Poor Bob

The Private Eye Shows of Robert Urich

by Kevin Burton Smith

First of all, let me set the record straight:


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 that has generated some of the the angriest responses I've ever received for anything I've written.

And I've said a lot of stuff over the years.

I've been called assorted nasty names, my sexual preferences have been called into question, my heritage and genetic code have been besmirched and I've received perhaps the most devastating and vicious insult of all, at least according to some of my detractors.

Yes, my friends, I've been called a... critic!

And it gets even worse. Why, someone just accused me the other day of being... subjective!

Oh, the shame.

* * * * *

The thing is, I always sorta liked Urich. He was an affably bland kinda guy, who could morph easily into various 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 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. Granted, not all the shows were hits or -- truth be told -- even very good, but given the wide 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 briefly worked as a TV weatherman before deciding to pursue an acting career.

His first break came in 1972, when he was cast as fellow FSU alumni Burt Reynold's younger brother in a stage production of The Rainmaker, and it was partially due to Reynolds encouragement that Urich moved to California. Ol' Burt even let Urich crash at his place while he searched for work, and suggested Urich to Aaron Spelling, who was casting for the TV show S.W.A.T. (1975).

Although the show only lasted one season (it was essentially a male version of Charlies 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 he had in mind.

Vega$ (1978) proved to be the perfect role for Urich. He was perfectly cast as glib, 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 recuing various damsels in distress. 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.

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

But Urich was soon back in the game with Gavilan (1982). Since being a private investigator was Urich's most successful venture thus far, why not give it another try, yet 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, and the gimmicks weren't enough to float that boat, but people seemed to like Urich as a detective kinda guy. The show was cut loose after one season.

The third time playing a detective proved to be the charm, at least in terms of popularity. In "Spenser: For Hire" Urich played Robert Parker's extremely popular, bestselling 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. There were also a handful of T.V. movies, alos starring Urich.

often helped on cases by pimp master supreme Hawk (Avery Brooks).

The only problem for me was that Urich's Spenser was not the Spenser of the books.

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

And he kept on working.

He shilled for Bayer Aspirin in 1990 and Purina dog food. 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 novel.

He played the lead in a 1996 Hallmark Hall of Fame production of Captains Courageous, and he
\\peared on stage, in the musical Chicago. He played the role of Billy Flynn on Broadway in 2000,[7] and also was in the North American tour of the musical, in 1999 and in 2000.[8][9][10]

He was starring in the TV series "The Lazarus Man" (1996) when he was diagnosed with cancer, which caused the cancellation of the series. The cancer went into remission after treatment and he resumed acting again with his role as Captain Jim Kennedy III on "Love Boat: The Next Wave" (1998).

19 December 1946, Toronto, Ohio, USA

Date of Death

16 April 2002, Thousand Oaks, California, USA (cancer)

Birth Name

Robert Michael Urich


6' 2" (1.88 m)

Urich (left), Maureen Reagan, and Jack Hogan, pose for a 1974 publicity photo for the TV show Vector.

In 1992, Urich hosted the CBS TV special The Bat, the Cat, and the Penguin, which was a behind-the-scenes look of the upcoming motion picture Batman Returns. Most of his TV series were short-lived, although several, such as Vega$ and Spenser: For Hire, proved to be successes. In the 1990s, Urich reprised the role of Spenser in several made-for-TV films. He also played a main character, Jake Spoon, in the acclaimed television miniseries Lonesome Dove, a role for which he received many positive reviews,

He first gained attention in Urich was of Rusyn and Slovak extraction and raised Byzantine Catholic[2] and Roman Catholic[3] in the small town of Toronto, Ohio, where he is honored with the Robert Urich Interchange leading to State Route 7. Due to the similarity in names with Toronto, Ontario, many sources list him incorrectly as being a Canadian. His second wife, actress Heather Menzies, actually is a Canadian from the latter city.
Urich attended Florida State University on a football scholarship. In 1968, he earned a bachelor's degree in Radio and Television Communications. While attending, he joined Lambda Chi Alpha Fraternity. He went on to Michigan State University after working in Ohio to earn a master's degree in Broadcast Research and Management.
Urich was first married to actress Barbara Rucker (1968-74). He married actress Heather Menzies in 1975, and they remained married until his death in 2002. Menzies played one of the von Trapp children, "Louisa," in the film version of The Sound of Music. Urich and Menzies adopted three children, Ryan, Emily and Allison.
In 1996, Urich announced that he had been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, synovial sarcoma, that arises in soft tissues.[4] The TV series he was working on at the time, The Lazarus Man, was ultimately canceled, his failing health cited by him as the reason.[5] He continued to appear in film and TV during treatment. Urich ultimately died from the disease on April 16, 2002 at the age of 55.
Menzies also battled cancer, and is an ovarian cancer survivor. She works with the Robert and Heather Urich Fund for Sarcoma Research at the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center.


Acting career

"Vega$" (1978): Urich was hip private investigator Dan Tanna. Tanna drove around Las Vegas in his pimp red Thunderbird working on retainer for a big casino, but taking extra work on the side. It was a big hit to start, but flamed out after three seasons.

After the "hit" series was cancelled, ABC/Lifetime produced four full-length movies starring the late Robert Urich and Avery Brooks reprising their roles as the wisecracking Boston detective and his bad-ass sidekick, taking their plots -- for once -- directly from the best-selling novels. Included in this boxed set are "Ceremony," "Pale Kings and Princes," "The Judas Goat" and "A Savage Place."

In 1999, A&E took a whack at the franchise, as well, casting Joe Mantegna for three further movies, also all based on Parker novels.


  • VEGA$
    (April 25, 1978, ABC)
    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$
    (1978-1981, ABC)
    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
  • 1st season)..Buy Volume One on DVD...)..Buy Volume Two
  • "Centerfold" (September 20, 1978)
  • "The Games Girls Play" September 27, 1978)
  • "Mother Mishkin" (October 11, 1978)
  • "Love, Laugh Or Die" (October18, 1978)
  • "Yes, My Darling Daughter" (October 25, 1978)
  • "Lady Ice" (November 1, 1978)
  • "Milliken's Stash" (November 8, 1978)
  • "The Pageant" (November 15, 1978)
  • "Lost Women" (November 22, 1978)
  • "Second Stanza" (December 6, 1978)
  • "Serve, Volley And Kill" (December 20, 1978)
  • "Yours Truly, Jack The Ripper" (January 10, 1979; AKA "Ghost Of The Ripper")
  • "The Eleventh Event" (January 17, 1979; AKA "The Eleventh Planet")
  • "Kill Dan Tanna" (January 24, 1979)
  • "Death Mountain" (January 31, 1979)
  • "Best Friends" (February 7, 1979)
  • "Demand And Supply" (February 14, 1979)
  • "Everything I Touch" (February 28, 1979)
  • "Doubtful Target" (March 7, 1979)
  • "Touch Of Death" (March 14, 1979)
  • "The Way To Live" (May 2, 1979)
  • "The Visitor" (May 9, 1979; AKA "An Eastern Princess")
  • 2nd season)..Buy Volume One on DVD...)..Buy Volume Two
  • "Red Handed" (September 19, 1979)
  • "The Usurper" (September 26, 1979)
  • "Mixed Blessings" (October 3, 1979)
  • "Runaway" (October 24, 1979)
  • "Design For Death" (Or Designs) (October 31, 1979)
  • "Shadow On A Star" (November 14, 1979)
  • "Dan Tanna Is Dead" (November 21, 1979)
  • "Macho Murders" (November 28, 1979)
  • "Classic Connections" (December 19, 1979)
  • "Night Of 1000 Eyes" (January 2, 1980; AKA "Private Eye Connection")
  • "Lost Monday" (January 9, 1980)
  • "Comeback" (January 16, 1980; AKA "Casualty Of War")
  • "All Kinds Of Love" (January 23, 1980)
  • "Magic Sister Slayings" (January 30, 1980)
  • "The Lido Girls" (February 6, 1980)
  • "Consortium" (February 27, 1980)
  • "The Hunter Hunted" (March 5, 1980)
  • "The Man Who Was Twice" (March 12, 1980)
  • "Golden Gate Cop Killer" (March 19, 1980; 2-hour episode; AKA "Ladies In Blue')
  • "Siege Of The Desert Inn" (April 30, 1980)
  • "Vendetta" (May 7, 1980)
  • "The Day The Gambling Stopped" (June 18, 1980)
  • 3rd season
  • "Aloha, You're Dead" (November 5, 1980, 2-hour episode)
  • "Black Cat Killer" (November 11, 1980)
  • "Sudden Death" (November 19, 1980)
  • "Love Affair" (November 26, 1980)
  • "A Deadly Victim" (December 3, 1980)
  • "Deadly Blessings" (December 10, 1980)
  • "Christmas Story" (December 17, 1980)
  • "The Andreas Addiction" (December 24, 1980)
  • "Time Bomb" (January 9, 1981)
  • "Sourdough Suite" (January 14, 1981)
  • "Murder By Mirrors" (January 21, 1981)
  • "Backlash" (February 18, 1981)
  • "Heist" (February 25, 1981)
  • "No Way To Treat A Victim" (March 4, 1981)
  • "Nightmare Come True" (March 11, 1981)
  • "Out Of Sight" (March 15, 1981)
  • "Set Up" (March 25, 1981)
  • "The Killing" (April 15, 1981)
  • "Seek And Destroy" (April 22, 1981)
  • "Dead Ringer" (April 29, 1981)
  • "French Twist" (March 6, 1981)
  • "Judgement Pronounced" (May 27, 1981)
    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 (1985-88, ABC)
    64 one hour episodes
    Based on characters created by Robert B. Parker
    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
    Richard Colla, Harvey Hart, Winrich Kolbe, Virgil Vogel, David M. Whorf, William Wiard, John Wilder
    Developed for television by John Wilder
    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, Ron McLarty, Richard Jaekel, Carolyn McCormick
    Guest Stars:
    Chuck Connors, Spaulding Gray, Lauren Holly, Jimmy Smits, D.B. Sweeney, Jay Thomas, Sal Viscuso
  • Season One
  • "Spenser: For Hire" (September 20, 1985)
  • "No Room at the Inn" (September 27, 1985)
  • "The Choice" (October 4, 1985)
  • "Discord in A Minor" (October 11, 1985)
  • "Original Sin" (October 15, 1985)
  • "Children of a Tempest Storm" (October 22, 1985)
  • "The Killer Within" (October 29, 1985)
  • "Autumn Thieves" (November 12, 1985)
  • "Blood Money" (November 19, 1985)
  • "Resurrection" (December 6, 1986)
  • "Internal Affairs" (December 31, 1985)
  • "Death by Design" (January 7, 1986)
  • "A Day's Wages" (January 14, 1986)
  • "A Madness Most" Discreet (January 21, 1986)
  • "Brother to Dragons" (February 4, 1986)
  • "When Silence Speaks" (February 11, 1986)
  • "In a Safe Place" (February 18, 1986)
  • "Angel of Desolation" (March 4, 1986)
  • "She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not" (March 11, 1986)
  • "At the River's Edge" (March 25, 1986)
  • "Rage" (April 1, 1986)
  • "Hell Hath No Fury" (April 8, 1986)
  • Season Two
  • "Widow's Walk" (September 27, 1986)*
  • "An Eye for an Eye" (October 4, 1986)
  • "Rockabye Baby" (October 18, 1986)
  • "White Knight" (October 25, 1986)
  • "And Give Up Show Biz" (November 1, 1986)
  • "The Long Hunt" (November 8, 1986)
  • "Home is the Hero" (November 22, 1986)
  • "One if by Land, Two if by Sea" (November 29, 1986)
  • "Shadowsight" (December 13, 1986)
  • "The Hopes and Fears" (December 20, 1986)
  • "Among Friends" (January 7, 1987)
  • "I Confess" (January 17, 1987)
  • "Murder and Acquisitions" (January 24, 1987)
  • "Personal Demons" (February 7, 1987)
  • "Mary Hamilton" (February 14, 1987)
  • "Trial and Error" (February 21, 1987)
  • "One for My Daughter" (March 7, 1987)
  • "My Brother's Keeper" (March 14, 1987)
  • "The Road Back" (March 21, 1987)
  • "If You Knew Sammy..." (April 15, 1987)
  • "The Man Who Wasn't There" (May 2, 1987)
  • "The Song of Orpheus" (May 9, 1987)
  • Season Three
  • "The Homecoming" (September 27, 1987)*
  • "My Enemy, My Friend" (October 4, 1987)
  • "Heart of the Matter" (October 11, 1987)
  • "On the Night He Was Betrayed" (November 1, 1987)
  • "Sleepless Dreams" (November 8, 1987)
  • "Consilum Abditum" (November 15, 1987)
  • "Thanksgiving" (November 29, 1987)
  • "Gone Fishin'" (December 6, 1987)
  • "Child's Play" (December 20, 1987)
  • "Skeletons in the Closet" (January 3, 1988)
  • "The Siege" (January 10, 1988)
  • "Arthur's Wake" (January 16, 1988)
  • "To the End of the Line" (January 23, 1988)
  • "Play It Again, Sammy" (January 30, 1988)
  • "The Big Fight" (February 6, 1988)
  • "Substantial Justice" (March 5, 1988)
  • "Company Man" (March 12, 1988)
  • "Water Colors" (March 19, 1988)
  • "Hawk's Eyes" (March 26, 1988)
  • "McAllister" (April 3, 1988)
  • "Haunting" (May 7, 1988)
  • SPENSER: CEREMONY...Buy 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 GOAT....Buy 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 PLACE....Buy 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
    with Avery Brooks as HAWK
    Wendy Crewson as Susan Silverman
    and Cynthia Dale as Candy Sloane
    Also starring Tyrone Berskin, Neil Crone, Richard Fitzpatrick, Jerry Levitan, Douglas Miller, Daniel Parker, Ross Pelty, Natalie Radford, Michael Ricupero, David Spooner and Hayley Tyson


  • 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."

Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith, May 2013.

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