Jewish World Review Jan. 5, 2005 / 24 Teves 5765

Paul Greenberg

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Two New Yawkers   —   and two Americas | What an odd couple. Who would ever link Jerry Orbach with Susan Sontag? What could the popular hoofer-singer-actor and the always-on intellectual have had in common?

Like life, death will bring the strangest people together in the headlines. Both died on the same day last week in Manhattan   —   he of prostate cancer at 69, she of complications of leukemia at 71.

In a way, both were in show business, but only Jerry Orbach knew it. For him, it was the family business. He was born in the Bronx in 1935, the son of a vaudevillian father and radio songstress.

He could have been anything on stage except a teen idol   —   nobody would ever have confused him with a Troy Donahue. Which may explain why he wore so well. The older he grew, the more his character showed; he was a character actor in more than one sense of the word.

As Lennie Briscoe on TV's "Law and Order," he stole so many scenes his fellow detectives should have booked him for grand larceny. You might forget the intricacies of the plot, but you could hardly wait for his next appearance.

Why was that? Maybe because he was the quintessential New Yorker   —   or at least a certain kind of hard-boiled but fundamentally decent New Yorker. He could have passed as a cop, a dentist, a salesman, an accountant   —   anything but an actor, he was so real on and off the screen.

It would be a shame if Jerry Orbach were remembered only as Lennie Briscoe. He was also a mainstay of the Broadway musical theater. He created the still delightful El Gallo in the long-, long-, long-running "Fantasticks"; he was the producer in "42nd Street"   —   which racked up 3,400 performances. (". . . and, Sawyer, you're going out a youngster, but you've got to come back a star!") And he starred as the lovable criminal lawyer   —   in both senses of the term   —   in "Chicago," the vaudevillian masterpiece designed by Bob Fosse, that bloody genius.

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The secret of Jerry Orbach's/Lennie Briscoe's/El Gallo's success? The incomparable dancer Chita Rivera, one of Mr. Orbach's co-stars in "Chicago," summed it up in five words: "He was a swell guy."

How describe Susan Sontag? She was essayist, novelist, critic, director, celebrity, feuilletonist in the best/worst European fashion . . . . No one description applies, and no one job category would sum her up; she was kind of an intellectual of all trades and master of none. Maybe there ought to be a new word for that kind of American figure   —   a sontag.

There was no denying her talent, or the strange, detached way she could use it. She wrote about America as if it were a foreign country, and of September 11th as if the country had deserved it. That act of terror, she wrote, was a "consequence of specific American alliances and actions." Yeah, and so was Pearl Harbor. That didn't mean America was wrong. Or shouldn't have struck back.

It was as if, to Susan Sontag, any event was but an excuse for esthetic analysis. She could write of her own cancer as a metaphor and, so successful was she at it, she did the same favor for AIDS.

There was something about her writings that had the same weighty, posed and in the end artificial quality as those striking photographs of her by her friend Annie Leibovitz. As she once put it, "to live is also to pose." She could point out the obvious in the most pretentious prose. In "On Photography," she revealed that pictures shape our perceptions of things. Gosh, you think so?

A constant interpreter, Ms. Sontag wrote an essay "Against Interpretation." A critic who opposed the whole critical tradition, she would then turn around, when accused of plagiarism, and defend herself by arguing that "all of literature is a series of references and allusions." She could take equal but opposite positions on any issue   —   if given enough time and backlash.

In the end, it wasn't clear whether she loved Leni Riefenstahl's filmed paeans to Hitlerism or deplored them; thought that Fidel Castro's and Ho Chi Minh's police states were ideal human societies or that Communism was just "fascism with a human face." If only she'd lived longer, surely she would have found a bad word to say about Saddam Hussein.

She seems to have taken both sides of every great question of her times   —   as if she wanted to shock those who'd agreed with her the first time. Was she the last cry of 1960ish intellectualism? Or the first of 1970ish reaction   —   a kind of Joan Baez without the music? And, in the end, did it matter?

What a pity   —   like so much she did with her talent.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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