Guest Blogger: John Anthony Gilvey, author of Jerry Orbach, Prince of the City (Applause Books)
In our communal memory, Jerry Orbach and New York City are forever linked. Images instantly emerge of the actor who wowed Broadway as one of its great leading men and television as Law & Order’s wisecracking NYPD detective, Lennie Briscoe. Yet for all his Gotham grit, the Bronx-born actor was equally influenced by the three other places he lived as a boy—Waukegan, Illinois, Springfield, Massachusetts and the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre area of northeastern Pennsylvania.
Some of his earliest and fondest recollections were of his maternal grandparents, Susanna and Alexander Olexy, and the house his grandfather built in the Wilkes-Barre suburb of Lynnwood across the Susquehanna River from Plymouth where the family first settled. For six-year-old Jerry, the basement was a captivating place. On one side was the root cellar where his Lithuanian grandmother stored her homemade kielbasa and vegetable and fruit preserves, and on the other, the workshop where his Polish grandfather taught him the fundamentals of carpentry. But one weekend shortly after he turned seven, Jerry learned an extraordinary life lesson from Alexander when the miner took him on a guided tour of his worksite at the Nottingham Colliery. “I believe it was the deepest coalmine in the United States,” recalled Jerry, “hard anthracite, about a mile deep. He took me down in the elevator and showed me how, if you dug one ton of coal and loaded it in the car, you got one dollar. ‘If you dig sixteen tons,’ he told me, ‘you get sixteen dollars.’ And he showed me how you’d put your initial on the car to show it’s yours. And he showed me the miners’ helmets with the lights on them, and the canaries they brought down to warn them of the poison gas. Then we came back up, and he turned to me and said, ‘Now you’ve seen it. And if you have to steal, if you have to beg, whatever you have to do, never go down there again!’ That was his legacy to me.”
A year later black lung disease claimed Alexander’s life and Jerry moved to Scranton with his mother, Emily, a Roman Catholic, and father, Leo, a German-Jewish immigrant who managed luncheonette counters for the Neisner Brothers national retail store chain. The Orbachs’ home sat atop one of the highest points of the city across from the Fire Department’s Engine #2 Company at 518 Mulberry Street. There the boy became an honorary member of the Company when the firemen put a helmet on his head and hoisted him onto the running board of the engine. Jerry also made his stage debut in Scranton when a neighborhood buddy coaxed him into joining the choir for the 1942 Christmas pageant at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. In May 1943, he made his First Communion and Confirmation during Mass at St. Peter’s Cathedral.
Ironically, Jerry’s connection with northeast Pennsylvania didn’t end when his family moved to Springfield, Massachusetts in 1943. Nearly fifty years later in the solitude of a friend’s Pocono retreat near the town of Jim Thorpe, I penned much of his biography, Jerry Orbach, Prince of the City (Applause Books, 2011), remembering so well how he had mesmerized me as a kid back in Philadelphia when I saw him in The Rose Tattoo. For these reasons, I am honored and delighted to be the next speaker in the Matthew F. Flynn Library Lecture Series of the Lackawanna County Library System. On Tuesday, August 7 at 7 p.m. in the Scranton Cultural Center, the presentation Remembering Jerry: A Lullaby of Broadway, Film and Television Legend Jerry Orbach will highlight the life and career of this celebrated performer. As his character Lumière from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast would say, “Be Our Guest!”
 Orbach, Jerry in Abrams, Carol and Margulies, Ferne, Grandparents & Grandchildren: Shared Memories, (General Publishing Group, Los Angeles, 1998) 18.
© John Anthony Gilvey, 2012. Used with permission.
Jerry Orbach, Prince of the City by John Anthony Gilvey
Today the late actor Jerry Orbach (1935-2004) is best remembered as the world-weary New York City Detective Lennie Briscoe from the Emmy Award-winning NBC television series Law and Order. But that work only accounts for 12 years of a 50-year career that spanned stage, screen, and television. From the moment he landed the role of the Street Singer in the 1955 off-Broadway revival of The Threepenny Opera, he distinguished himself as a major performer in popular musicals and plays, including The Fantasticks, Carnival, Scuba Duba, Promises, Promises, 6 RMS RIV VU, Chicago, and 42nd Street.
Jerry Orbach also appeared in over 40 films, with Crimes and Misdemeanors; Prince of the City; Dirty Dancing; and the voice of the candlestick, Lumière, in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast topping the list. From the ’60s through the ’90s, he was a guest or featured actor on major TV hits like The Defenders; Love American Style; Murder, She Wrote; The Golden Girls; and Frasier. Jerry Orbach, Prince of the City is the story of this versatile performer – his triumphs and tragedies public and private. Most of all, it is a study of a gifted actor’s craft as told through the observations, insights, and reminiscences of those who knew him best.