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Joanna Merlin, ‘Law & Order’ Star and Broadway Actor, Dead at 92

Joanna Merlin, ‘Law & Order’ Star and Broadway Actor, Dead at 92

Joanna Merlin, known for her role as Judge Lena Petrovsky on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, has died at age 92. Deadline confirmed the news of her death following an Instagram post about her passing from New York University’s Tisch Graduate School of Acting. Merlin had been a faculty member of the school since 1998, according to the post. At Tish, Merlin “taught Michael Chekhov’s Psychological Gesture work as well as Career and Camera classes to generations of our actors,” according to the caption.

Merlin, the president emeritus and founder of the Michael Chekhov Association, passed away on Sunday in Los Angeles, as stated on the association’s website. The cause of his death is not yet known. Joanna Merlin gained widespread fame for originating the role of Tzeitel in the Broadway musical Fiddler On The Roof.

Joanna Merlin Enjoyed a Diverse Career in Film, TV and Broadway

Merlin, originally Joann Ratner, was born on July 15, 1931 in vibrant Chicago. As her show business journey began, she changed her name. During this time, she had the privilege of studying under the esteemed Michael Chekhov in the 1950s. Notably, she was the last surviving student of the legendary acting teacher.

She earned her first onscreen credit in the 1956 religious drama The Ten Commandments. After starring in another film called Weddings and Babies and making appearances on various television series, such as CBS Repertoire Workshop, she decided to fully dedicate herself to theater. This eventually led to her originating the character of Tzeitzel, the eldest daughter of the central family, in the 1964 Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof.

After her role in Fiddler, Merlin had a diverse career in entertainment. Joanna Merlin acted in film, television, and theater, and also worked as a casting director for some of Sondheim’s musicals. Notable film appearances include All That Jazz, Fame, City of Angels, and Mystic Pizza alongside Julia Roberts. She also made significant contributions to Broadway, originating roles in Shelter, The Survivor, and Solomon’s Child. She also worked as a casting director in films such as Big Trouble in Little China and The Last Emperor.

Merlin Joins ‘Law & Order: Special Victims Unit’

From 2000-2011, played Judge Lena Petrovsky on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Her character appeared in forty-three episodes of the series. More recently, she appeared in episodes of The Good Wife and Homeland. Her final onscreen credit was in the series Smartphone Theatre in 2020.

Merlin was married to her husband David Dretzin from 1964 until his passing in 2006, as mentioned in an obituary published by Reed College’s school magazine. She is survived by their two daughters, actor Julie Dretzin and producer Rachel Dretzin.