TV

Testament to His Craft: Jerry Orbach, 1935-2004

John G. Nettles

In the midst of the flash and cacophony issuing from the Idiot Box, Jerry Orbach emerged as a singular talent, his work an oasis of depth and humanity.


Jerry Orbach

On 28 December I raised a glass to Jerry Orbach. It's something I do every time one of the good guys falls, leaving the world a much poorer place for his or her passing, something I've done ever since Robert Heinlein left us. I raised a glass and went onto my blog and asked other people to do so. The response was overwhelming, with replies ranging from "Cheers, Lennie" from a Law & Order fan, to "He was the best Lumiere ever," referring to his voiceover and singing work in Disney's Beauty and the Beast, to "Anyone who can respond to a line like 'Nobody puts Baby in a corner' without busting a gut deserves a glass in his honor," for his role as Jennifer Grey's dad in that movie about Patrick Swayze's hair.

Jerry Orbach was a song-and-dance man of the old school, the son of a vaudeville actor and a radio singer, who did the bulk of his life's work on Broadway. He was in the first companies of The Fantasticks and Chicago and did a long stretch as the titular character in The Singing Detective.

It was as a TV detective, however, that most people know Jerry Orbach. As the sardonic, ex-alcoholic, and less-than-strictly-clean NYPD detective Lennie Briscoe on NBC's Law & Order for twelve seasons, Orbach came to embody the image of the world-weary cop on the job in a way no one had done on television since Jack Webb in the '50s. Like Webb in Los Angeles, Orbach was embraced by New York cops as one of their own, even if he only played one on TV. It has been reported that wherever he went in New York, Orbach never had to pay for a drink in a bar attended by a Manhattan cop. And he came to be so identified with the Big Apple in 2002, he was declared a "Living Landmark" by the New York Landmark Conservancy.

What truly distinguished Jerry Orbach's work on Law & Order, aside from his longevity on a show notable for its cast turnover rate, was Briscoe's seamless mixture of gallows humor and vulnerability. Unlike his counterparts on concurrent L&O series -- Vincent D'Onofrio, I'm looking at you -- Lennie Briscoe was the very picture of the veteran big-city cop who had spent too many years staring down the darkest alleyways in the city and the darkest corners of people's souls. Briscoe was never in it for the thrill of the hunt or some moral crusade. He was a guy who weathered a slew of personal demons, who had done a few shady things in his time, who believed in the Blue Line and held it fast. He never came off as a brilliant or original thinker; his success as a homicide detective came from having done the job for so long. Though Law & Order, thankfully, doled out its characters' private lives in tiny morsels, over 12 years, Briscoe's experience -- ex-wives, estranged daughters, the booze, the petty corruption -- was easily the most fascinating in the bunch, and Orbach's ability to live and breathe that complex character is a testament to his craft.

And Orbach's craft is the reason I raise a glass. In the midst of the flash and cacophony issuing from the Idiot Box, Orbach emerged as a singular talent, his work an oasis of depth and humanity. I have no interest in the Rachels and Rosses, the Roseannes and Dans, or the Sams and Dianes. I couldn't have cared less about Hawkeye and Hot Lips when they went off the tube. But Lennie Briscoe is gone and I'll miss him, and that's an accomplishment worth drinking to, even if only with Lennie's preferred club soda.

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

This week on our games podcast, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

This week, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

Keep reading... Show less

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

Keep reading... Show less
3

Gabin's Maigret lets everyone else emote, sometimes hysterically, until he vents his own anger in the final revelations.

France's most celebrated home-grown detective character is Georges Simenon's Inspector Jules Maigret, an aging Paris homicide detective who, phlegmatically and unflappably, tracks down murderers to their lairs at the center of the human heart. He's invariably icon-ified as a shadowy figure smoking an eternal pipe, less fancy than Sherlock Holmes' curvy calabash but getting the job done in its laconic, unpretentious, middle-class manner.

Keep reading... Show less
5
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image