Joanna Merlin, whose acting career stretched from Broadway (she was the original Tzeitel in Fiddler On The Roof), film (she played the dance teacher Miss Berg in Alan Parker’s 1980 film Fame) and TV (Law & Order: SVU‘s Judge Lena Petrovsky on dozens of episodes) has died. She was 92.
Her death was announced on the Instagram page of the New York University Tisch Graduate Acting Program, where Merlin had been on the faculty since 1998.
“Joanna was an actress, master Chekhov teacher, and former casting director for Harold Prince, Stephen Sondheim, Bernardo Bertolucci, and James Ivory,” the NYU message said, adding, “Joanna will be deeply missed at Grad Acting, by the Chekhov community, and by the many people she touched through her artistry.”
As a casting director, Merlin was involved in numerous landmark Broadway productions written by Stephen Sondheim. She was, for many years, Harold Prince’s go-to casting director.
A cause of death was not immediately available.
Born Joann Ratner in Chicago on July 15, 1931, she would change her name for a show business career that would soon find her performing on Broadway in three notable productions including the original 1960 staging of Becket starring Laurence Olivier and Anthony Quinn and the original 1961 production of A Far Country starring Kim Stanley.
But her breakthrough stage role came in 1964, when she was cast as the eldest daughter of milkman Tevye is what would become a major hit musical. In Fiddler, Merlin played Tzeitel, who, despite her father’s concerns, wishes to marry the poor tailor Motel (originally played by Austin Pendleton). As Tzeitel, Merlin got to sing, along with the actors playing her sisters Hodel and Chava, one of the most well-known and beloved of the show’s musical numbers, “Matchmaker, Matchmaker.”
After her performance in Fiddler, Merlin segued, at least on Broadway, away from performance and to casting. Merlin cast many of Stephen Sondheim’s greatest musicals, including Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures, Sweeney Todd, Merrily We Roll Along and Into The Woods. She also cast Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita, and the Betty Comden-Adolph Green-Cy Coleman musical On the Twentieth Century. The majority of Broadway shows cast by Merlin were directed by Prince.
On the screen, Merlin got her start when she was cast as “Jethro’s Daughter” in Cecil B. DeMille’s epic film The Ten Commandments (1956). Other, usually small, roles in both television and film would come in the 1960s and ’70s (TV’s Naked City, the indie film Hester Street, and in 1979 Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz.
The following year would bring a more significant role when she memorably played the demanding ballet teacher Miss Olive Berg in Alan Parker’s 1980 film Fame.
She stayed busy both as an actor and casting director in television and film throughout the 1980s, ’90s and well into the new century. Some examples: She was casting director on Year of the Dragon, Big Trouble In Little China, The Last Emperor, Jefferson in Paris, and Mr. and Mrs. Bridge.
As an actor, Merlin had guest or small roles in such films as, among many others, The Killing Fields, Mr. Wonderful and The Wackness, and on television in Northern Exposure, New York Undercover, All My Children, The Good Wife and Homeland.
But her most widely recognizable role came with the Law & Order franchise. Although she appeared on the original Law & Order series several times in the mid-1990s, it was her role as the tough, no-nonsense Judge Lena Petrovsky in more than 40 episodes of Law & Order: SVU throughout 2000-2011 that gave her a late-career signature role.
Merlin began teaching graduate acting at New York University in 1998, and in 1999 founded the Michael Chekhov Association where she taught acting workshops.
Information on survivors was not immediately available.
One of Merlin’s students, Broadway’s Julie Benko, who played Fanny Brice in the recent hit Funny Girl on Lea Michele’s days off, posted a tribute to her mentor on Instagram.
“She was beyond kind, supporting me both while in school @nyugradacting and continuing to send warm messages after I’d graduated,” Benko wrote in the message beside a photo of herself and Merlin under the Funny Girl marquee. “Here we were after she came to @funnygirlbwy. I will not forget the breakthrough I had in her class. I will miss her beautiful presence. I am so honored to have been a small part of her life.”