Robert Stack Biography

Born January 13, 1919, in Los Angeles, CA; died of heart failure, May 14, 2003, in Bel Air, CA. Actor. Actor Robert Stack was known for his portrayal of determined, crime fighter Eliot Ness in the 1960s television series The Untouchables, as well as for his role as host of another series, Unsolved Mysteries. His work on The Untouchables won him an Emmy award in 1960.

Stack was born in Los Angeles, California, in 1919, a fifth–generation Californian. His great–grandfather founded one of the city's first opera houses, and his grandmother was a noted opera singer. His father, James, was an advertising executive, but Stack's parents divorced when he was only a year old. When he was three, he moved with his mother to Paris, France, where she studied singing. Stack's older brother, James, stayed in the United States with their father. When Stack was six, he and his mother returned to the United States; he had learned to speak fluent French while in Paris, but now had to learn English. His parents remarried, but his father died when Stack was ten. His mother, believing that Stack needed to have male role models in his life, encouraged him to become involved in sports.

Among these mentors and role models were actor Spencer Tracy, producers Darryl Zanuck and Walter Wagner (with whom he played polo) and actors Gary Cooper, Fred MacMurray, and Clark Gable (who shot skeet with him). Stack attended the University of Southern California for a year, then joined a theater group in Hollywood and studied singing. His teacher told him that if he wanted to hear truly talented singers, he should go to Universal Studios. At the time, the studio was looking for a man who could play a prince, and when producer Joe Pasternak saw Stack standing around the set, he asked Stack to audition. He won the lead, acting opposite Deanna Durbin in First Love and giving the teenaged actress her first on–screen kiss, an event that generated national attention. He followed this with a string of movies, including The Mortal Storm, a drama that depicted the evils of the German Nazi dictatorship. As a result, according to a Times reporter, Stack once said, "I found out I was on Hitler's hitlist."

Stack served as a gunnery officer in the Navy during World War II and then returned to films, playing the lead in The Bullfighter and the Lady in 1951 as well as in the first commercial 3–D movie Bwana Devil in 1952, and appearing in a supporting role in The High and the Mighty, which starred John Wayne, in 1953. In 1956 he appeared in Written on the Wind, a melodrama starring Lauren Bacall and Rock Hudson, and received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his work in that film. In that same year, he married his wife, Rosemarie. In later years, they would be well known in Hollywood for their long and happy marriage.

From 1959 to 1963, Stack starred as steely–eyed, determined Eliot Ness on the television series The Untouchables, which was based on the real–life investigator, set in Prohibition–era Chicago, and which featured Ness fighting bootleggers and mobsters. Initially, Stack didn't want the part; at the time, television was a relatively new medium, and television actors did not receive the respect accorded to film actors. Stack's agent insisted, however, and he took the part. John Milius, a longtime friend of Stack's, told Los Angeles Times writer Dennis McLellan that as an actor, Stack had "unshakable dignity. At the same time, there was something dangerous about [him]. You can call it whatever you want—macho or whatever it is—but Bob had prowess; he had an authority in what he did. I don't know whether it came from a certain moral center or what." However, Milius also noted that Stack had an excellent sense of humor to balance this stoic dignity. Stack became so renowned for his role as Ness, and so identified with the part, that he found it hard to find other work after the series ended. Stack later starred in three other television series, The Name of the Game from 1968 to 1971, Most Wanted from 1976 to 1977, and Strike Force from 1981 to 1982, as well as hosting Unsolved Mysteries from 1987 to 2002. He also appeared in the 1980 comedy film Airplane, a satire of the 1970s genre of "disaster movies," and in the 1988 comedy Caddyshack II. In both these films, he mocked his earlier screen image as Ness.

In his later years, Stack suffered from ill health. He underwent radiation treatment for prostate cancer, and when he suffered two blocked arteries, his doctor said that heart surgery would be too risky because of the after–effects of the radiation. He died of heart failure at his home in Bel Air, California, on May 14, 2003; he was 84. He is survived by his wife, children Elizabeth and Charles, and his brother, James.


Los Angeles Times, May 16, 2003, p. B12; New York Times, May 16, 2003, p. A23; Times (London, England), May 19, 2003, (May 19, 2003); Washington Post, May 16, 2003, p. B6;

Kelly Winters

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