Urich for Hire

The Private Eye Shows of Robert Urich

First of all, let me set the record straight: I don’t hate Robert Urich.

I am not “spitting on his grave,” “disrespecting the man” or being a “jerk wad.” But over the years, my general disappointment with the Spenser for Hire TV series–and the casting of actor Robert Urich as Robert B. Parker’s private eye hero– has generated some of the the angriest responses I’ve ever received for anything I’ve written for this site.

And Lord knows, I’ve said a lot of stuff over the years.

* * * * *

The thing is, like most folks, I always sorta liked Urich, and I loved him in Vega$. He was an affably bland kinda guy, a versatile actor who could morph comfortably into a variety of characters and roles, able to cover light comedy and action/adventure, handsome enough to play the romantic lead and athletic enough (he attended Florida State University on a football scholarship) to play the hero when he had to. He was a comfortable (and comforting) presence, which may explain why he appeared in so many TV shows throughout his career.

People recognized him, and liked him. He had what they used to call–and possibly still do–a high TVQ. In fact, beyond the guest spots and occasional feature film roles, he was a series regular, something of a record, playing one of the leads in at least thirteen different television shows:

  • Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1973)
  • S.W.A.T. (1975)
  • Soap (1977)
  • Tabitha (1977)
  • Vega$ (1978)
  • Gavilan (1982
  • Spenser: For Hire (1985)
  • American Dreamer (1990)
  • Crossroads (1992)
  • It Had to Be You (1993)
  • The Lazarus Man (1996)
  • Love Boat: The Next Wave (1998)
  • Emeril (2000)

No wonder he seemed so familiar–he was on television all the time! Granted, not all the shows were hits or–truth be told–even very good, but given the large variety of roles he took on in film and especially television, it’s fair to say his range was wide, if not particularly deep.

Robert was born December 19, 1946, and grew up in Toronto, Ohio. He received a four year football scholarship at Florida State University (FSU), earning a B.A. in Communications, and later an M.A. at Michigan State University. He went to work for as a sales account representative for WGN radio in Chicago, and even did time as a TV weatherman before deciding to pursue an acting career.

Being cast as fellow Florida State alumni Burt Reynold‘s kid brother in a 1972 stage production of The Rainmaker turned out to be his big break. In fact, it was partially due to Reynold’s encouragement that Urich moved to California (swimming pools, movie stars, etc.). Ol’ Burt became something of a mentor to Urich, even letting Urich crash at his place while he searched for work, and suggested Urich to Aaron Spelling, who was then casting for the TV show S.W.A.T..

That same year, 1975, Urich married actress Heather Menzies (his second wife) who, coincidentally, was born in Toronto, Ontario. They eventually adopted three children, and remained together until his death.

Although S.W.A.T. only lasted one season (it was essentially a male version of Charlie’s Angels, but with more guns, although arguably no fewer boobs), it was enough to get the ball rolling. A few years later, Spelling cast Urich as the lead in a new private eye series.

VEGA$

Vega$ (1978) proved to be the perfect role for Urich. He was well cast as glib, vaguely hip private investigator DAN TANNA. Jeans-clad Tanna drove around Las Vegas in his pimp-red, classic ’55 T-Bird, working on retainer for a big casino, taking extra work on the side and rescuing various damsels in distress on a regular basis. Sure, it was a little formulaic and more than a little cheesy (in a Rat Pack sorta way), but it was a big hit right from the start. I mean, a private eye that wore jeans? And drove a really cool car? And was surrounded by scantily clad show girls? My teenage brain loved it.

Unfortunately, its flashy style and endless cameos by various “celebrities” (arguably what attracted the audience in the first place) wore thin after three seasons, and the plug was pulled in 1981.

But now, Urich was–if not a superstar–a known commodity.

GALIVAN

And so, Urich was soon back in the shamus game with Gavilan (1982). Since being a private investigator was Urich’s most successful venture thus far, why not give it another try, but with a twist? So Urich played Gavilan, a former CIA operative who worked for a California oceanography institute as an inventor, consultant and special troubleshooter for problems on the high seas. The plots were all wet (the bad guys did bad things and lots of things blew up), and the gimmicks (like, Gavilan’s weapon of choice was a knife) weren’t enough to really float that boat, but people seemed to like Urich as a detective kinda guy, right?

Apparently not. The show was soon scuttled, not even lasting a full season.

SPENSER FOR HIRE

The third time playing a detective proved to be the charm, however. In Spenser For Hire, Urich played Robert Parker’s extremely popular, best-selling Boston private eye. It did well in the ratings, or at least well enough to last three years, and was arguably Urich’s most memorable role. In 1988 Urich even made a cameo appearance as “himself” in an episode of Cheers, which was also Boston-based, and I can testify that more than a few Boston eateries at the time proudly displayed photos of Urich in their windows. 

Spenser for Hire series ended in 1988, after three seasons, but Urich wasn’t quite done. He reprised the role in a handful of made-for-television films for Lifetime: Spenser: Ceremony (1993), Spenser: Pale Kings and Princes (1994), Spenser: The Judas Goat (1994), and Spenser: A Savage Place (1995).

A lot of people recall the show and the subsequent movies fondly, and more than a few attribute them as the gateway to the books (or even the whole sub-genre of P.I. fiction). As a TV P.I., Urich was, once again, earnest, honest, and principled. He was good-looking, and once again drove a cool car. He even had a suitably groovy, TV-eye type pad–a whole firehouse the City of Boston had given him in gratitude for saving a fireman’s life.

The only problem for those of us who’d read (and fell in love with) the books long before there was even a rumour of a television series?

Urich’s Spenser was not the Spenser of the books. He didn’t even come close. Avery Brooks as Hawk was casting perfection–he played the cold, ruthless but sophisticated leg breaker and mob enforcer to the hilt, almost as loyal to Spenser as he was deadly. Even now, when most readers picture Hawk, it’s Brooks that comes to mind.

But baby-faced Urich never quite brought Parker’s Spenser to life for me. 

Urich seemed well cast. He was big enough (6’2″), but he never looked quite rough enough or tough enough for me. His voiceover narration lacked the spark and wit of the novels, and his occasional forays into off-the-cuff literary quotations never quite gelled, coming off as stiff, awkward and even pretentious at times. In the books, Spenser is often described as looking like a thug; Urich was too clean cut, too handsome and just too boyish-looking, and despite being a former jock, looked like he’d never been punched in the face in his life.

Granted, some of my disappointment with the show could not be blamed on Urich–the writing itself often seemed far, far removed from anything Parker’s novels had been responsible for–despite Parker’s involvement with the show. (Although in retrospect, the writing was far more respectful to the source material than the travesty that was to come years later: 2020’s execrable Spenser Confidential on Netflix).

Spenser for Hire was certainly passable P.I. fare–even above average, particularly if you had never read any of the books. But most of what made Spenser so special to so many on paper failed to materialize on screen. The closest they came were the made-for-TV movies, perhaps because they were actually based directly on the books, and Parker himself (and his wife, Joan) handled the scripts. Unfortunately, this was still television, and compromises were made. The films were filmed in Canada, with some dubious substitutions (Toronto is not Boston), and plots were simplified. Nor was Urich, unfortunately,  convincing enough as Spenser to smooth over the rough spots.

Still, they had a good run, and the show did tolerably well. It just didn’t didn’t light my fire.

POST-SPENSER

He continued to occasionally appear in feature films and even on stage (singing and dancing up a storm in the road company version of the musical Chicago, eventually making it to Broadway), but mostly he stuck to television. He played the lead in a 1996 Hallmark Hall of Fame production of Captains Courageous, and appeared on stage in the musicalHe co-starred in a TV remake of The Defiant Ones, opposite Carl Weathers. In 1988, he began hosting the documentary series National Geographic Explorer, and narrated several National Geographic TV specials. In 1989, he won acclaim for his portrayal of cowpoke Jake Spoon, in the well-received miniseries Lonesome Dove, based on Larry McMurtry’s best-selling novel. He played Billy Flynn on Broadway in 2000, and in the North American tour of the musical, in 1999 and in 2000. He shilled for Bayer Aspirin and Purina dog food. He starred in several more series, none of which lasted very long (he apparently holds the record for starring in the most failed series).

In fact, he was all set to star in a yet another new TV series, The Lazarus Man in 1996, when he was diagnosed with synovial cell sarcoma, a rare cancer that attacks the joints, and the show was canned. He continued working while undergoing treatment, though, and when the cancer went into remission after treatment, he was back in the saddle again, playing Captain Jim Kennedy III in the Love Boat reboot, The Next Wave (1998) which, what with all its celebrity cameos, must have seemed like a return to his days in Vega$.

In the meantime, Urich–even in remission–continued to fight against cancer, devoting considerable time and effort into supporting cancer research and education. He and wife, Heather established the The Robert Urich Foundation for Sarcoma Research at the University of Michigan. He was declared cancer-free in 1998, and was named the national spokesperson for the American Cancer Society. He also won an award from the John Wayne Cancer Institute and the Gilda Radner Courage Award from the Roswell Park Cancer Institute for his work raising cancer awareness.

He may not have always played a hero convincingly on television, but he sure nailed it in real life. And for a certain age group, he more or less defined the 1980s private eye on television.

Unfortunately, in November 2001, the cancer returned, and he passed away on April 16, 2002 at the age of fifty-five. He was cremated and his ashes were buried on the grounds of his family’s vacation home in Prince Edward County, Ontario, Canada, with a monument placed in the nearby West Lake Church of Christ Cemetery.

ROBERT URICH AS A PRIVATE EYE ON TELEVISION

 

  • VEGA$
    (April 25, 1978, ABC)
    Pilot
    Written by Michael Mann
    Directed by Richard Lang
    Produced by E. Duke Vincent
    Executive Producers: Aaron Spelling and Douglas S. Cramer
    An Aaron Spelling Production
    Music by Dominic Frontiere
    Starring Robert Urich As DAN TANNA
    and Tony Curtis As
    Philip “Slick” Roth
    Also Starring Phyllis Davis as Bea Travis
    Bart Braverman as
    Benji Binzer
    Judy Landers as
    Angie Turner
    Naomi Stevens as
    Sgt. Belle Archer
    Greg Morris as
    Lt. Dave Nelson
    and Will Sampson As
    Harmon Twoleaf
    Also starring Chick Vennera, Michael Lerner, Elissa Leeds, June Allyson, Red Buttons, Edd Byrnes, Scatman Crothers, Jack Kelly, Johnnie Collins
  • VEGA$  Buy the complete series
    (1978-1981, ABC)
    Three seasons
    66 episodes, all 60 minutes, unless otherwise noted
    Created by Michael Mann
    Writers: Burton Armus, Fred Frieberger, Ron Friedman, Richard Carr, Milt Rosen, Jeffrey Hayes, John Frances Whelpley, Larry Alexander, E. Nick Alexander, Jeff Myrowd, Bill Strattond, Dennis Donnelly, David Harmon, Larry Forrester, Brian McKay, Robert Earll, Gerry Davis, James Schermerer, Gerry Davis, Valerie Allan, David Harmon, Leo Garen, Ken Pettus, Pat Dunlop & Carol Saraceno, Dallas L. Barnes, Elaine Newman, Jack Turley, Martin Roth, Robert Swanson, Chick Vennera, Pat Dunlop, Judy Burns, Albert Alley, Robert E. Swanson, Herman Groves, Bill Stratton, Anne Collins, Robert Urich (story), Richard Kenneth Wells, Bill Stratton
    Directors: Don Chaffey, Mark Daniels, Larry Dobkin, Lawrence Doheny, Paul Stanley, Harry Falk, Sutton Roley, Bernard Mceveety, Bob Kelljan, Curtis Harrington, George McGowan, Cliff Bole, Phil Bondelli, Alf Kellin, Phil Bondell, Lewis Teague, Alf J. Jellin, Michael S.McLean, Ray Austin, Gabrielle Beaumont, Charles Picerni, Dennis Donelly
    Executive Producers: Aaron Spelling and Douglas S. Cramer
    Theme by Dominic Frontiere
    An Aaron Spelling Production
    Starring Robert Urich As DAN TANNA
    Also starring Tony Curtis, Phyllis Davis, Bart Braverman, Judy Landers, Naomi Stevens, Greg Morris, Will Sampson As Harmon Twoleaf
    Guest stars: Kim Basinger, Melanie Griffith, Dane Clark, Abe Vigoda, Morey Amsterdam, Shelley Fabares, Shelly Berman, Alex Trebeck, Troy Donahue, Anne Francis, Sid Caesar, Ross Martin, Dorothy Malone, Bill Dana, Strother Martin, Lloyd Bochner, Slim Pickens, Cameron Mitchell, Barbara McNair, Isabel Sanford, Robert Reed, Maureen McCormick, Moses Gunn, Cesar Romero, Joseph Campanella, Doc Severinson, Tom Urich, Mamie Van Doren, Christopher George, Lynda Day George, Michael Conrad, Muhammad Ali, Robert Loggia, Keye Luke, Joan Van Ark, Leslie Nielsen, Henry Darrow, Lola Falana, JoAnn Pflug, Minnesota Fats, Dean Martin, James Luisi, Pat Hingle, Eve Arden, Barbi Benton, Gary Crosby, Lisa Hartman, John Colicos, Shelley Winters, Wayne Newton, Susan Howard, Chick Vennera, Dennis Cole, Lloyd Bochner, James Darren, Johnny Seven, Capt. Darryl Dragon & Toni Tennille, Rodney Allen Rippy, Wolfman Jack, Michelle Phillips, Tanya Roberts, Joseph Campanella, Barry Sullivan, Lorne Greene, Pernell Roberts, Erin Gray, Victor Buono, Gary Lockwood, Stepfanie Kramer, Jill St. John, Priscilla Barnes, Lindsey Bloom, Joe Penny, June Lockhart, Dick Butkus, Michael Constantine, Noah Beery, Jr, Patrick Macnee, James MacArthur, Harry Guardino, Simon Oakland, Richard Basehart, Broderick Crawford
  • GAVILAN
    (1982, NBC)
    13 episodes, not all of them aired
    Premiere: October 26, 1982
    Created by Allan Cole
    Writers: Allan Cole, Chris Bunch
    Directed by Corey Allen, Charlie Picemi
    Executive Producers: Leonard Goldberg
    Music by Steve Dorff
    Starring Robert Urich As GAVILAN
    with Patrick Macnee as Milo Bentley
    and Kate Reid as Marion Jaworski
  • PROMISED LAND
    (1985, ABC)
    2-hour TV movie; pilot for series
    Based on the novel by Robert B. Parker
    Starring Robert Urich as SPENSER
    and Avery Brooks as HAWK
    Also starring Barbara Stock, Ron McLarty, Richard Jaekel, Carolyn McCormick
  • SPENSER FOR HIRE  | Buy the complete series on DVD
    (1985-88, ABC)
    Three seasons
    64 one hour episodes
    Based on characters created by Robert B. Parker
    Writers: Daniel Freudenberger, Robert Hamilton, Stephen Hattman, Robert B. and Joan H. Parker, John Wilder, William Robert Yates, Lee Goldberg, William Rabkin, Howard Gordon, Alex Gansa, David Carren, Steve Hattman, Michael Fisher, Bob Bielak, Juanita Bartlett
    Directors: Richard Colla, Harvey Hart, Winrich Kolbe, Virgil Vogel, David M. Whorf, William Wiard, John Wilder
    Developed for television by John Wilder
    Consultant: Robert B. Parker
    Executive Producers: John Wilder, Juanita Bartlett, Stephen Hattman, William Robert Yates
    Theme by Steve Dorff & Friends
    Starring Robert Urich as SPENSER
    and Avery Brooks as HAWK
    Also starring Barbara Stock as Susan
    With Ron McLarty, Richard Jaekel, Carolyn McCormick
    Guest Stars: Chuck Connors, Spaulding Gray, Lauren Holly, Jimmy Smits, D.B. Sweeney, Jay Thomas, Sal Viscuso
  • SPENSER: CEREMONYBuy this video Buy this on DVD
    (1993, Lifetime)
    Teleplay: Joan Parker and Robert B. Parker, based on his novel “Ceremony”
    Director: Andrew Wild
    Producer: Ray Sager
    Creative Consultant: Joan Parker
    Executive Producers: Peter R. Simpson, Fred B. Tarter, AlanWagner
    A Norstar Entertainment Production
    Filmed in Toronto
    Starring Robert Urich as SPENSER
    with Avery Brooks as HAWK
    and Barbara Williams as Susan Silverman
    Also starring J. Winston Carroll, Dave Nichols, Tanya Allen,Jefferson Mappen, Lynne Cormack, Lili Francks, Alexa Gilmour, Janet Bailey
  • SPENSER: PALE KING AND PRINCES Buy this video Buy this on DVD
    (1993, Lifetime)
    Based on the novel by Robert B. Parker
    Screenplay by Robert P. Parker & Joan H. Parker
    Starring Robert Urich as SPENSER
    with Avery Brooks as HAWK
    and Barbara Williams as Susan Silverman
    Also starring Alex Carter, Matthew Ferguson
  • SPENSER: THE JUDAS GOATBuy this on DVD
    (1994, Lifetime)
    Based on the novel by Robert B. Parker
    Starring Robert Urich as SPENSER
    with Avery Brooks as HAWK
    and Wendy Crewson as Susan Silverman
    It’s bad enough trying to pretend Toronto is Boston, but to replace Montreal with Ottawa? Ughhhh!!!!
  • SPENSER: A SAVAGE PLACEBuy this on DVD
    (1995, Lifetime)
    Based on the novel by Robert B. Parker
    Written by Carol Daley, Donald Martin, Monte Stettin and Nahum Tate
    Directed by Joseph L. Scanlan
    Starring Robert Urich as SPENSER

YOU HAVE GOT TO SEE THIS!

  • Tom Selleck Gives Robert Urich a Few Tips
    In this 1987 gag video, posted on YouTube by Ian Woolf, Tom “Magnum P.I.” Selleck offers advice to Robert “Spenser for Hire” Urich on how to keep a TV series on the air for “a really really really long time.”

RELATED LINKS

Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.

 

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