Tuesday, April 16, 2002 | 11:11 a.m.
Robert Urich, whose portrayal of Las Vegas private detective Dan Tanna in the hit television show "Vega$" defined the modern though changing gambling center in the late '70s, died today.
The Emmy Award-winning actor, also known for his portrayal of another sleuth in "Spenser: For Hire," died of a rare form of cancer that he announced he had in 1996. His courage in the face of death and optimistic outlook for recovery heightened awareness of all forms of cancer.
Urich died at a hospital in Thousand Oaks, Calif., surrounded by family members and friends, publicist Cindy Guagenti said. He was 55.
Today Las Vegans who worked with Urich remembered a fun-loving man who enjoyed his job and loved the city whose image he helped improve with his performance as a crime fighter.
"He was a fine young man and a superb actor whose sincere, warm image came across to the public," said former Desert Inn President Burton Cohen, whose resort was the main filming location for "Vega$."
"There was not one ounce of temperament in him as an actor. He brought a sense of seriousness to his role as Dan Tanna but always appeared as though he had fun doing it. He was handsome, and the women loved him."
Aaron Spelling brought Cohen the idea for making the old DI the home for "Vega$." After Spelling asked Cohen what he thought of the pilot, Cohen said "it was the worst piece of junk" he had ever seen. The producers and Cohen then worked out the details for shooting future episodes at the DI.
"I felt that it would be good public relations, not only for the DI but for Las Vegas, and it went over very well," Cohen said. "We turned the hotel into a movie studio and production offices and used employees as extras."
JR Reid, owner of a film lighting and grip rental company, was a stagehand on "Vega$" and remembered how much fun it was working with Urich.
"Unlike a lot of actors, Bob was very cognizant of the crew and enjoyed cutting up with the guys on the set," Reid said.
"The show was a defining moment for Las Vegas that showed that the city, its glitz and glamour aside, was like any other in America that had problems like any other place."
Reid said the show also played an important role in the tourism industry, as people came to Las Vegas to visit the set and watch the shooting. It also set the stage for the shooting of many other TV and film productions, including the successful "Crime Story" series.
Both Cohen and Reid said that the Dan Tanna character was so endearing that people would come to town and asked where Tanna lived.
Urich announced in 1996 that he was suffering from synovial cell sarcoma, a rare cancer that attacks the body's joints. He underwent chemotherapy, radiation treatments and two operations in the mid-1990s to combat the cancer, then returned to acting.
He earned his first television role in the 1973 comedy series "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice." He also appeared in the TV series "S.W.A.T" before being cast as Peter Campbell in "Soap."
"Vega$" ran on ABC from 1978 to 1981. It was rated 23rd in the 1978-79 season. After the show ended, Urich signed a three-picture movie deal with MGM studios, but his small screen popularity never transferred to the big screen.
Urich role as a crime-solver led, however, to his starring role in another ABC detective series "Spenser: For Hire," which was based on Robert Parker's novels. That series aired from 1985 to 1988.
Urich won an Emmy in 1992 for his narration of the "National Geographic Explorer" film "U-Boats: Terror on Our Shores." He also received the Cable Ace Award that year for hosting "National Geographic Explorer."
More recently Urich appeared as a wanderer suffering from amnesia in "The Lazarus Man," as a cruise ship captain on "Love Boat: The Next Wave" and a wisecracking talent agent on the brief NBC sitcom "Emeril."
Urich sued Castle Rock Television, which produced "Lazarus Man," for nearly $1.5 million two years ago, claiming the show was canceled by the production company because he had cancer.
In July 1996 Urich told Castle Rock that he had cancer and would have to undergo treatment, but his lawsuit said he was able to perform under the agreement both parties signed. The breach of contract suit sought the amount, about $73,000 per episode, he would have received for the second season of "Lazarus Man."
Born in Toronto, Ohio, Urich won a football scholarship at Florida State University. He later earned a master's degree in broadcast research and management from Michigan State University.
Urich briefly worked in Chicago as a radio sales agent and a television meteorologist. Burt Reynolds helped Urich land his first major role, as his younger brother in a stage production of "The Rainmaker."
Urich appeared in several television miniseries and cable specials.
Other television credits include: "Crossroads," "Lonesome Dove," "Vital Signs," "It Had to Be You," and "Tabitha."
Among his film credits were starring roles in "Turk 182!" with Timothy Hutton and "Ice Pirates" with Anjelica Huston.
After his bout with cancer, Urich became active in cancer research, with he and his wife establishing the Heather and Robert Urich Fund for Sarcoma Research to accelerate the pace of research into sarcoma. Earlier this year Urich donated the proceeds from his appearance on the game show "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" to a fund at the University of Michigan, where he was treated for cancer.
He received the Gilda Radner Courage Award from the Roswell Park Cancer Institute, named for the cancer-stricken comedic actress who starred on "Saturday Night Live" and, like Urich, made a comeback to television only to later die of the disease.
"Charge forward with hope and get the best medical advice you can," Urich urged an audience during a public speaking engagement last year in Wisconsin. "Talk to your friends, neighbors, family, and together you attack it. We can't always control what happens to us, but we can always control how we react to it."
He is survived by his wife; three children, Allison, Ryan and Emily; two brothers; a sister; and his mother.
A memorial service was scheduled for Friday in Los Angeles.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.