From 'Vega$' to 'Spenser', Urich brought a workingman's ethic to a wide variety of television roles.

By Bruce Fretts
April 26, 2002 at 04:00 AM EDT

”I’ve been lucky enough to conduct a 20-year apprentice program in front of about 40 million people every week,” Robert Urich told EW in 1993, embellishing his average audience a bit. ”I got to study my craft and my trade while I was working.”

Urich, who died of cancer at 55 on April 16, learned this blue- collar work ethic early. He grew up in Toronto, Ohio, the son of a steelworker who toiled for 45 years in local mills, and earned a football scholarship to Florida State University, where he majored in communications. While holding down an account- executive job at Chicago’s WGN Radio, he moonlighted as an actor and was discovered by fellow FSU alum Burt Reynolds, who urged him to move to L.A.

He found a home on TV, racking up 13 series-regular roles — the most of any actor in history — including tennis pro Peter Campbell on Soap (killed off after only 13 episodes in 1977 so Urich could focus on the ill-fated Bewitched spin-off Tabitha) and flashy PI Dan Tanna on 1978-81’s Vega$. He did his finest work as a sensitive Boston detective on Spenser: For Hire (1985-88), but ABC buried it on Saturday nights. ”I don’t think I ever had a really great time slot,” Urich later said.

A movie career wasn’t in the stars for Urich. He made his big-screen debut as a crooked cop in Clint Eastwood’s Magnum Force in 1973, but his leading-man chances cooled after turkeys like the sci-fi spoof The Ice Pirates and fireman drama Turk 182! ”I didn’t have the patience to sit around and see if I could make a film career go,” he said. Miniseries provided him a better chance to show his range as a doomed ne’er-do-well in Lonesome Dove and as a murderous husband in Blind Faith.

In 1996, Urich was diagnosed with synovial cell sarcoma, a rare strain of cancer that attacks the joints. He in turn attacked the disease with a typical can-do attitude. ”I have always played these guys who are capable,” he explained. ”And now I thought, Maybe it’s time to prove you are capable.” After undergoing chemo and two operations, he was pronounced cured and went back — where else? — to work.

He sued the producers of the syndicated Western The Lazarus Man, which had been canceled after Urich’s illness was disclosed (the suit was settled out of court), and hosted ABC’s medical reality series Vital Signs, still bald from radiation treatments. While touring in the musical Chicago in 1999, he was told the cancer had recurred but went on with the show, winding up on Broadway. As recently as last fall, he was added to the cast of NBC’s Emeril in a last-ditch attempt to save the sitcom. ”He came ready to work every day,” says the show’s executive producer, Harry Thomason.

”I just think my longevity has a lot to do with how I was raised, to work hard and respect other folks,” said Urich, who’s survived by his wife of more than 25 years, Heather Menzies (The Sound of Music), two grown children, Ryan and Emily, and Allison, 4. ”I know it sounds hokey, but I think ultimately on television, you can’t hide who you are.”

(Additional reporting by Caroline Kepnes)