Stepmothers rarely get a break in the usual order of things. Although Elaine Cancilla-Orbach was married to "Law & Order" star Jerry Orbach for 25 years – yes folks, 25 years – his son is lashing out at his father's widow, claiming she cut him and his brother out of the $10 million estate and ordered his father's eyes "shucked out" on his deathbed.
Chris Orbach, 39, who was in his stepmother's home from the age of 14 on, called her a "double-dealing, lying, scheming, miserable fool," who with the help of "cut-rate borscht-belt" lawyers has portrayed 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.' "
And here’s the stepmother’s side: Elaine Cancilla met Jerry Orbach when both were in “Chicago” on Broadway, and after he and his first wife were divorced. A divorce, Cancilla-Orbach said, that cleaned her husband out financially.
In the early years of their marriage, she said, before her husband was in a hit TV show, they used her savings to pay his alimony and child support.
And far from being cut out of the estate, the sons were left money in a trust that will be administered by the widow and revert to them upon her death.
Nonetheless, Chris, a rock musician and actor, complained, all he got were "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 New York Post obtained a copy from a source sympathetic to his point of view. In an interview, Orbach 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."
It is always amazing how kids feel they are more entitled to their father's finances than someone who cooked for, cleaned for, organized, loved, supported, encouraged, and had nightly pillow talk with their parent. While Jerry Orbach was sick with prostrate cancer in 2004, Cancilla-Orbach was there dealing with the private terror and pain, the sweats and the ravages of the body.
Twenty-five years is a long time to be married.
This is not a stepmother who parachuted in for a few years and then took the family fortune. It is someone who earned it by being a life partner.
While it may be a shame that the kids didn't get some cash right away, it should be noted that Chris Orbach is an adult, and that his father was generous with him in the past, including getting him parts as an actor on “Law & Order.” Elaine Cancilla-Orbach has also helped Jerry Orbach’s other son, Anthony, to buy a house and send a daughter to school.
Not good enough, says Chris Orbach. He actually attacked his stepmother for donating 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 wrote.
Chris Orbach did a voiceover for an Eye Bank ad, but "only to stay on Elaine's good side," he said. Eventually, he asked the organization 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."
Including, apparently, how he was going to structure his will.