Robert Stack

Star of the television series 'The Untouchables'

Robert Langford Modini (Robert Stack), actor: born Los Angeles 13 January 1919; married 1956 Rosemarie Bowe (one son, one daughter); died Los Angeles 14 May 2003.

At the turn of the 1950s, a television series set in the Chicago of the Prohibition era was accused of being too violent. Portraying the real-life exploits of a US federal agent taking on the legendary Al "Scarface" Capone and other notorious members of the Mob, The Untouchables gained a reputation as "the weekly bloodbath", but established Robert Stack as an international star in his role as the stony-faced crime-fighter Elliot Ness.

Stack almost did not take the part, having established himself as a film actor in more than 30 pictures. "TV series was a dirty word," he said. "At that time, television series were for people who were out of work and couldn't get a job in the movies." But Stack was persuaded after the show's producer, Desi Arnaz, promised to make the crime dramas authentic, with high production values and attention to detail in the wardrobe, props and cars. In fact, Stack rated the cars as The Untouchables' secret weapon that helped it to beat other series in the American television ratings war:

We had a black Pierce Arrow with those wonderful headlights coming out of the fenders. You could take it down a dark alley at night with the garbage cans and the guys with the machine guns, and there was more suspense . . . the best actor we had was that Pierce Arrow.

He was born Robert Modini in Los Angeles in 1919, and his grandparents, uncle and mother were opera singers. The boy was only a year old when his parents divorced and he subsequently moved to Paris and Rome with his mother. His parents remarried when he was nine, but his father, James, died a year later and Robert completed his schooling in Los Angeles , before studying at the University of Southern California and training as an actor at the Henry Duffy School of the Theater, where he was spotted by a Universal Studios talent scout.

A successful screen-test love scene with Helen Parrish led him to become an instant matinée idol under the name Robert Stack. He started by giving the singer Deanna Durbin what was advertised as her first screen kiss (although, in fact, it was her second) in First Love (1939) but, after another eight films, US involvement in the Second World War meant that his career was put on hold while he served as an aerial gunnery instructor in the US Navy.

Resuming his film career in 1948, Stack appeared in a string of conveyor-belt pictures before he won his first starring role, as a cocky American filmmaker who asks a matador to give him lessons so that he can impress a local señorita in The Bullfighter and the Lady (produced by John Wayne, 1951). He also starred in the action picture Bwana Devil (1953), set in Africa and notable as one of the first 3-D films, but the flying spears and leaping lions failed to blend with the dramatised sequences of Stack and his co-stars, Nigel Bruce and Barbara Britton.

More spectacular was the corny but entertaining disaster film The High and the Mighty (1954), in which Stack featured as the captain of a plane, opposite John Wayne as the co-pilot, on a flight from Honolulu to San Francisco. Then came a role as an alcoholic and impotent playboy millionaire who lures Lauren Bacall away from Rock Hudson in Written on the Wind (1956), based on the novel by Robert Wilder. Stack's performance earned him an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor, but he lost out to Anthony Quinn.

He switched to television to play the federal agent Elliot Ness in The Untouchables, originally a two-part drama in the "Desilu Playhouse" series (1959) about the capture of gangster Al Capone. He was third choice for the role, after Van Heflin turned it down and Van Johnson demanded that his salary be doubled.

Stack was happy to play the role as a one-off, but he had to be cajoled into continuing it when the potential for a series was recognised. The Untouchables (1959-63) was an instant hit with viewers but soon became known as the most violent programme on television.

As complaints mounted that too many of the fictional Mobsters featured had Italian names, such as Lucky Luciano and Frank Nitti, the producers gave in to this pressure and gradually the drama was diluted, with more emphasis placed on the law-enforcement role of Ness's right-hand man, Enrico Rossi (Nicholas Georgiade), in the team of agents nicknamed "The Untouchables" by a Chicago newspaper because of their incorruptibility.

After 114 episodes and the 1960 Emmy Award as Best Actor, Stack decided the series had run its course and, although he never found another character to match Ness in the public's imagination, he starred as the FBI agent-turned-crime reporter Dan Farrell in The Name of the Game (1968-71), Captain Linc Evers, the head of a special Los Angeles Police Department unit, in Most Wanted (1976-77), and Captain Frank Murphy, head of another special police unit, in Strike Force (1971-72).

For more than 15 years, Stack hosted Unsolved Mysteries (1987-2003), a series re-enacting real-life crimes, legends and ghost stories. He also provided the voices of Bob, the narrator, in the animated series Hercules (1998-99), and Agent Flemming in the film Beavis and Butt-head Do America (1996).

Stack starred as Captain Rex Kramer in the disaster spoof Airplane! (1980), a parody of High and Mighty, and resumed his most famous screen role in the television film The Return of Elliot Ness (1991). (Kevin Costner played Ness in the hugely successful 1987 feature film version of The Untouchables.)

Anthony Hayward

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