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Robert Urich, 55; Popular Star of ‘Vega$' and ‘Spenser’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Robert Urich, the personable actor best known for his tough-guy TV roles as Las Vegas private detective Dan Tana on “Vega$" and as Robert Parker’s sophisticated Boston private investigator in “Spenser: For Hire,” died Tuesday morning of cancer. He was 55.

Urich, whose career spanned 30 years, died at the Los Robles Regional Medical Center in Thousand Oaks, said his publicist, Cindy Guagenti. His wife of 28 years, actress Heather Menzies, and his three children were with him at the time.

Six years ago, Urich was diagnosed with synovial cell sarcoma, a rare form of cancer that attacks the joints. The cancer was discovered in his groin, and had gone into remission after chemotherapy, radiation treatment and two surgeries.

Urich told Daily Variety columnist Army Archerd in November that more lumps had been found over the summer, but that a “wonder drug” had cleared up the recurrence. According to Guagenti, Urich, who was writing his memoirs, titled “An Extraordinary Life,” was hospitalized for breathing problems last week.

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According to the book “10,000 Answers: The Ultimate Trivia Encyclopedia,” Urich holds the record of starring in 15 TV shows--the most of any actor. Throughout his career, Urich moved effortlessly between drama and comedy, action-thrillers and period westerns.

After appearing in guest roles on television, he made his sitcom debut in 1973 in the short-lived series “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice.” The same year, Urich made his feature movie debut in the Clint Eastwood “Dirty Harry” sequel “Magnum Force.”

Among his series were “S.W.A.T.” (1975-76); “Soap” (1978); “Tabitha” (1977-78); “Vega$" (1978-81); “Gavilan” (1982-83); “Spenser: For Hire” (1985-88); “American Dreamer” (1990-91); “Crossroads” (1992-93); “It Had to Be You” (1993): “The Lazarus Man” (1995-96), “Love Boat: The Next Wave” (1998) and “Emeril” (2001).

Producer Aaron Spelling, who cast Urich in a supporting role in the action show “S.W.A.T.” and later as the lead in “Vega$,” said there was a reason Urich kept turning up in series again and again.

“He was just one of the sweetest men I’ve ever met,” Spelling said. “No matter what you put him in, the audience loved him.”

Urich also appeared in numerous TV movies and miniseries, including the Emmy Award-winner “Lonesome Dove,” as well as “The Defiant Ones,” “Stranger at My Door,” “Final Descent,” “Captains Courageous” and “Miracle on the 17th Green.”

Among his feature credits were “Turk 182!,” “Ice Pirates” and “Cloverbend.” His most recent TV movie, “Night of the Wolf,” premiered Monday evening on Animal Planet.

In 1995, Urich received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He even founded a publishing company, Beaver Dam Press, which specializes in outdoor books.

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It was during his first season on the TNT western series “The Lazarus Man” that Urich was diagnosed with cancer. In 2000, he sued Castle Rock Television, the studio producing the show, alleging that the company pulled the plug on the series because of his illness.

Urich had told the company in 1996 that despite his cancer he would be able to perform. In the breach-of-contract suit, which was settled, Urich sought the approximately $73,000 that he would have received for each episode in the second season.

Urich went public with his disease as soon as the cancer was diagnosed, and appeared on such talk shows as “Larry King Live” during his chemotherapy treatment to discuss his condition. His openness and optimism about his battle with cancer made him a popular lecturer.

“I’ve been flying around the country for the last year talking to groups,” he said in an interview with The Times in 1998. “It’s part of my deal I made with God to spread the word that it is survivable, that this notion of ‘cancer-free’ is one that you can achieve.”

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Of his popularity and steady work in television, Urich once told The Times:

“I think my longevity has a lot to do with where I come from--a blue-collar town in Ohio--and how I was raised: to work hard and respect other folks.

“I know it sounds hokey but I think, ultimately, on television you can’t hide who you are. It’s why people are always coming up to me, not to talk about my shows but about their families, their pets. They obviously feel comfortable with me.”

Athletically built and ruggedly handsome, the 6-foot, 2-inch actor was born Dec. 16, 1946, in Toronto, Ohio, a blue-collar steel town west of Pittsburgh. Urich was a football star in the small town and attended Florida State University on a football scholarship.

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As a student, he hosted his own weekly television series. He earned a bachelor’s degree in radio and television communications in 1968 and received a master’s in broadcast research and management from Michigan State University three years later.

He worked briefly as a television weatherman and as an account executive at WGN-AM radio in Chicago. While at WGN, he was hired to play a young soldier and open a Jewish United Bond drive with a patriotic speech. He fell in love with acting, but ended up losing his job because his boss attended the bond drive and enforced the station’s policy against moonlighting.

Urich made his stage debut in a community theater production in Chicago of Renee Taylor and Joseph Bologna’s romantic comedy “Lovers and Other Strangers.” For the next 18 months, he performed at Chicago’s Ivanhoe Theater and the Arlington Park and Pheasant Run Theaters.

He got his big break when fellow Florida State alum Burt Reynolds cast him as his younger brother in a 1972 stage production of Richard Nash’s “The Rainmaker.”

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“Robert Urich was an athlete, artist, a wonderful friend, and he was one of those rare people who never said anything unkind about anybody,” Reynolds said Tuesday.

“His professionalism was exemplary,” Reynolds added. “I have known Bob for 35 years, and in all that time he has been the kindest and most loyal friend. I adore him, his wife and children, and we will all miss him greatly.”

Urich and his wife formed the Heather and Robert Urich Foundation for Sarcoma Research at the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center. Earlier this year, he donated the $125,000 he won on the ABC game show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” to the foundation.

Urich also was the recipient of the Gilda Radner Courage Award from the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, N.Y., and was named national spokesman for the American Cancer Society in 1998.

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The actor returned to the stage in 1999, starring in the national tour and Broadway production of the Kander and Ebb musical “Chicago,” playing slick lawyer Billy Flynn.

His wife and three children--Allison, Ryan and Emily--two brothers, a sister and his mother survive him. A public service is scheduled for 10 a.m. Friday at St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church in North Hollywood.

The family has requested that any donations be made to the University of Michigan Comprehensive Center’s Robert Urich Fund, 1500 E. Medical Center Drive, Ann Arbor, MI 48109-0755.

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