'Untouchables' tough guy actor Robert Stack dies of heart failure at 84
Thursday, May 15th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6
LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Robert Stack, whose granite-eyed stare and menacing baritone spelled trouble for television's fictional criminals in ``The Untouchables'' and real ones in ``Unsolved Mysteries,'' died at his home. He was 84.
Stack's wife Rosemarie found him slumped over at about 5 p.m. Wednesday. He died of heart failure, she said. The actor had undergone radiation treatment for prostate cancer in October.
``He was feeling so good,'' she said Thursday. ``He had a bout with a tumor but that was gone. It wasn't that, it was his heart. He was too weak. He wouldn't have lived through a bypass.''
Although he had a lengthy film career beginning in 1939 with ``First Love,'' Stack's greatest fame came with the 1959-63 TV drama ``The Untouchables,'' in which he played Chicago crimebuster Eliot Ness and won a best actor Emmy.
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.'''
If Stack tended to appear stiffly humorless on screen, in conversation he was relaxed and jovial, with deep Hollywood roots that gave him a wealth of star-studded anecdotes.
He recalled playing polo with mentor Spencer Tracy and receiving advice from Clark Gable.
``He brought a bottle of 21-year-old Scotch and put it between us,'' Stack told the AP. ``'There's a rumor going around that you're gonna try to be an actor.'
``I thought I'd give it a shot,'' Stack said he replied.
``Clark said, 'You're gonna be one thing: A pro. Show up on time, know your lines. ... And if you ever become a thing called a celebrity _ a word I hate _ if you ever do, and you use that power to push people around, I'm gonna kick you right in the (expletive).' ``
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 gave popular young actress Deanna Durbin her much-publicized first screen kiss in ``First Love,'' and 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 Red Buttons, ``Sayonara''), 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.
That story was told with a chuckle by Stack, a man who clearly didn't take himself or life in Hollywood too seriously. ``It's all malarky; even the wonderful part is malarky,'' he said.
Stack made more than 40 films, including ``The Iron Glove'' (1954); ``Good Morning Miss Dove'' (1955) and ``Is Paris Burning?'' (1966). In later years he shifted to comedy, mocking his stalwart image in 1980's ``Airplane!'' and appearing in ``1941'' (1979), ``Caddyshack II'' (1988) and ``Baseketball'' (1998).
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 and his wife wed in 1956 and had two children, Elizabeth and Charles, both of Los Angeles. Rosemarie Stack said both were with her at the home.