TV's everyman loses cancer battle

Robert Urich, hero for the family hour, dies at age 55

April 17, 2002|By Stephen Lynch | Stephen Lynch,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Yes, Milton Berle died March 27. But yesterday marked the passing of the real Mr. Television, Robert Urich, at age 55, after a years-long battle with synovial cell sarcoma, a rare cancer that attacks the body's joints.

He was not around at the dawn of the medium, or even during a golden age. But Urich starred in the most television series of any actor, from Soap to Love Boat: The Next Wave. If every movie star has a television counterpart, then Urich was the Gene Hackman of the small screen. He was game for anything, constantly working, with moments of brilliance and moments of trash.

All right, maybe more like lots of trash. Hours of trash, give or take a few commercial breaks. He was the journeyman actor of the Aaron Spelling era. His professionalism was "exemplary," said Burt Reynolds, who helped Urich land his first major role -- co-starring as Reynolds' younger brother in a stage production of The Rainmaker.

When you needed someone to star in the TV movie about the Tailhook scandal, Urich was your man. The latest Danielle Steel adaptation? He's on speed dial.

He was the host of When Animals Attack! He sold dog food and vibrating toothbrushes. He starred in the very silly miniseries Amerika. He starred in the very cool miniseries Lonesome Dove.

He was the ringmaster for Circus of the Stars.

He won an Emmy in 1992 for his narration of the TV film U-Boats: Terror on Our Shores.

But Urich was most famous for playing every young boy's favorite private eyes. In Vega$, he drove around Las Vegas in a bright red '56 T-Bird (yet inconspicuous during a stakeout), wore a sports coat (yet not breaking a sweat in 100-degree heat).

Dan Tanna was every 12-year-old boy's idea of a career goal, parking his car in the house, hanging out with beautiful (but, of course, strangely chaste) showgirls, drinking a shaken, not stirred, glass of milk.

In Spenser: For Hire, Urich's investigator had a gorgeous girlfriend, a dangerous-looking bald sidekick and cases that were solved in 50 minutes. Shots would be fired. Cars would be chased. It was pre-teen appointment television.

Urich was a sanitized version of cool. Edgy enough for the kids of the '70s and '80s, yet safe enough for parents to leave you in the den alone. He was about as likely to shoot a man in the back as Melissa Gilbert was to pose for Playboy. Urich was the family hour hero.

Born in Toronto, Ohio, Urich won a football scholarship at Florida State University. He later earned a master's degree in broadcasting from Michigan State University.

He married actress Heather Menzies -- who played one of the singing von Trapp children in the 1965 film The Sound of Music -- 25 years ago. She survives him along with their three children, Allison, Ryan and Emily.

Wire services contributed to this article.

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