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Remembering Jerry Orbach 1935 - 2004

Jim Hill

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Remembering Jerry Orbach 1935 - 2004

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Try to remember the kind of September
When life was slow and oh so mellow
Try to remember the kind of September
When grass was green and grain was yellow
Try to remember the kind of September
When you were a young and a callow fellow
Try to remember and if you remember
Then follow ...

It's strange. But -- when I first heard about Jerry Orbach's death today -- the above song began running through my head.

Of course, musical theater fans will understand why I'd associate this song with Mr. Orbach. After all, Jerry was lucky enough to be the very first person to perform "Try to Remember" in Tom Jones & Harvey Schmidt's long-running off-Broadway hit, "The Fantasticks." Which is why you get to hear Orbach on that show's original cast album. Which was recorded 'way back in 1959.

Jerry had this really great singing voice. A beautiful baritone which (when Orbach felt like letting it loose) still had plenty of Bronx in it. Which is why it's still so much fun to listen to Jerry's performances on the original cast albums for such great Broadway shows like 1960's "Carnival," 1969's "Promises, Promises," 1975's "Chicago" and 1980's "42nd Street."

Of course, I don't have to tell all of you Disneyana fans out there that Jerry Orbach had a really great voice. Most of you already know Jerry from his wonderful voice work as Lumiere in Disney's 1991 animated classic, "Beauty and the Beast." But how many of you out there know that we actually owe the stage version of "Beauty & the Beast" to Mr. Orbach?

Strange but true, folks. 'Way back in 1992, the Walt Disney Company staged a special event at New York's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, "Beauty and the Beast - The Magic of the Music." And -- as part of that evening's entertainment -- Jerry and Paige O'Hara (AKA the voice of Belle) sang several songs from the Academy Award winning animated feature.

Now you have to understand that this was a pretty bare bones affair. "Beauty and the Beast - The Magic of the Music" wasn't presented on a stage with sets & costumes. But -- rather -- on the bare floor of the Waldorf-Astoria ballroom. (Though -- to be fair -- I guess I should mention that Orbach and O'Hara were ably supported by performers from Disney/MGM's "Beauty & the Beast" stage show as well as several cast members from WDW's Adventurers Club. Who were flown up from Orlando to NYC just to appear with Jerry & Paige, playing the parts of Gaston, Le Fou, Mrs. Potts and Cogsworth respectively).

The late Jerry Orbach and the cast of "Beauty and the Beast--the Magic of the Music. " The performers shown (from left to right) are Galen Fott, Darin DePaul, Paige O'Hara, Mr. Orbach, Lea Salonga, Paula Pell and Andrea Canny. (Special thanks to Mr. Fott for allowing JHM to use his photo from this event at the Waldorf-Astoria. If you'd like to hear some audio from this amazing evening of entertainment, go check out Galen's website at www.grundoon.com.)

Well, that supposedly sophisticated New York crowd just went nuts when Jerry & Paige performed their numbers from the film. They roared with laughter at "Gaston," teared up at "Beauty & the Beast," and leaped to their feet as Orbach finished "Be Our Guest." And -- so the story goes -- as Michael Eisner (Who had flown in from Burbank just to attend this very special event) stood there marveling at the standing O that these performers were receiving, Jerry supposedly turns to Disney's CEO and says: "Hey, they're really eating this stuff up. Maybe you guys should think about bringing 'Beast' to Broadway."

And the rest of that story ... You know.

I'm told that Orbach really loved working for the Walt Disney Company. Which was why -- when the Mouse asked him to reprise his role as Lumiere in two direct-to-video sequels, 1997's "Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas" and "Belle's Magical World" -- Jerry happily got back behind the mike to recreate that Maurice Chevalier-like candlestick. Orbach did the very same thing when Disney was readying the special edition of "Beauty & the Beast." Gladly joining his old "Beast" co-stars -- Angela Lansbury, David Ogden Stiers, Robby Benson & Paige O'Hara -- in a NYC recording studio to sing "Human Again."

Yeah, Jerry would come a'running whenever Mickey came a'callin'. Which why you hear him as the voice of Sa'luk, the villain in that 1996 direct-to-video sequel, "Aladdin and the King of Thieves." Not to mention the time when Orbach filled in for the late Paul Frees as the voice of Pierre in WDW's "Enchanted Tiki Room: Under New Management" show.

But there's so much more to Orbach's career than just his stage performances and/or his work for the Walt Disney Company. How many of you out there recall his memorable turn as Jennifer Grey's father in the 1987's smash hit film, "Dirty Dancing"? Or -- better yet -- his years of television work? Jerry spent 12 seasons on the original "Law & Order" television series. His sardonic performance as Detective Lennie Briscoe (again constantly betraying Orbach's Bronx upbringing) was one of the real highlights of that weekly TV show.

"So why did Jerry exit this long-running NBC series at the end of the 2003-2004 season?," you ask. "Was it because he already knew he was sick?" Actually, no. The real reason that Orbach left this NBC show was because he was getting ready to star in his very own "Law & Order" spin-off, "Trial by Jury." And Jerry had actually begun shooting episodes for this new series (which is due to debut in 2005) when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer earlier this year.

 Caricature of Jerry Orbach & Sam Waterston courtesy of Peter Emslie.

So -- as you can see -- it's really hard to sum up the career of someone like Jerry Orbach. When you look back over this huge body of work, it's like the guy actually had three careers. Maybe even four.

Jerry was obviously a hard working man. But you know -- in all the years that I've been writing about the entertainment industry -- I've never once heard anyone say a single bad word about Orbach. Jerry was always describes as being this really great guy. Personable, polite, professional. Never one to put on airs.

So how can you not miss a guy like that? A man who gave so many people so much pleasure for so many years? Thank goodness that we have all of Orbach's films, TV shows and recordings to remember him by.

We'll miss you, Jerry.

Deep in December it's nice to remember
Although you know the snow will follow
Deep in December it's nice to remember
Without a hurt, the heart is hollow
Deep in December it's nice to remember
The fire of September that made you mellow
Deep in December our hearts should remember
Then follow ...

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