Made to Order

updated 08/07/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/07/2000 01:00AM

Law & Order's hardened police detective Lennie Briscoe kicks off each morning by strapping on his gun, but the actor who has played him for the past eight years, Jerry Orbach, is far more adept at wielding a pen. Arising for his Law & Order call at 5 a.m., well before his wife, Elaine, begins stirring, he rarely leaves their midtown Manhattan apartment without scribbling a new poem for her. One winter morning, he jotted down these lines, leaving them by her coffee cup: "It's balmy and the sun is out/ last day of February/ One thing that will not change, no doubt/ is us, Jerry and Elainey." Says his appreciative wife of 20 years: "He plays these tough roles, but he's really a pussycat."

To Law & Order fans, though, the actor is a crime-busting bloodhound. The drama, which recently wrapped its 10th year, ranked 12th for the season and has been renewed by NBC for an unprecedented five years. While the series has become famous for its frequent casting changes, Orbach, 64, is the show's Rock of Gibraltar. "It's hard to imagine ever replacing him or finding his equal," says executive producer and creator Dick Wolf.

His costars send similar valentines. "He's incredibly tenderhearted," says Benjamin Bratt, who departed the show last year after four seasons as Orbach's partner Det. Rey Curtis. During the wrap party, Orbach serenaded him with a revised version of Michael Jackson's "Ben." "He rewrote all the verses to fit our friendship," says Bratt. "It was brilliant, both moving and hysterical, and it quite nearly wrecked me. The man is a prince."

Even jaded New Yorkers treat Orbach like royalty. A never-ending stream of what he calls "cops, Con Ed workers and bus drivers" cheerfully salute him whenever he walks the city's streets. Says his current Law partner Jesse L. Martin: "He's like the unofficial mayor of New York."

But Orbach is used to living large in the Big Apple. For two decades he ruled Broadway, starring in a dozen productions, including Chicago, Carnival, 42nd Street and Promises, Promises, for which he won a Tony in 1969. Still, he always craved more than Broadway could offer him. "I really wanted to be a serious film actor like Marlon Brando and Montgomery Gift," says Orbach, whose 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."

He got more than that: He met Elaine Cancilla in 976, while both were cast in Chicago (he played the male lead, she understudied for actress Chita Rivera). At the time, he had split with first wife Marta Curro after a 17-year marriage that produced two sons, Tony, now 38 and a real estate contractor, and actor Chris, 31. "He was barely divorced," says Elaine, 60. "I thought, 'I'm not putting my eggs in that basket.' "

She fell for him anyway. The pair married in 1979, and while Elaine, then 39, decided to end her dancing career at that point ("I'd been dancing for 20 years. I wanted to be a wife"), the performing gene still runs strong in the Orbach family. Watching his father in Chicago inspired Chris to pursue acting. "It looked like he was having a fabulous time," says Chris, who now plays Lennie Briscoe's nephew Ken on the Law & Order spinoff Special Victims Unit. "I realized if you work hard, you could make a living doing something that makes you happy."

It took some time for Orbach to realize how happy he could be. Born in the Bronx an only child, he moved frequently around the country because of the peripatetic employment of his father, Leon, who managed department-store lunch counters and died in 1961 at age 64 of a heart attack (mom Emily, now 89, was a homemaker). Living in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., at age 6, Orbach was introduced to music via the coffee shop above the family's basement apartment. "Guys older than me are always amazed that I know all the songs from 1941," he says. "Well, I had a jukebox over my head every night."

Orbach skipped first grade because he had already mastered reading, so he had to work to fit in with his older classmates. He was 12 when he started high school in Waukegan, Ill., where, he says, "I hung out with the baddest guys in school" to avoid being picked on. "I was with a very rough crowd," he continues. "Leather jacket, Levi's, engineer boots, a ducktail haircut and cigarettes rolled in the sleeves. Thinking about acting was the farthest thing from my mind."

Fellow tough guys like Marlon Brando and Elvis, who helped make singing and acting look cool, inspired Orbach—who had made his stage debut playing Aladdin in a fourth-grade production—to dabble in performing. "Jerry had an old phonograph," says high school pal Mike Balsamo, 65. "He'd play The King and I. Guys like us weren't too familiar with that kind of music. But he was. He said he wanted to do musicals like that someday."

After graduating from high school at 16, Orbach began a theater apprentice job at the Chevy Chase theater in Wheeling, Ill., where his jobs included driving Mae West—in town for a production—for a week. (She tipped him $100. "It was like four weeks' pay," he says, still amazed.) He enrolled at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for a year but transferred to Northwestern, only to leave after his junior year when he couldn't afford the tuition.

Heading for New York City later that year, Orbach landed a job in a revival of The Threepenny Opera. In 1960 he originated the role of the narrator in The Fantasticks, which went on to become the longest-running musical in history. That led to Carnival, his first Broadway play, and some 20 years of tireless work in Broadway productions and national tours. "He is the bane of an understudy's life," says son Chris. "If he can stand, walk and speak, he's going to work."

Orbach then moved on to movies, most notably as a cop in 198l's Prince of the City and in his most famous film role, playing Jennifer Grey's father in 1987's Dirty Dancing. Suffering from cabin fever on the film's North Carolina location, where the hotel boasted a single TV with two channels, "I had so little to do," says Orbach, "that I picked up a stick and carved a bird's-head cane out of it, which was like outpatient therapy for me."

Then in 1992 Dick Wolf learned that Law & Order cast member Paul Sorvino wanted out of the show, fearful that the New York City winters would ruin his singing voice. Casting Orbach "was a no-brainer," says Wolf. "I said, 'Just give me the detective from Prince of the City and I'll be happy as a clam.' "

Orbach feels the same way about his last eight years on the Emmy-winning Law, for which he just received his own Emmy nomination. "Law & Order is about the case, not about the people," he says. "We don't get to agonize over the soap-opera elements of life. I've said the only way I'll win an Emmy is if they let some partner die in my arms and I get to be very dramatic and cry over it." Until then, the humble actor won't be shedding any tears: "That's okay. I don't think I ever aimed for awards, as evidenced by the fact I haven't won many."

Jason Lynch
Sharon Cotliar in New York City

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