Robert Urich

TV actor dubbed 'Galahad with a gun'
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Robert Urich, actor: born Toronto, Ohio 19 December 1946; married 1968 Barbara Rucker (marriage dissolved 1974), 1975 Heather Menzies (one adopted son, two adopted daughters); died Thousand Oaks, California 16 April 2002 .

A heart-throb on American television for more than a quarter of a century, Robert Urich was most frequently seen in Britain in programmes with a high body count and screened late at night .

He exploded on to the screen as one of the Vietnam War veterans in a Special Weapons and Tactics squad tackling violent disturbances and dangerous criminals in S.W.A.T., before hitting the jackpot as a private eye in Vega$, a colourful drama set in America's gambling capital.

Born in Toronto, Ohio, in 1946, Urich excelled in sports at his high school and won a football scholarship to Florida State University, where he gained a BA in radio and television communications and hosted his own weekly television talk show. He subsequently took an MA in broadcast research and management at Michigan State University.

Urich worked in Chicago as a radio station's sales account executive and a television weatherman while gaining acting experience in the city's theatres. After playing Burt Reynolds's younger brother in a 1972 production of The Rainmaker, he was persuaded by Reynolds to move to Los Angeles.

It was not long before he landed his big break, the starring role of Bob Sanders in the television sitcom Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1973), based on the 1969 film featuring Robert Culp, Natalie Wood, Elliott Gould and Dyan Cannon. The story revolved around Bob and his wife Carol (Anne Archer) trying to liberate their neighbours' views on sexual behaviour, but it ran to only one series.

At the same time, Urich made a memorable film début as a police officer crushed under a motorcycle by Clint Eastwood's speeding car in the Dirty Harry picture Magnum Force (1973), before finding a more enduring role, again on the side of the law, in S.W.A.T. (1975-76). As Officer Jim Street, he was a member of the Los Angeles Police Department's special team of heavily armed officers trained to tackle violent criminals and headed by Lieutenant Dan "Hondo" Harrelson (Steve Forrest).

The squad's policy appeared to be "Shoot anything that moves" and this led to complaints from anti- violence campaigners, causing the series to be axed after 34 episodes.

More humorously, but not always to the taste of the so-called moral majority, Urich acted the madcap Burt Campbell's tennis-playing son Peter, who was killed off in the first series of Soap (1977), the wonderfully funny satire of American daytime serials. Jessica Tate (Katherine Helmond) was accused of Peter's murder, but the real culprit turned out to be her philandering stockbroker husband Chester (Robert Mandan). In true Soap style, this was only the touchpaper for further zany stories that saw Chester imprisoned, escape with a convicted murderer, lose his memory and find work out West as a cook.

Urich also played Paul Thurston in the sitcom Tabitha (1977-78), a disappointing sequel to the popular 1960s series Bewitched.

He returned to police series with Vega$ (1978-81), as the private investigator Dan Tanna, whose magnetic charm helped to unravel crimes around the roulette wheels, blackjack games and poker tables of Las Vegas's casinos. The detective made his office at the Desert Inn Hotel, owned by a milionaire, Philip Roth (Tony Curtis), and cruised the streets in his vintage red Thunderbird. Over 67 episodes, this was another series with a high body count, but its colourful locations made it popular on both sides of the Atlantic.

Later, exchanging western sunshine for snow-capped eastern mountains, Urich played a yuppie detective in Spenser: For Hire (1985-88). Based on Robert B. Parker's novels, Spenser (no first name) was a football star-turned-private eye in Boston who indulged in his passions for skiing and gourmet cooking, and had a glamorous girlfriend on his arm (Barbara Stock).

With a sense of morality, Spenser – described as "Galahad with a gun" by one critic – came across as righteous and could count on his long-time, shaven-headed acquaintance Hawk (Avery Brooks) to provide the tough back-up sometimes needed. Although Urich made the character less violent than that in the novels, it proved so popular that the actor later starred in four feature-length Spenser television films (1993-95).

After taking the lead role in another series, The Lazarus Man (1995-96), as a man suffering memory loss after the American Civil War, Urich was diagnosed with synovial cell sarcoma, a rare soft-tissue cancer that attacks the body's joints. He underwent surgery and chemotherapy, then became publicly involved in cancer research campaigns. With his wife, the actress Heather Menzies, he set up the Heather and Robert Urich Fund for Sarcoma Research.

He went on to take the role of the retired US Navy commander Jim Kennedy taking over as captain of the cruise ship in the television revival The Love Boat: the Next Wave (1998), but it failed to repeat the success of the original.

Urich's final television series was the short-lived comedy Emeril (2001), in which he played a wise-cracking talent agent alongside the celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse, who acted himself.

Anthony Hayward