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Sunday, August 10, 2008

Jerry Orbach's Son Feuds Over Estate

The New York Post broke a story which reports a dispute that surfaced between the son of Law & Order's Jerry Orbach – Chris Orbach – and his stepmother, Elaine Cancilla-Orbach, over Jerry’s estate and donation of his eyes. Jerry has been dead a few years now and I still get sad while watching Law & Order epsiodes that feature Lennie Briscoe, so I almost didn’t even want to report this issue. But, in the interest of Law & Order fans around the world, I thought I’d pass it along.

The report from the New York Post is below, you’ll have to go to the site to read Chris’ letter, which is included in one of the photos shown by The NY Post.


Michael Riedel
August 10, 2008

THE son of beloved "Law & Order" actor Jerry Orbach, who died of cancer in 2004, has lashed out at his father's widow, claiming in a vitriolic letter that she manipulated her husband into cutting his children out of his $10 million estate - and had his eyes "shucked out" on his deathbed.

Chris Orbach, 39, calls his stepmother, Elaine Cancilla-Orbach, "a double-dealing, lying, scheming, miserable fool" who, with the help of "cut-rate, borscht-belt" lawyers, has "painted [herself] as the beginning and the end of the Jerry Orbach Legacy" and can now "boast about 'never flying coach,' or 'never riding the subway.' "

All he has been left, Chris claims, are "two sweaters, a pool cue, a few CDs and a pocketknife from the estate of one of television's best-known faces - a man who happened, incidentally, to be my father."

Chris Orbach's letter to his stepmother was private. The Post obtained a copy from a source sympathetic to his story. In an interview, Orbach, an actor and musician, said he regrets that the matter has become public but stands by his letter. "It's a very melodramatic gesture," he said. "But I no longer saw the sense in maintaining a relationship with Elaine."

Cancilla-Orbach, a former Broadway dancer and actress, said she was "in shock when I received the letter. I stood there in my kitchen having four pages of this vomit being thrown at me by someone I thought I had a relationship with. I don't hate Chris, but I don't understand why he's doing this. Everything he says is untrue."

Orbach also attacks his stepmother for her decision to donate his father's eyes to the Eye Bank Association of America. "Having to leave my father's deathbed so that some guy with an ice box could shuck his eyes out while they were fresh still makes me sick and furious to this day," he writes.

Chris Orbach did a voiceover for an Eye Bank ad, but "only to stay on Elaine's good side." Eventually, he asked the bank to use another actor's voice.

"Jerry always said he was so proud that at age 69, he didn't need glasses," Cancilla-Orbach said. "He said, 'If I can give anything back, I want to give my eyes. I can't give my liver because I drank too much, and I can't give my lungs because I smoked too much. But I can give my eyes.' So on his deathbed, when they asked if he was an organ donor, I said, 'Take his eyes.' Chris knew nothing of this. He knew nothing of what his father and I discussed for 25 years."

Chris Orbach said he "saw red" when his father's will was read to him. "There were trusts set aside for us, but they do not revert to us until Elaine passes away," he said. "In the meantime, she can take the interest from the trust and raid the principle if she needs the money. We were told, basically, that it would be nice if there's something there for you, but don't count on it."

Born in The Bronx, Jerry Orbach got his start in showbiz in the off-Broadway musical "The Fantasticks." He went on to become one of Broadway's legendary leading men, starring in "Carnival," "Chicago" and "42nd Street."

In 1958, he married actress Marta Curro, with whom he had two sons, Chris and Tony. He divorced Curro in 1975, while he was starring in "Chicago." Curro is not named in the will.

After his divorce, Orbach began dating Elaine Cancilla, who was in the chorus of "Chicago." They married in 1979.

Although Orbach was a Tony Award-winning actor, his divorce cleaned him out.

"People think 'Law & Order' was our whole life," Cancilla-Orbach said. "But there were years of struggle. When I married Jerry, he was in dire straits . . . We used my savings to pay his alimony and child support."

"Law & Order" changed everything. When the show took off, Orbach, who played wise-cracking Detective Lennie Briscoe, was earning six figures per episode, with additional money pouring in from syndication. He was on the show for 12 years.

Chris and his brother, a contractor, did not challenge the will because "we'd be up to our necks in legal fees." In his letter, Chris writes: "On misplaced faith, I signed away all legal recourse. And I know that I can never legally prove what I know in my heart, which is that you forced dad to do what he did."

Cancilla-Orbach laughs at the idea she "forced" her husband to do anything. "I manipulated Jerry? I'm 5-foot-2. I'm scared of everybody. Jerry was my hero. He set up his will to protect me. The money that we earned from 'Law & Order' was for our retirement . . . His kids were in his will. And they are in my will, although I'm not sure Chris is going to stay there after this."

She adds that she's paying for the education of Tony Orbach's daughter and recently gave Tony $50,000 as a down payment on a house for him and his wife. Chris Orbach is not married and has no children.

Chris Orbach says he no longer wants anything from his stepmother. "I will not beg or wait around for crumbs to fall from the table of my father's legacy," he writes in his letter. "Not a single thing you've done has been dignified. All I can see are the greedy, grasping spasms of a toddler - her hands around a pile of marbles, crying 'all mine.' "

Added August 16, 2008:
Link to Chris Orbach’s response here, which is currently on his home page. It says:

Dear visitors --
The events resulting from the NY Post story on august 10th have been traumatic to say the least. While I don't deny writing the things I wrote, the letter in question was PERSONAL, and PRIVATE, and NEVER meant for public view. It was leaked without my knowledge or consent by a family friend I thought I could trust. I was wrong.

Those comments, in the heat of the emotional time that they were made, were never meant to be seen publicly. If one looks at the letter in its entirety (instead of the most salacious portions, which, regrettably, the New York Post chose to emphasize) you'll see that it was intended as nothing more than an explanation as to why I no longer wanted to be in contact with my stepmother. You'll also see that the gripes I did have were more about being shut out of dad's legacy at the personal level than the monetary one. I made it very clear at the end of the letter that I didn't want a dime from her.

I also want it known that the particularly graphic comments about how I felt about my father's organ donation (which were used to great effect by the Post's editorial staff) had only to do with having to leave my father's deathbed in what seemed to be "in a hurry". My brother and I had no idea about this plan for him to donate his eyes. One minute you're crying at your deceased father's bedside, and only THEN you find out about this, and have to leave. It was just unsettling at the time. On principle, I have no negative feelings about organ donation whatsoever. It just would have been nice to have been told about it before it happened.

In any event, the letter reflected my private feelings about an unfortunate situation. I won't try to take back or disown those feelings, but I do apologize for any harm that their being revealed at the public level may have caused anyone, as this was never -- ever -- my

Link to NY Post article with comments from Jerry’s first wife here.

Check out my blog home page for the latest information, here.

Also, see my companion Law & Order site, All Things Law & Order.


Music Wench said...

Wow, that's pretty sad. It's really awful when families fight and even worse when it's made public. Sounds like Chris Orbach is suffering from a huge bunch of sour grapes.

Anonymous said...

As a friend of Chris Orbach's, I can tell you that the only thing that letter was intended to do was to tell Elaine why Chris no longer wanted to see her anymore. That's it. It was not a money grab. Chris is a six-figure hotshot in the voiceover world. He was just tired of pretending to be nice to a woman who pretty much hated him since he was 10 years old. He signed a waiver of process years ago, agreeing in writing never to contest the will. But just because you agree to something, do you have to like it? Do you have to LOVE it? Anyway, The Post, not exactly a citadel of journalistic professionalism, gets a hold of a private letter through a "family friend" (read: unscrupulous guttersnipe) and paints Chris as a greedy layabout and Elaine, once again, as a put-upon saint. But some of us know the truth.

John K. said...

For those interested, Chris Orbach issued a statement on his website about all this. It's on the main page.


These Are Their Stories said...

There is a lesson to be learned here. NEVER put anything in writing with your name attached to it that you aren't prepared to be made public at any point in time. Sadly, that includes family correspondence.

And whenever you write something - be it in a email, letter, blog, etc. - with your name on it, be prepared to have it travel around the world with lightning speed if you're famous, or your comments are controversial, or if someone wants to use it for their gain (or all of the above).

Nothing is private anymore.

Dangling Modifier said...

The first wife, the second wife, and the son all sound like a bunch of goofballs. Nothing worth gossiping over.