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Can't Touch Him

November 10, 1991|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"I put the hat on and I looked in a three-way mirror and it was really weird," Robert Stack was saying. "It was like I had put the tape on fast reverse, but the guy who looked back at me was a guy I didn't know. It certainly didn't look like the guy from 30 years ago."

The man in the mirror was none other than Eliot Ness, the G-Man extraordinaire who played a crucial part in ending the reign of gangster Al Capone in Chicago in the early 1930s. From 1959 to '63, Stack starred as the ace gangbuster in the legendary ABC series "The Untouchables," winning an Emmy for his performance in 1960.

And now, 28 years after he hung up his fedora and Tommy gun, Stack is back in "The Return of Eliot Ness," tonight on NBC. Set in 1947, the murder-mystery finds Ness coming out of retirement to clear the name of a murdered "Untouchable" who was accused of being on the take from the mob.

Before "Eliot Ness" airs, NBC will broadcast a special edition of Stack's current hit NBC series "Unsolved Mysteries," in which Stack profiles the real Ness. "People are going to be sick of me by 11 p.m.," Stack said, laughing.

"The Untouchables" swept the country by storm in April, 1959 as a two-part special on CBS' "Desilu Playhouse." "I was never going to do TV,"' said Stack, who made his film debut in the 1939 Deanna Durbin musical "First Love" and received a best supporting actor Oscar nomination for 1956's "Written on the Wind."

"TV series was a dirty word," he said. "At that time, television series were for people who were out of work and couldn't get a job in the movies."

But the special was a hit, and Stack was asked to reprise the role of Ness in a weekly series. After much soul-searching, Stack agreed to the series after Desi Arnaz, whose company produced the series, promised the "Untouchables" would be a first-class endeavor.

Though numerous critics thought the series was too violent and Italian-American groups decried the fact too many of the mobsters had Italian surnames, "The Untouchables" hit No. 8 in the ratings during its second season. Besides Stack's memorable turn as Ness, the series featured Hollywood gossip columnist Walter Winchell as the narrator. And among the many guest stars were Barbara Stanwyck, Peter Falk, Robert Redford, Robert Duvall, Nehemiah Persoff, William Bendix and Lloyd Nolan.

"The Untouchables" proved to be a mixed blessing for Stack. "We would work all night," he said. "The camera operator died after the third year of a coronary. I hemorrhaged my vocal chords and everybody was ill. At the end, we were supposed to do a fifth year and I said, 'There is nothing left.' "

Fifteen years ago, Stack said, two studios approached him about reviving Ness on TV. "I said, 'How are you going to do redo it? By now some people don't even remember who Eliot Ness was.' So I kind of forgot it."

But then came the summer of 1987, when Kevin Costner portrayed Ness in Brian DePalma's hit film version of "The Untouchables."

"They got a young bright actor to play Ness, which at first peed me off," Stack said. He realized, though, that Costner had brought Ness to a new generation.

"Ness didn't need an explanation who he was," Stack said. "Suddenly, Eliot Ness was recognizable. But there had to be a damn good idea to bring him back (for the TV movie). In the first place, he's an older guy. I'm not going to play him as a younger guy because that just goes against the grain of common sense. I don't have that kind of ego."

And he thinks producer Michael Filerman came up with the perfect premise in "The Return of Eliot Ness."

"The structure was fine and there was an emotional hook to bring Ness back," Stack said. "It's about an old warrior going back to war."

"The Return of Eliot Ness" airs tonight at 9 on NBC.

Tonight's special edition of "Unsolved Mysteries" airs at 8. "Unsolved Mysteries" regularly airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. on NBC.

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