As clearly as if it were yesterday, I can still see this group of armed Federal Agents, leaving their parked cars in an alley, climbing up rickety back stairs and kicking open bolted doors, with the announcement, "Federal Agents, don't anybody move." And of course, with this, everybody moved! It was a wild scattering of bodies and booze and tables and cards, all in a desperate attempt to escape the clutches of one Eliot Ness, Federal Agent. Mr. Ness was assigned the task of cleaning up Chicago, getting rid of the crime mostly connected with prohibition, or some of the crime syndicate led by Scarface Al Capone. Of course it wasn't yesterday, it was the late 1950's and early 1960's and I was watching The Untouchables on tv. Eliot Ness was my idol, my hero, and he was played with gritty authenticity, by none other than Robert Stack.
Robert Stack was surrounded by show business at an early age. Born on January 13, 1919, in Los Angeles, his mother, uncle and grandparents were all opera singers. However, his father, according to Robert, "was the only Irishman in County Kerry who couldn't sing and that's whose voice I got." But that "menacing baritone" voice would later serve him well. In the meantime, Robert was playing polo with Spencer Tracy and giving skeet shooting lessons to such stars as Clark Gable and Carol Lombard.
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In 1935, Robert came in 2nd in the National Skeet Shooting Championship and in 1936, his team broke the standing record at the National Skeet Championships in St. Louis. In 1937, Robert was the U.S. 20-gauge Champion Skeet Marksman and once held the record for more than 350 consecutive hits.
After studying drama at USC, now twenty years old, Robert appeared in his first film, First Love, where he gave Deanna Durbin her first on screen kiss. Next, he found himself on screen opposite his off screen skeet shooting pupil, Carole Lombard, in To Be or Not to Be. And then as usual, along came a war and Robert Stack was out to sea with the U.S. Navy in World War II, where he served as an aerial gunnery instructor. Several movies followed his return from active duty, including The High and The Mighty with John Wayne in 1954. In 1957, Robert was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor for his role in Written on the Wind, where he played a "self-destructive alcoholic" (What other kind is there?). And then he found a steady job and I found a hero.
For four years (1959-1963), I and most of America watched as Eliot Ness went after the bad guys. Fighting against bootleggers with tommy guns blaring, the G-men raided warehouses, chopping open barrels of illegal booze. We felt safe, from what in reality was no longer a threat at all, but I'm not sure we understood that. Believe it or not, television was still in it's infancy and the characters who paraded across our tv screens meant as much to us as our neighbors, maybe more. And Robert Stack brought that clean cut, no frills, take no crap image right there to us, once a week whether we liked it or not, and we liked it. Robert Stack, now in command of that menacing baritone voice and using a "granite-eyed" stare, portrayed Eliot Ness, cleaned up Chicago and got an Emmy for it.
Someone once said, 'You really think you're Eliot Ness.' No, I don't think I'm Ness, but I sure as hell know I'm not Al Capone.
Four years later, Robert emerged in another popular tv series, The Name of the Game, with Tony Franciosa and Gene Barry. Afterwards, he climbed back into films and eventually would be remembered as climbing back into the cockpit as a tough guy pilot, albeit a spoof of himself, in Airplane!. Later, He once again used his rugged good looks and his resonant speaking voice, to host Unsolved Mysteries. Another mystery was the voice behind a law agent in Beavis and Butt-head Do America, and that voice belonged to none other than, Mr. Robert Stack. His autobiography, Straight Shooting, was published in 1979. Robert Stack died at his home in Los Angeles on May 15, 2003, at the age of 84. He was untouchable.