Robert Stack, 84; Tough-Guy Hero in ‘The Untouchables’

Times Staff Writer

Robert Stack, the handsome, steely eyed actor who had a long career in films before achieving his greatest success playing legendary crime fighter Eliot Ness in the 1960s TV series “The Untouchables,” has died. He was 84.

Stack, who later had an even longer run on television as the deadpan host of “Unsolved Mysteries,” died of heart failure Wednesday afternoon at his home in Bel-Air. He had undergone radiation treatment for prostate cancer in October.

Although Stack suffered from two blocked arteries, his doctor ruled out open-heart surgery “because he had been through so much radiation,” Stack’s wife, Rosemarie, said Thursday. “They didn’t think he’d make it.”

But, she said, her husband “had a new golf swing and was really feeling good” just before he died.

“The truth is he lived 84 golden years,” said writer-director John Milius, a longtime friend of the Stacks.


“He was a golden boy who became a golden man. Nobody lived a better life that I know of than Bob.”

Actor Robert Wagner, who had known Stack for at least 50 years, called his friend “a consummate professional.”

“He was very admired by his fellow actors,” Wagner said Thursday.

“You knew he was going to give you everything he could give you. He raised the standard in every way. As a human being, he was a true gentleman and a man of great integrity.”

A Los Angeles native whose family socialized with Hollywood’s elite, Stack played polo with Spencer Tracy and other Hollywood luminaries as a teenager in the 1930s and also became a national skeet-shooting champion.

Stack made his screen debut in 1939 at age 20. The film was “First Love,” a Cinderella story starring singing sensation Deanna Durbin. As Durbin’s “Prince Charming,” Stack generated international headlines by giving the teenage singer her first screen kiss.

Stack, who appeared in more than 70 films, received a best supporting actor Oscar nomination for “Written on the Wind,” a 1956 melodrama starring Lauren Bacall and Rock Hudson.

His starring role as Ness in “The Untouchables,” which ran from 1959 to 1963, earned Stack an Emmy Award in 1960.

Stack originally didn’t want to play Ness in the hourlong crime drama set in Prohibition-era Chicago.

“Television was a dirty word back then, and my agent had to drag me kicking and screaming into it,” he once recalled.

Stack went on to star in three other TV series, “The Name of the Game” (1968-71), “Most Wanted” (1976-77) and “Strike Force” (1981-82), as well as hosting “Unsolved Mysteries” from 1987 to 2002.

“He’s one of the last great stars of Hollywood,” said Paul Picerni, who played Stack’s “Untouchables” Treasury Department sidekick for three seasons. “He remained on top all those years and was well-respected.”

A fifth-generation Californian whose grandmother was a renowned opera singer and whose great-grandfather started one of Los Angeles’ first opera houses, Stack was born in L.A. on Jan. 13, 1919. His father, James, was a wealthy advertising executive.

But his parents divorced when Stack was a year old. At age 3, he moved with his mother to Paris, where she studied singing. Stack’s older brother, James Jr., stayed with their father.

Stack was about 6 when he and his mother returned to Los Angeles and, although he spoke fluent French, he had to learn English.

According to Rosemarie Stack, his parents remarried but his father died when he was 10. After that, she said, “His mother put him into sports, where he could be with other men because he didn’t have a father.”

Among them were Tracy and producers Darryl Zanuck and Walter Wanger on the polo field, and Gary Cooper, Clark Gable and Fred MacMurray, with whom he joined in the popular Hollywood sport of skeet shooting.

Rosemarie Stack said her husband, who attended USC for a year, was in a theater group in Hollywood and studying singing when his teacher invited him to go to Universal Studios, saying, “I want you to hear what a real voice sounds like.”

“Well, that was Deanna Durbin,” Rosemarie Stack said. “They were looking for someone who could play a prince for her leading man. He was just standing around the set when [producer] Joe Pasternak came up and said, ‘How would you like to be in pictures?’ They tested him, and he got the lead with Deanna.”

After “First Love,” Stack appeared in a string of movies, including playing the role of a Polish flying ace and Jack Benny’s rival for Carole Lombard in Ernst Lubitsch’s classic wartime comedy “To Be or Not To Be.”

After serving as a gunnery officer in the Navy during World War II, he played the leading role in “The Bullfighter and the Lady” (1951), starred in the first commercial 3-D feature, “Bwana Devil” (1952), and delivered a strong performance in a supporting role as a pilot in “The High and the Mighty” (1954), starring John Wayne.

Among his later films was Jim Abrahams’ and David and Jerry Zucker’s spoof of the “Airport” movies, the zany 1980 comedy “Airplane!”

“The boys essentially wanted Eliot Ness within the framework of a complete madhouse,” Stack once said.

As a movie actor, Milius said, Stack “had something that is remarkable, that [Charlton] Heston and these guys from that era had: unshakable dignity. At the same time, there was something dangerous about them.

“You can call it whatever you want -- macho or whatever it is -- but Bob had prowess; he had an authority in what he did. I don’t know whether it came from a certain moral center or what.”

Although he was known for his granite-faced stoicism on screen, Stack had what Milius called a “wonderful sense of absurd humor.”

“His greatest laughs were always at himself,” Milius said. “There was a lightness to him that was just remarkable.”

Stack also was known for his long marriage to Rosemarie, a former fashion cover girl and actress whom he married in 1956. It was the first marriage for both.

“He was so happily married,” said Milius, who not long ago had dinner at the Stacks’ home. Afterward, they were all looking over old photos when they came across a Life magazine cover photo of Rosemarie Stack.

“She looked so fabulous,” Milius said. “Bob said, ‘See why I married her?’ He was right. She was the sexiest, most beautiful woman, and is still just gorgeous. And the two of them were truly inseparable.”

In addition to his wife, Stack is survived by two children, Elizabeth and Charles, both of Los Angeles; and his brother, of Lake Tahoe.

A private celebration of Stack’s life will be held for friends and family at the Bel-Air Country Club in about two weeks. A memorial for industry members will be held in about a month.