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Robert Urich: Television's Ever Ready Actor : He Keeps Going and Going--Here Comes Series 10

September 15, 1993|MICHELE WILLENS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When "It Had to Be You" premieres on CBS Sunday, most of the attention will be focused on Faye Dunaway and her decision to join the ranks of film stars turning to series television for career lifts. But perhaps the real focus should be on Dunaway's co-star in the series, Robert Urich.

How many chances does this guy get?

"It Had to Be You" is Urich's 10th TV series, despite the fact that none of the previous nine has been a major hit. Only Harry Morgan, with 11 under his belt, has had ongoing roles in more series--and he had a 19-year head start.

"I frankly don't get why he keeps landing series," says one agent who asked not to be named (and who said that he nonetheless would love to represent Urich).

"It haunts me day and night," says TV critic Tom Shales of the Washington Post, somewhat facetiously. When Shales gave a speech last year about the television season, he referred to "Robert Urich's annual failed series."

A mini-exploration into the Urich Resiliency factor turned up two primary causes. One is very good spin control--not necessarily on the part of the 46-year-old actor, but by those around him. This had led to the perception in many quarters (Shales and other critics aside) that the man has leaped from mega-hit to mega-hit and has a popularity rating right up there with Connie Chung's.

The other cause has to do with simply being the right man for the right medium, a perfect melding of times, personality and expectation.

Most associate Urich with "Vega$" (1978-1981) and "Spenser: For Hire" (1985-1988), which is all for the good, since they were the only semi-successful series in which he starred--although each lasted only three seasons and never achieved Top 20 status. ("Soap" had a longer run but his character was killed off in the first season.) Before, between and after came "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice," "SWAT," "Tabitha," "Gavilan," "American Dreamer" and "Crossroads."

Though Urich himself says, "I have some actor friends who scratch their heads about the jobs I keep getting," most of those who might be jealous of his good fortune seem to forget, forgive or buy into the spin.

"Why should I be upset?" asks contemporary George DiCenzio, who's appeared with Urich in a number of shows. "The guy's had all those hits and maybe one clinker in there. Besides, he's a great guy."

Those close to the actor spring readily to his defense. "Who wouldn't want this guy?" asks his new agent, ICM's Alan Berger. "He's been in a couple of really big shows and he's just one of those guys Americans like to welcome into their homes."

"You have to understand," says Leslie Moonves, president of Warner Bros. Television, which is producing "It Had to Be You," "that 80% of new shows fail. It doesn't matter who's in them."

And Warner Bros. was willing to get in a bidding war for Urich's services with NBC, which wanted him to star in a series with Park Overall. "Everyone likes him," Moonves says. "He's a sort of Everyman, and that relate-ability is critical in television."

What's the appeal? Urich seems to be equally liked by men and women, who find him strong but non-threatening, sensitive when necessary. The perfect man for the touchy-feely '70s and the feminist '80s, and yet able to roll into the back-to-mano '90s. That's why he was chosen for the "Spenser" character, your slightly more complex television detective.

"I was looking for a big, athletic, not-dumb leading man, and if you want one on television and don't want Robert Urich, who are you going to get?" poses the books' author, Robert Parker. "Was he exactly the Spenser I'd had in mind? No, Robert Mitchum probably would have been, but we're talking TV here."

Critic Shales also feels that Urich may be perfectly suited to television, though for reasons less charitable. "He's so kind of anonymous and bland, which often works well in TV," Shales says. "Audiences like to read things into people like that."

In fairness, Urich has made an effort in the last few years to go beyond bland and take on some meatier stuff, at least in television movies. There was "Blind Faith," where he played a man accused of killing his own family members, and there was "Lonesome Dove," where he was the loser-heel riding herd alongside all those heroes.

This season, though, Urich comes back in a role probably closest to the real man. In "It Had to Be You," he is blue-collar Johnny Hawkins, a carpenter and father of three who clashes and connects with Dunaway's sophisticated book publisher.

How does the Teflon Television Man feel about his remarkable staying power?

First, he's not only not insulted by the "anonymous man" theory, he endorses it.

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