While his portrayal of the gruff detective put him on the national radar, Orbach had previously gained theatrical fame as the star of several stage musicals. In 1960, he created the role of El Gallo in the original Off-Broadway production of The Fantasticks. He played Chuck Baxter in the 1969 Broadway musical Promises, Promises, for which he won a Tony Award, and starred in the original productions of 42nd Street, Chicago, and Carnival, as well as revivals of Annie Get Your Gun and Guys and Dolls. His also appeared on Broadway in the plays 6 Rms Riv Vu and The Natural Look.
His other credits include the title role in the 1980s TV series The Law and Harry McGraw and big-screen appearances in Brewster's Millions, Dirty Dancing, The Flamingo Kid, and Mastergate. Orbach also voiced the character Lumière in Disney's animated film musical version of Beauty and the Beast.
Born in the Bronx, Orbach worked in summer stock before studying drama at Northwestern University. He moved to New York in 1955 and studied with Herbert Berghof, Mira Rostova, and Lee Strasberg. Orbach appeared in the legendary mid-'50s Off-Broadway production of The Threepenny Opera and then went on to play El Gallo in The Fantasticks, a show that almost closed right after its opening but went on to run for more than 40 years. "The Fantasticks family is tremendously saddened by the passing of Jerry Orbach," said Tony Noto, one of the show's producers. "The world has lost a tremendous contributor to the history of theater and arts in general. His portrayal of El Gallo in the debut production of the show set a tremendous bar that every other actor had to reach. He will be sorely missed."
The League of American Theatres and Producers issued a statement that Broadway's marquee lights will be dimmed tonight at 8pm for one minute in Orbach's memory. "Broadway is deeply saddened by the loss of well-loved stage and screen star Jerry Orbach," said Jed Bernstein, president of the League. "Jerry was a true New Yorker. Both his Broadway and television careers were based here and our city is just a little sadder without him."
Orbach is survived by his wife and two children from a previous marriage.