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    TV's "Untouchable" Dies

    Eliot Ness has hung up his fedora.

    Robert Stack, the Emmy-winning actor who portrayed the straight-shooting G-man on the landmark crime series, The Untouchables, and donned a trench coat to unravel Unsolved Mysteries, died Wednesday of heart failure. He was 84.

    Stack's wife, Rosemarie, told the Associated Press that she found her husband of 47 years slumped over in their Los Angeles home at 5 p.m.

    Stack had undergone radiation treatment for prostate cancer last October, but his wife said he was, of late, tumor-free and that the cause of death "was his heart."

    "He was too weak," Rosemarie Stack, an actress and 1950s pinup model, told the wire service. "He wouldn't have lived through a bypass."

    Stack lived through a lot in his eight decades in Hollywood. He battled hungry lions in 1952's Bwana Devil, the first 3-D movie. He helped John Wayne land an airliner in 1954's The High and the Mighty, the blueprint for the disaster movies of the 1970s, not to mention the Airplane! spoofs of the 1980s, the original of which Stack costarred in, mocking his by-the-books image. And he manhandled Lauren Bacall in 1956's Written on the Wind, a glossy Douglas Sirk melodrama that helped inspire last year's Far From Heaven.

    Stack's work as Bacall's abusive, boozing husband earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. At the 1957 Oscar ceremony, he lost out to Lust for Life's Anthony Quinn, and in two more years, he essentially lost his film career.

    See, in 1959, Robert Stack became Eliot Ness.

    "When you play the same part 120 times, that's what you 'become' in television," Stack said in a 1996 interview with Television Chronicles magazine. "And so, inadvertently, all of a sudden, I 'became' Eliot Ness."

    The real Eliot Ness was a U.S. Treasury Department agent who helped bring down notorious Chicagoland gangster Al Capone during the gun-running, moonshine-making late 1920s and early 1930s.

    Modern-day audiences probably picture Ness as Kevin Costner and Capone as Robert De Niro--the stars of the 1987 film, The Untouchables.

    That movie was inspired by the 1959-63 series of the same name. In that version of Prohibition era Chicago, it was Robert Stack who carried Ness' badge, with Neville Brand posing as Capone.

    "[Ness] was smart, methodical, and rather soft-spoken, but very effective and brave," Stack, who never met the real G-man, once told author Paul W. Heimel (Eliot Ness: The Real Story). "My character had to be a bit more flamboyant--that's television--but I think I was able to capture at least some of the essence of the real Ness."

    In 1960, Stack captured the Emmy for Best Lead Actor in Series.

    The Untouchables, a onetime top 10 hit for the then, as now, struggling ABC, was not an untouchable when it came to critics. The show came under fire for its frequent tommy-gun volleys, and its portrayal of Italian-Americans.

    After The Untouchables, Stack moved onto other series, chiefly, as host of the pioneering reality show, Unsolved Mysteries, which ran on various networks for more than a decade, starting in 1987. He also appeared in other movies, but he never again got to manhandle Lauren Bacall. He was forever the straight-shooting Eliot Ness.

    "Somebody once said, 'You really think you're Eliot Ness,'" Stack told the Associated Press in 1998. "No, I don't think I'm Ness, but I sure as hell know I'm not Al Capone."

    Born Robert Langford Modini on January 13, 1919, the future TV icon was a child of Hollywood--born in Los Angeles, educated at the University of Southern California, acquaintance of Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy.

    He made his movie debut at age 20 in First Love, a musical vehicle for Universal's version of Judy Garland, Deanna Durbin. Stack's claim to fame in that picture was delivering the teen-aged Durbin her first serious on-screen smooch.

    World War II interrupted his burgeoning career. Stack served three years in the Navy as an aerial gunner instructor.

    Following The Untouchables, Stack became ubiquitous for self-parodying, or rather, Ness-parodying, roles, even lending the deadpan voice to 1996's Beavis and Butt-head Do America, as well as his hilarious Airplane! turn.

    In the end, Stack made for a more durable Eliot Ness than Eliot Ness.

    At age 72, he played the federal agent in the 1991 TV movie The Return of Eliot Ness. The real Eliot Ness died in 1957. He was 54.

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