Jerry Orbach is a classic case of don’t-know-his-name-but-recognize-his-face. ”It breaks down demographically,” Orbach says of his fragmented fame. ”If a teenage girl comes over to me, she’s going to say, ‘Dirty Dancing.’ If it’s an older couple, ‘Murder, She Wrote.’ Any cop comes over, ‘Prince of the City.’ Families will say, ‘You were the candlestick in Beauty and the Beast.’ And 90 percent of the black people that come up to me say ‘F/X.’ I don’t know why, but F/X must have gotten a tremendous black audience.”
Now the 57-year-old actor hopes everyone will know him for his new role as Chris Noth’s gruff NYPD partner on NBC’s Law & Order. Noth’s two previous partners, played by departed cast members George Dzundza and Paul Sorvino, got shot on the show, but that didn’t stop Orbach from signing on.
”When I’d gotten the job, I saw Sorvino at Billy Crystal’s roast at the Friars’ Club, and I hugged and kissed him and said, ‘My whole family thanks you,”’ the grandfather of two says during a break in filming Law in Manhattan. For costar Noth, the third time’s the charmer. ”He’s the most accessible actor I’ve worked with on the show,” he says of Orbach. (Sorvino is rumored to have been difficult.) ”We’re working together really tightly. There’s no competition.”
Born in the Bronx, Orbach took up acting at Northwestern University, then made a name for himself as a musical-comedy performer on Broadway, winning a Tony in 1969 for Promises, Promises. When his film career took off in the ’80s, he was cast as cops (Prince of the City) and mobsters (F/X). ”There’s a very fine line between the cop and the criminal,” Orbach says. ”Both go out in the morning with a gun on, and both might not come back at night.”
The role of Jennifer Grey’s dad in 1987’s Dirty Dancing showed Orbach’s softer side. ”Nobody knew how big that movie was going to be,” he says with a sly smile, ”or they wouldn’t have given us a little piece of it.” His career came full circle this year when he sang Beast‘s ”Be Our Guest” at the Oscars. ”They told me 2 billion people were watching,” he says. ”That’s a little nerve-racking.”
After 40 years of acting, Orbach refuses to slow down. ”I’m getting really busy,” Orbach admits, ”but as Damon Wayans says, ‘Mo’ money, mo’ money, mo’ money!”’