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Robert Stack Biography


Home > Actors > S > Stack, Robert > Biography


Birth Name: Robert Stack
Born: 01/13/1919
Birth Place: Los Angeles, California, USA
Died: 05/14/2003


Born Jan. 13, 1919 in Los Angeles, CA, Stack started life as Charles Langford Modini Stack, the second of two boys in his family. His parents divorced when he was a toddler, and his mother Elizabeth took him to Europe, where he stayed until around the age of six. Stack's stay on the continent provided him the ability to speak fluent French and Italian; in fact, he spoke no English until his return to the United States. Upon his arrival back in the U.S., Stack's parents remarried, but father Charles - a wealthy real estate investor - passed away when Stack was just nine. Stack's mother, who came from a show business family, was close to various Hollywood leading men (including Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy), and arranged for her son to spend time with these stars, both of whom acted as his "surrogate father."

Their influence was clearly felt when Stack attended college at USC, where he took drama courses. He also excelled at skeet shooting, and ranked highly on the national levels in 1935 and 1936. After graduation, he found himself at Universal Studios, where producer Joe Pasternak offered him a screen test. He broke into the film business opposite popular young actress-singer, Deanna Durbin in "First Love" (1939). The film garnered some controversy over its youthful romance plotline, which involved Stack giving Durbin her first on-screen kiss. Stack became a reliable go-to for Upstanding Young Men in all manner of features, ranging from light comedies to forgettable westerns and war pictures. Not all of Stack's early films were throwaways - he earned critical praise for his role as a young Nazi Party member in Frank Borzage's "The Mortal Storm" (1940), which led Hitler's regime to ban all MGM product from Germany. Tweaking his nose again at the Third Reich, he also appeared opposite his boyhood crush, comic actress Carole Lombard, in Ernst Lubitsch's comedy classic, "To Be or Not to Be" (1942). Lombard served as a mentor to Stack until her sudden death by plane crash while selling war bonds in January, 1942. "To Be or Not to Be" was released posthumously, while the world - and certainly Stack - mourned her premature passing. Stack would never get over her death, often commenting on her for documentaries even decades later.

Stack joined the Navy during World War II, serving as a gunnery officer for over three years. During his service, he earned numerous medals and commendations, particularly for his skill at sharp-shooting. After his return to civilian life, Stack returned to Hollywood and appeared in a variety of films. Among his credits in the early '50s were Budd Boetticher's Oscar-nominated drama "The Bullfighter and the Lady" (1951) and "Bwana Devil" (1952), the first color feature filmed in 3-D. In 1954, he landed a meaty role in the John Wayne-produced disaster film "The High and the Mighty" (1954). Stack played the captain of a doomed air flight who comes unglued under pressure; the film was a considerable success and helped cement Stack as a dependable leading man.

Stack played an undercover military agent who infiltrates a gang of American criminals operating in post-war Japan in Samuel Fuller's gritty "House of Bamboo" (1955), and starred as the alcoholic, emotionally stunted heir to an oil empire in Douglas Sirk's overripe melodrama, "Written on the Wind" (1956). The juicy part won Stack his first and only Oscar nomination, and crowned him as a bonafide star. Unfortunately, his time at the top in movies was short-lived. Reportedly, 20th Century Fox, with whom he was contracted, was unhappy that he had earned his nomination while on loan to Universal, and this cost him a chance to appear in the film version of the Ernest Hemingway-adapted, "The Sun Also Rises" in 1957. Whether this was true or not, Stack's film appearances became fewer and far between, with his contract with Fox running out in the late '50s. Like many film actors faced with the same challenges, he made the jump to television, where actor and co-owner of Desilu Studios, Desi Arnaz, tapped him to play '20s-era crimestopper Eliot Ness in his new drama "The Untouchables."

By its sophomore season, "The Untouchables" was earning considerable audience numbers - and critical brickbats over its excessive violence. The series eventually ran its course by 1963, but not before Stack took home an Emmy for his performance in 1960 (he would revisit the character in a 1991 TV-movie, "The Return of Eliot Ness"). After "The Untouchables," Stack returned to features, playing a psychiatrist who attempts to bring modern treatment to a mental hospital in "The Caretakers" (1963) and appearing among an all-star cast as American general Edwin Sibert in Rene Clement's "Is Paris Burning?" (1966). In 1968, Stack returned to television in the ambitious NBC drama, "The Name of the Game" (1968-1971). Stack played a crime reporter opposite Gene Barry and Tony Franciosa, all of whom shared top billing in the expensive semi-anthology program.

For much of the '70s, Stack appeared in made-for-TV movies, and made a third return to episodic TV in 1976, by way of the short-lived police drama, "Most Wanted" (ABC, 1976-77) for his former "Untouchables" producer Quinn Martin. His fourth and final dramatic series arrived in 1981 with another cop show, "Strike Force" (ABC, 1981-82) for Aaron Spelling, though he did enjoy a five-episode run on "Falcon Crest" (CBS, 1981-90) in 1987.

In 1979, Stack surprised critics and audiences with his blithe portrayal of real-life WWII general Joseph Stilwell in Steven Spielberg's expensive comedy "1941." Though the film was a box-office flop, Stack's light comic touch was noted, and the following year, he earned more laughs as a hard-as-nails airplane captain in the Zucker Brothers' hit comedy "Airplane!" (1980). Stack had his share of hilarious moments, most notably his first appearance on-screen, in which he nearly decimates the population of an airport terminal simply because they walk too closely to him.

Following his "Airplane" success, Stack soon found frequent work in comedies throughout the '80s and '90s, often playing parodies of his stiff, patriarchal screen persona. His comedies include "Big Trouble" (1988), John Cassavetes' failed follow-up to "The In-Laws" (1978); "Caddyshack II" (1988); and "Joe Versus The Volcano" (1990). Stack also began lending his distinctive voice to numerous animated features and series, beginning with Ultra Magnus in "The Transformers: The Movie" (1986) and carrying through the next two decades in "Beavis and Butt-head Do America" (1996), "Recess: School's Out" (2001) and the direct-to-video, "Hercules: Zero to Hero" (1999).

Having poked fun at his screen persona for so long, Stack used it to great effect as the host and narrator of "Unsolved Mysteries," which brought him a level of fame and attention he had not experienced since "The Untouchables." Much of the series' tone and effectiveness came from Stack's deep and sonorous voice-overs, which helped to underscore the suspenseful nature of the show's dramatic recreations of real-life crimes and unexplained events. Stack enjoyed his work on the program very much - even if he politely dismissed its more fantastical moments - and praised its on-screen hotline as a useful tool in crime prevention. The show was a massive hit, and even brought Stack a few film roles - he and "Unsolved Mysteries" provided a small but significant plot point in the comedy "Mumford" (1999), and he returned to his self-deprecating side in the broad laughfest, "BASEketball" (1998).

Stack was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2002 and underwent treatment. On May 14, 2003, he died of a heart attack, and was interred in Westwood, California. Stack had married actress Rosemarie Bowe in 1956 and remained with her until his death. They had two children, a son and a daughter. The Stacks occasionally appeared together in productions, including the 1975 TV-movie "Murder on Flight 502" and "Big Trouble" (1986).