|"You want to talk stars? Now Jerry Orbach was a star - he was the Prince of New York!" says Jesse L. Martin of his late "Law & Order" co-star when asked about celebrities of yesteryear. "Think about how few people you meet in his position. I mean, this is someone who originated roles in 'The Fantasticks,' 'Chicago' and '42nd Street' ... He was the man."|
While there's no arguing with the actor's cheers for the legendary Orbach, Martin, for his part, is likewise blessed with that nearly extinct triple threat: the ability to sing, dance and act.
The performer, who considers New York home but is originally from Virginia, proved his dominance onstage as Tom Collins in Jonathan Larson's 1996 musical "Rent" (Martin was in the original Off-Broadway and Broadway productions). Not long after that, he earned a spot among TV's smoothest operators as Dr. Greg Butters in the second season of "Ally McBeal." Martin's duet with Calista Flockhart on the Five Stairsteps' "Ooh Child" was one of the series' most charming moments.
In the midst of his "Ally" gig, Martin made a surprise move and lobbied to replace Benjamin Bratt on "Law & Order." The 6-foot-2 actor was not only handed the part of Detective Ed Green, but also stumbled upon a friend in the series' creator and executive producer, Dick Wolf.
"Long story short is that so many things started to happen at once, and there was suddenly the prospect of other gigs," says Martin, stretching out in his downtown apartment. "Truth of the matter was, I didn't want those other jobs, I wanted 'Law & Order.' And so suddenly, I had to get a definite answer, and Dick just handed it over. How cool is that?"
Pretty cool, as Wolf is often categorized as a cold and uncompromising leader by certain colleagues.
"Dick has to be stern in a lot of decisions just because he's running this empire," says Martin. "The fact is, the guy has got a heart of gold."
The second of five brothers, Martin, 37, is the only family member in the entertainment business. His elder brother, however, thinks this is a mistake on fate's part.
"My brother thinks he is the best singer in the world, and he laughs at me when I sing," Martin says good-naturedly.
Is it a close competition?
"I don't think he's the best singer," he says. "I think he's kind of whacked. I always tell him that, hey, the proof is in the pudding. I'll ask him: 'Who's listening to you sing?'"
The genial Martin, who sang in last year's film version of "Rent," hopes to have even more people hear his sweet and tender vocals when he begins work on a project he has pursued for nearly a decade - filming the life of singer Marvin Gaye. The actor has already secured the role of Gaye in director Lauren Goodman's upcoming independent film "Sexual Healing." But things are not moving as quickly as Martin would like, and he remains reluctant to talk about it, citing his own superstitions.
Still, he can't hide his love of the project, which will cover the last three years of Gaye's troubled life, leading up to his shooting by his father in 1984. Martin unexpectedly breaks out into song twice while speaking of the late singer. In one instance, he goes so far as to sing an entire verse - full of the longing and pain it had when it was recorded - from his favorite song by Gaye, "Piece of Clay":
" 'We all talked about Candice," Martin croons, "But it's only a word/ Brother turned on a sister/ In this cruel, cruel world today/That's what's wrong with all in this world today/ Everybody wants somebody/ To be their own piece of clay. ...'
"Oh God, I can't wait!" he finally exclaims.
Filming for "Sexual Healing" was tentatively scheduled to begin this summer, but Martin's been told to "hold on" for now. "If it's meant to be, it will be," he says.
"How many times these days do you actually hear a love song?" he continues, in praise of Gaye. "You don't! You hear people talking about how they got duped, how they got scorned, how much money they got, but nobody ever says, 'I love you.'
"Marvin talked about sex in a sort of innocent and clean way. As beautiful as you can put it, he put it. That's amazing."
And what about the love that Gaye crooned about - has Martin found it yet in his own life?
After some reflection, he responds: "Relationships are not necessarily the easiest thing to find when you have a 14-hour workday, nine months out of the year. ... I hold on to hope, though."