Great New Yorkers and Americans, 2004

Great New Yorkers and Americans, 2004

So Jerry Orbach is dead at 69.

To my mind, that makes three great New Yorkers from the world of showbiz who said something about this city and made it unique, all gone in one year: Tony Randall, Alan King, and now Orbach.

(I don't want to leave out Adolph Green and Cy Coleman, the great composers and social animals who were deemed giants in their fields.)

Their careers touched on all parts of the characteristically New York sensibility of entertainment, men whose careers extended to the theatre, television and movies, as well as reaching back to the traditions of vaudeville. Their passing leaves more than just an ache in our hearts, but a real hole in the way culture is represented in this city.

I sometimes think that stalwart, Kitty Carlisle Hart, 94 years young, is hanging on to spite fate. She represents the last few pages of a emotional chapter about New York's post-World War II arts life, a dream we cling to rather than face the truth: Joan Rivers has outlived everyone and will probably write a book about it.

Orbach made his money on "Law & Order" and his fame, too. It's not likely that many of Lennie Briscoe's fans remember him shining in a tuxedo as Billy Flynn in the original Broadway production of "Chicago" back in 1975, or five years later, when "42nd Street" was revived at the Winter Garden Theater.

New Yorkers knew him and loved him because he espoused our masculine, cynical wit and married it to the optimism of something as feminine and athletic as tap-dancing. You almost wanted Lennie to say to a corpse: You can't dance your way out of this one, buddy.

But Jerry of the many careers also had plenty of ties to TV, as long as his Broadway friends were involved. He had recurring roles on "Murder, She Wrote" with his buddy Angela Lansbury, where you felt the two would break out into "Be Our Guest" (from "Beauty and the Beast") or "The Worst Pies in London" (from "Sweeney Todd") as the suspects were gathered up.

Jerry also put in his time on "The Golden Girls" with another musical friend from Broadway, Bea Arthur, who matched him in height and wisecracks. They were the perfect fit.

But of all Orbach's stellar credits, I would argue that three in particular did the most to solidify his position in the hierarchy of film actors.

In Woody Allen's still-shocking classic "Crimes and Misdemeanors," it is Jerry who callously proposes to his dentist brother (Martin Landau) that they kill his bothersome mistress (Anjelica Huston).

Rarely has casting worked so well. In other Allen movies, such a suggestion would be turned immediately into a joke, ending with something like "We couldn't do that!" But then, of course, the offer has been made by Orbach, the cardigan-wearing softie who tap-dances in tuxes and always gets the girl.

The murder that follows, at Jerry's instruction, is truly shocking and it works only because of Orbach's integrity and honesty. You know as he's doing it that this is something that's been done lots of time by far worse people, but that Jerry's just going to do it better and with more panache. "Crimes and Misdemeanors" is the most underrated drama of the 1980s.

The two other great New York Orbach films of that decade were nostalgic looks back at a golden era emblematic of the time. Curiously, Orbach, though born in the Bronx, was not raised a New Yorker; he was a Midwestern kid who was moved around a lot and had never been to the Catskills or the beach on Long Island.

Nevertheless, both "Dirty Dancing" and "The Flamingo Kid" still resonate for audiences today because of their verisimilitude and charm. Orbach's participation in each contributes to that feeling.

We lost a lot of other important New Yorkers from showbiz in 2004, including the monumentally gifted philosopher Susan Sontag, journalist Jack Newfield, eccentric and divinely motivated actor Marlon Brando, visionary hero Christopher Reeve, soap-opera innovator Mary Ellis Bunim, who started a new kind of soap-umentary with MTV's "The Real World" and writer and bon vivant Spalding Gray.

We also lost the menschy writer Seymour Britchky, who more or less invented the restaurant review and food newsletter.

Of course, Ray Charles is gone (but never more talked about than after his death, and rightly so), and Bobby Darin and Dean Martin each had big post-death years. Elvis never goes out of fashion (his estate was just sold), and fighting over John Lennon never goes out of style among his heirs and partners.

Peter Ustinov, whom I was able to call a friend, went in March, and left the kind of void that can't be filled. He was erudite, literate, intelligent and screamingly funny.

Jan Berry of Jan & Dean finally hit Dead Man's Curve after a difficult life, courtesy of an accident. John Randolph, blacklisted actor who made a fine life for himself on TV, but needs a posthumous Emmy, is gone. Phoebe Brand Carnovsky, who stared down Elia Kazan and the House Un-American Activities Committee, too.

So too are Johnny Ramone, the elegant Jack Paar, the sentimental Captain Kangaroo and the little-known but very important record producer Freddie Perrin, who was in the control room for such cultural landmarks as all the Jackson 5's big hits and the mega-selling "Saturday Night Fever" soundtrack.

I know I've missed many others: French philosopher Jacques Derrida introduced the word "deconstruction" into our lexicon, Isabel Sanford gave us "Weezie," Richard Avedon set the standard for all serious photographers and both the charming Elmer Bernstein and Jerry Goldsmith literally set the tone for all movie scores.

Bernstein, whom I had the good luck to know, was a student of Aaron Copland and an accomplished classical composer whose work deserves some kind of organized memorial tour this summer with pops orchestras. Hint, hint, BSO!

We leave 2004 that much depleted of all these talented souls who meant so much to our lives. Did we appreciate them while they were with us? Probably not as much as we should have.

Old people are easily forgotten by demographic groups that bring us such shooting stars as the Hiltons, Duffs, Lohans, the numbingly unimportant Iglesias and Kournikova, J-Lo and Britney and their new hubbies, Brad and Jen, Ben and whomever, reality freak stars and cloned cats.

The late Janet Leigh, Jamie Lee Curtis's mother, must be laughing from heaven now when she sees the tabloids float by. She was the original tabloid fodder. Her "scandalous" marriage to Jamie Lee's dad Tony Curtis caused an international uproar in 1951 when they were still both ingénues (she a thrice-married one). What a legacy Leigh left: in a 10-year period, let's say from 1956-66, she appeared in "Harper," "The Manchurian Candidate," "Psycho," "Touch of Evil" and "My Sister Eileen."

And's that just a soupçon of the work she managed to accomplish while being hounded by paparazzi, gossip columnists and public sycophants. Because, you see, in the end, it's not about how many times your name was in the papers or your mug was on "Entertainment Tonight."

Even for Liza Minnelli, now falling out of bed, who's made "Cabaret" and "Arthur" and "Liza With a 'Z'" and "New York, New York," it's not about the boozing or the bad marriages or the public mishaps. No one would still care about those things 20 or 30 or 50 years later if there had never been the work for which you were originally known. The rest is just filler.