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'Untouchables' actor Robert Stack dies of heart failure at 84

Friday, May 16, 2003

LOS ANGELES -- Veteran actor Robert Stack, who earned an Emmy as the tough-guy hero of TV's "Untouchables" and an Oscar nomination at the height of his movie fame in the 1950s, has died. He was 84.

Stack, 84, was found dead of a heart attack Wednesday evening at his home by his wife, Rosemarie.

The actor was treated for prostate cancer in October. But his wife said he had been feeling good, and he looked hardy at a weekend 80th birthday party for longtime friend Johnny Grant.

"He came in full of energy and enthusiasm, gave me a good, strong birthday hug," Grant said. "What a shock."

Nancy Reagan said she and former President Reagan had known Stack more than 50 years. "Bob had an extraordinary career in both movies and television," she said. "Just when it seemed he was ready to retire, he always found a new project."

Stack had a lengthy film career, beginning with his screen debut in 1939's "First Love," where he gave young actress Deanna Durbin her much-publicized first screen kiss.

He became a matinee idol overnight.

Longtime Hollywood publicist Warren Cowan recalled Stack's pleasure when Cowan told him he had seen a publicity photo of the actor in the preserved home of Anne Frank, the Jewish girl whose family hid from the Nazis in an Amsterdam house for 25 months before they were captured in World War II.

"There was a big still picture on Anne Frank's bulletin board," Cowan said. "I told him about it last year."

His greatest fame came with the 1959-63 series "The Untouchables," in which he played Chicago crimebuster Eliot Ness and won a best actor Emmy.

Good-guy image

That role, coupled with his job as host of the reality series "Unsolved Mysteries," created an enduring good-guy image.

"I think there's a definite carry-over from Eliot Ness," Stack said in a 1998 interview with The Associated Press. "Somebody once said, 'You really think you're Eliot Ness.' No, I don't think I'm Ness, but I sure as hell know I'm not Al Capone."'

Stack also could do comedy. He spoofed his screen image as a granite-jawed, humorless tough guy in the 1980 comedy "Airplane!" An avid golfer, he had a comic role in 1988's "Caddyshack II."

In real life, Stack was an athletic man who liked skeet shooting and golf. Relaxed and jovial, with abundant Hollywood anecdotes, he had a knack for being able to talk to anyone, Grant recalled.

His role as Ness in "The Untouchables" brought him a best actor Emmy in 1960. The series, awash in Prohibition Era shoot-'em-ups between gangsters and federal agents, drew harsh criticism about its violence -- along with good ratings for ABC.

Stack found more series success with "The Name of the Game" (1968-71), "Most Wanted" (1976-77) and "Strike Force" (1981-82).

"Unsolved Mysteries," true stories of crime and mysterious disappearances, brought Stack back to TV in 1988, and the popular show continued through the late '90s.

His autobiography, "Straight Shooting," was published in 1979.

Stack is survived by his wife, whom he married in 1956, and their two children, Elizabeth and Charles, both of Los Angeles.

"This guy was at home with the society folks (and) he could sit on a curb down on the Bowery and talk to the less fortunate folks and be just as comfortable," Grant said.

"Everybody loved him. I don't think I ever heard one harsh word said about Bob Stack. Nor did I ever hear him give one," Grant said.

Stack was born into a performing arts family in Los Angeles. His great-great-grandfather opened one of the city's first theaters, and his grandparents, uncle and mother were opera singers.

His father, however, "was the only Irishman in County Kerry who couldn't sing, and that's whose singing voice I got," Stack said in 1998.

But the young man had a resonant speaking voice and rugged good looks, enough to catch the eye of producer Joe Pasternak when Stack ventured onto the Universal lot at age 20.

"He said 'How'd you like to be in pictures? We'll make a test with Helen Parrish, a little love scene.' Helen Parrish was a beautiful girl. 'Gee, that sounds keen,' I told him. I got the part," Stack recalled.

He played a series of youthful romantic leads before leaving Hollywood to serve with the Navy as an aerial gunnery instructor in World War II.

His postwar career climbed in the 1950s with meatier roles and better projects, including "The High and the Mighty" starring John Wayne in 1954.

In 1957, Stack was nominated for a best supporting Oscar for "Written on the Wind," a domestic melodrama starring Lauren Bacall and Rock Hudson. When he lost the trophy (to Anthony Quinn, "Lust for Life"), Jimmy Stewart reassured him he'd win next time.

"But Jimmy, what if I never get another part like this?" Stack said.

"Well, that's just too damn bad," Stewart replied.

Stack was never nominated for another Oscar. But he told that story with a chuckle -- he clearly didn't take himself or life in Hollywood too seriously. "It's all malarkey; even the wonderful part is malarkey," he said.

Stack made more than 40 films, including "The Iron Glove" (1954); "Good Morning Miss Dove" (1955) and "Is Paris Burning?" (1966).


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