was a time it seemed Orbach was about to break big. A recurring character he had played on Angela Lansbury's series "Murder, She Wrote" was spun off into his own series, "The Law and Harry McGraw." The show, which had its debut in 1987, was canceled after four months.

"It's an amazing thing to be lifted so high, to have your own series, your own parking space on the Universal lot, be on the cover of TV Guide," he says. "And then one day they cancel it, and it's like you've been thrown out of the business, because a week later you go to the front gate at Universal and they say, `Excuse me, do you have a pass? Who are you seeing?' "

Somehow, Orbach managed to scrape by. He has two sons, Tony and Chris, with his first wife, Marta Curro, who was a cast mate in a New York production of "The Threepenny Opera." And he's been married for 24 years to Elaine Cancilla, whom he met while performing in "Chicago" on Broadway. (She replaced Chita Rivera in the role of Velma.)

A relatively light work schedule -- he rarely makes an appearance in the show's second half-hour -- allows the longtime West Side resident to pursue a passion for golf. "A lot of guys like me who love golf came out of shooting pool," he says, "so the putting came easy to me."

Playing Briscoe for 12 seasons has given Orbach the financial security he has always dreamed of.

"It's kind of a golden parachute," he says. "It means for the rest of my life, I'm in a position where I don't have to do anything I don't want to. I can pick and choose."

He ascribes the longevity of the show to its formulaic plot and format. "It's almost like a ritual. You know there's going to be a body found, and we're going to look for who did it, and then there's going to be some twist at the trial. People tune in. They know what's coming and they like it that way."

Meanwhile, the kudos keep rolling in. Last year, the New York Landmarks Conservancy decreed Orbach a Living Landmark, an honor generally bestowed only on quintessential New Yorkers. "It means they can't tear me down," Orbach says.

For an old song-and-dance man, that's a pretty sweet final act.

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