One of the most prolific and ubiquitous television actors of the latter 20th century in addition to his service as a tireless spokesperson for the disease that was eventually the cause of his untimely demise, Robert Urich was once referred to as the "Teflon Television Man" for his uncanny ability to appear unscathed from the ambitious small-screen failures in which he frequently appeared. His presence in over 15 weekly television series during his 30-year career made him a household name, and his brave struggle against a rare and devastating form of soft-tissue cancer known as Synovial Cell Sarcoma instilled inspiration into countless cancer patients waging a seemingly never-ending uphill battle. Born in Toronto, OH, on December 19, 1946, Urich's youthful athleticism earned him a four-year scholarship to the Florida State University, where he would excel as a defensive lineman and graduated with a B.A. in communications. After next earning an M.A. in broadcast research and management from Michigan State University, Urich settled in Chicago and worked briefly as a radio sales agent and a meteorologist. A fateful late evening while working as a sales account representative at WGN Radio found Urich asked to perform in a Jewish bond drive, with the role sparking an epiphany that he had finally found his true calling. Continuing to develop his skills on community theater stages, the blossoming actor spent the following 18 months performing at the Windy City's Ivanhoe, Arlington Park, and Pheasant Run theaters. A blessing in disguise followed shortly thereafter when executives found out about his moonlighting and fired him from the station, freeing him to pursue his life's calling full-time. Aided in his early career by friend Burt Reynolds, it wasn't long before Urich was spotted by an agent and relocating to Los Angeles to make his television debut in the television series Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1973). Landing a small role in the Clint Eastwood film Magnum Force the same year, Urich's career continued to gain momentum with roles in such popular small-screen series as Soap, S.W.A.T., and alongside Tom Selleck in Bunco. Propelled to stardom with his role in the made-for-television film Vega$ (1978) and the subsequent series of the same name that followed, Urich would also appear infrequently in film, though his true calling remained on the small screen, where his presence spanned nearly every genre and format. The early '80s found him landing increasingly frequent roles in television, and after gaining fame as a detective in Spenser for Hire in 1985 and appearing in such films as Ice Pirates (1984) and Turk 182! (1985), Urich was the recipient of a Cable Ace Award for his seven-year stint as host of National Geographic Explorer. Frequently returning to his Spencer persona for made-for-television movies following the show's cancellation, the busy star would also continue to shine in such popular television efforts as Lonesome Dove (1989) and as host to such special event programs as A Musical Christmas at Walt Disney World (1993) and Alien Encounters From New Tomorrowland (1995). It was during the filming of the small-screen Western series The Lazarus Man (1996) that tragedy struck, and Urich's discovery of a mysterious lump proved the beginning of the end for the handsome and rugged actor who to this point had seemed indestructible. Having received a star on the Hollywood walk of fame the year before, Urich's career seemed to be going stronger than ever; unfortunately his body was entering the early stages Synovial Cell Sarcoma. During an intensive eight-month cycle of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy, Urich spoke open and honestly about his cancer, and the production of The Lazarus Man was shut down. Urich would later charge that show's producers with a breach-of-contract suit in which he claimed that he was able to perform under the specifications of the contract that both parties had signed, and following a settlement the resilient actor returned to television in 1997 in the ABC medical anthology Vital Signs. Teaming with his wife, Heather Menzies, to establish the Robert and Heather Urich Fund for Sarcoma research at the University of Michigan, the actor continued to appear upbeat in public appearances, during which he spoke of his treatment and condition in efforts to instill hope in others going through similar hardships. Seemingly as busy as ever as his cancer went into remission in the following years, Urich came back strong with numerous roles including The Love Boat: The Next Wave (1998) and Emril (2001). It was also during this time that Urich would also become the spokesperson for the American Cancer Society. In early 2002 the cancer that Urich had struggled so bravely to overcome sadly returned with a vengeance. Unfortunately there was little that could be done to combat the brutally aggressive cancer this time around, and in April of that year, Urich succumbed to its ravaging effects. Passing on the eve of his final television appearance in Night of the Wolf, Urich continued to serve as an inspirational figure even after his painful demise, his bravery giving strength to millions who had bore witness to his struggle. Although the enduring actor, who had admitted to frequent feelings of invincibility, would return to the small screen no more, the fund he created ensured that future generations would not face their dark endeavors without the benefit of extensive medical research and care.
Biography by Jason Buchanan
- Received a football scholarship from Florida State University, where he was an offensive lineman.
- Worked as a salesman for WGN in Chicago and had a brief stint as a weatherman.
- Acting break came when fellow FSU graduate Burt Reynolds got him cast as his younger brother in a stage production of The Rainmaker in 1972.
- Met wife Heather Menzies on the set of a Libby's corned-beef-hash commercial in 1974.
- Was diagnosed with cancer in 1996 while starring in The Lazarus Man on TNT.
- Became spokesperson for the American Cancer Society in 1998.