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Actor Robert Urich dead at 55

Star of 'Spenser: For Hire,' 'Vega$' and many more shows

(CNN) -- Robert Urich, the versatile television actor who starred in at least 15 shows over his 30-year career, died Tuesday of cancer. He was 55.

Urich died in Thousand Oaks, California, surrounded by family and friends, according to publicist Cindy Guagenti. The actor announced in 1996 that he was suffering from synovial cell sarcoma, a rare cancer that attacks the body's joints, and underwent several treatments to fight the cancer during the last years of his life.

Urich was an almost constant presence on television during his career. In fact, according to the trivia book "10,000 Answers: The Ultimate Trivia Encyclopedia" (Random House Reference, 2001), Urich holds the record for starring in the most TV shows, with 15.

Robert Urich's standing as one of TV's most prolific actors is borne out in highlights of his career  starting in 1973.
RESOURCES All About Robert Urich 

His credits include "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice" (1973); "S.W.A.T" (1975-'76); "Soap" (for its first season, 1977-'78); "Vega$" (1978-'81); and "Spenser: For Hire" (1985-'88).

Among his most recent roles: the captain on "Love Boat: The Next Wave" and a talent agent on the short-lived sitcom "Emeril."

The actor also appeared in a handful of theatrical films, including "Magnum Force" (1973) and "Turk 182!" (1985).

First co-star: Burt Reynolds

Robert Urich was born in Toronto, Ohio, on December 19, 1946. A star athlete in high school, he won a football scholarship to Florida State University, where he took a bachelor's degree in communications. He later earned a master's degree from Michigan State in broadcast research and management, and went to work in the broadcasting business as a salesman for Chicago's WGN.

After a short stint as a TV weatherman, he received his break as an actor when Burt Reynolds, another Florida State alum, helped him land a role playing Reynolds' younger brother onstage in a production of Richard Nash's "The Rainmaker."

On the small screen, Urich's first role was as Bob Sanders in "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice," the 1973 TV version of the 1969 Paul Mazursky film about mate-swapping. The show didn't last even the customary 13 weeks of one season before being canceled. But Urich landed on his feet, appearing as a Los Angeles police officer in "S.W.A.T." two seasons later.

In the following 25 years, he was never out of a regular series for more than three seasons, and he frequently appeared in TV movies and documentary specials.

His most memorable roles were likely Dan Tanna, the private detective at the center of "Vega$," and Spenser, Robert Parker's detective hero, in "Spenser: For Hire."

"Night of the Wolf," a movie made for the Animal Planet network starring Urich and Anne Archer, had its debut airing Monday.

Urich won a Cable Ace Award as 1992's top informational host for his work with National Geographic's "Explorer" series, and a 1992 Emmy award for narrating the Explorer film "U-Boats: Terror on Our Shores."

As one young film critic put it, "If your mom never had a crush on Robert Urich, she didn't watch TV."

Cancer, and research

Urich acknowledged he had cancer in 1996, but it didn't slow his career much. But in April 2000 he sued Castle Rock Television for $1.47 million, saying his show "The Lazarus Man" was canceled because of his disease.

Urich had told the production company in July 1996 that he had cancer, but that he'd be able to perform. Nevertheless, Castle Rock stopped production a month later. In his breach-of-contract suit, Urich sought the amount, about $73,000 an episode, he would have received for a second season.

The actor became active in cancer research in the late 1990s, establishing a fund, the Heather and Robert Urich Fund for Sarcoma Research, with his wife, actress Heather Menzies, whom he married in 1974. Earlier this year, Urich donated his $125,000 winnings from a February appearance on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" to a fund at the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center, where he was treated.

He received the Gilda Radner Courage Award from the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, New York, and was named national spokesman for the American Cancer Society in 1998.

Urich is survived by his wife; three children, Allison, Ryan, and Emily; two brothers; a sister; and his mother.

A memorial service is scheduled for St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church in North Hollywood on Friday.


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