Thesp Urich dies of cancer at 55

Durable TV actor starred in at least 17 series

Robert Urich, popular U.S. TV actor since the early 1970s whose rugged good looks, easygoing charm and solid acting made him a ubiquitous presence on many shows and TV series including “Vega$” and “Spenser: For Hire,” died April 16 of a rare cancer at a Thousand Oaks, Calif., hospital. He was 55.

An inspiration to many cancer patients, he kept acting even as he fought synovial cell sarcoma, a rare cancer that first attacked his body’s joints in 1996. His death came one day after the debut of the television movie “Night of the Wolf,” in which Urich co-starred.

In his latter years, he appeared in numerous venues giving upbeat speeches of hope, raising money for cancer research, and establishing a cancer fund. But fans remember him best for the 17 series he starred in during a 30-year TV career, as well as features, telefilms and miniseries.

Since he came upon the TV scene in the early ’70s, he never seemed to be out of work: His durability and popularity with TV viewers were legend even though the skeins often were short-lived; the Los Angeles Times referred to him in 1993 as the “Teflon Television Man.”

Toronto, Ohio, native attended Florida State U. on a four-year football scholarship, excelling as a defensive lineman. He later earned a master’s degree in broadcast research and management from Michigan State. He briefly worked in Chicago as a radio sales agent and a television meteorologist. While an account exec at WGN Radio in Chicago, he worked one night as an actor for a local Jewish bond drive and found his career path. He made his stage debut in a community theater production of “Lovers and Other Strangers.” (WGN dismissed him when execs discovered he was moonlighting as an actor.)

Burt Reynolds helped him land his first major role, co-starring as Reynolds’ younger brother in a Chi stage production of “The Rainmaker.”

Urich then caught the attention of a talent scout and relocating to Los Angeles. In 1973, he made his TV debut in the short-lived series “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,” playing Bob. That same year, he played one of the bad cops in the Clint Eastwood starrer “Magnum Force.”

His feature career also included “Turk 182” and “Ice Pirates.” But he was mostly a television star, thanks to his many series, longforms and guest appearances on episodic TV and even infomercials.

His TV career took off when he co-starred in the ABC police series “S.W.A.T.,” which ran during the 1975-76 season. His popularity grew when he had a recurring role as tennis instructor Peter Campbell on the popular ABC series “Soap” in 1977.

After a stint opposite Lisa Hartman in the short-lived ABC sitcom “Tabitha” (1977-78), he became a certifiable star playing the lead of Dan Tanna in the popular ABC TV series “Vega$,” which ran 1978-81.

From 1985-88, he was back on primetime starring in “Spenser: For Hire,” in which he portrayed the Boston-based detective from the novels by Robert B. Parker. Later, he starred in several telefilms featuring the character.

Additional TV credits included “American Dreamer” (1990-91), host duties on “National Geographic Explorer” (1991-94), “Crossroads” (1992-93) and “It Had to Be You” (1993), co-starring with Faye Dunaway. Most recently, he starred in the 2002 telefilm “The President’s Man: A Line in the Sand.”

His miniseries credits include “Princess Daisy,” “Lonesome Dove” and “Amerika.”

Urich garnered a Daytime Emmy for historical programming for the “U-Boats; Terror on Our Shores” episode of “National Geographic Explorer” and won a CableACE award as magazine show host for “National Geographic: On Assignment” in 1992.

He received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1995 and that same year returned to network TV starring in “The Lazarus Man,” about a wanderer suffering from amnesia.

It was during this time that he was diagnosed with cancer, which he disclosed to production company Castle Rock Television. Subsequently the show was shut down, and two years ago Urich sued Castle Rock TV, claiming it canceled the skein because he had cancer, even though, according to the suit, he was able to perform under the agreement both parties had signed with full knowledge of his cancer and treatment. The breach of contract suit sought nearly $1.5 million — about $73,000 per episode that he would have received for the second season of “Lazarus Man.” The lawsuit was settled in February, but both parties agreed not to disclose terms of the settlement, a Castle Rock spokeswoman said.

After undergoing chemotherapy, Urich bounced back in 1997 with ABC’s medical anthology “Vital Signs” and the 13-part PBS docu series “Boatworks.” In 1998, he played the captain of UPN’s “The Love Boat: The Next Wave.” Most recently he played a wisecracking talent agent on the brief NBC sitcom “Emeril.”

Although his cancer had gone into remission, it returned aggressively earlier this year. Two years before, he and his wife of nearly 30 years, actress Heather Menzies (one of the singing von Trapp children in the 1965 film “The Sound of Music”), established the Robert and Heather Urich Fund for Sarcoma Research at the U. of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center two years ago. Center officials lauded Urich as “a tireless spokesperson for cancer survivors.”

Besides his wife, he is survived by two daughters, a son and his mother.

Services will be held at 10 a.m. Friday April 19 at St. Charles Church in North Hollywood. The public is invited.

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