The Robert Urich Foundation Lives On After Actor’s Death
By G G Collins (Copyright 2015)
The following story was written by me the year before the late actor Robert Urich died (April 16, 2002 at age 55). At interview, it was spring and already 103 degrees. Urich had been playing golf and was flushed from the heat, but of all the entertainers I’ve interviewed he was by far the most real. There didn’t appear to be any walls up and no robotic replies. He was in the fight of his life, yet he was poised, likable and at times funny.
Most of us remember Urich as the crime-fighting leading man who starred in Vega$ and Spenser for Hire, among fifteen of his television series and many movies. But his biggest role began in 1996 when he was diagnosed with synovial cell sarcoma; an illness more unlikely than winning the lottery.
“It’s springtime,” he began. “It’s the time of year when we think about birth, and life, and moving forward. I’ve gone all over the country in the last four or five years since I was diagnosed, speaking to groups. We’ve raised millions of dollars for cancer research.” In 2007, Heather Menzies Urich founded The Robert Urich Foundation http://www.urichfoundation.org/.
Urich expressed some of the same concerns that anyone has when faced with a cancer diagnosis. “If you’re a survivor or if you’ve gone through this whole system of being treated by a medical center, it’s a little frustrating at times. I was under the mistaken impression that all the wisdom, technology, and science was somehow amalgamated and contained in some brain trust in the center of the country. It’s just not the way it works. It’s hard sometimes to get even the best brains in this country to agree on what the proper treatment is.” Urich said for this reason it is vital that healthcare systems work in concert to bring clarity and the best of care.
He shared his feelings about the loss of power that happens to anyone who is diagnosed with cancer. “I’ve been a guy who was used to being in the lead, charging up the hill. And then to have somebody say, ‘Take your clothes off. Put that gown on. You’re not going anywhere.’ The sense of loss of control is quite debilitating, and a frightening thing. At that point in your life it’s so important to have people around you who care about what’s going on.”
A cancer diagnosis is frightening, but Urich urged people not to be paralyzed by that fear. “Find out about the best treatment in a business-like way. Get a second opinion. Call a doctor across the country. They’ll talk to you. Don’t let being afraid of the diagnosis stop you from getting the proper treatment. Charge forward.”
If you’ve ever asked yourself, why me? And who hasn’t? Urich advised a different approach. “You can’t ask the question, ‘Why me?’ Well, why not? It’s a commonality that we all share. We all face trial in our lives. You’re better off asking questions like: What? How? Who do I call? Where do I go? Not why? There’s not a theologian on the planet who can tell you why.”
A serious illness is as difficult for family members as it is for the person undergoing the treatment. Urich related how his family reacted to his diagnosis. “My kids were scared to death and my wife cried at night, and I know that. But what we tried to do was keep things as normal as possible. We went to the grocery store together and to the movies. And meanwhile, there’s chemicals being pumped into my chest (via the chemo port). We just try to project ourselves into the future. Healthy. Happy.” Urich laughed when he says he bought a surf board during chemo. He planned to learn to use it someday. And, the family welcomed a daughter during this time. “(She) was a godsend.”
It takes strength from many sources to battle any disease. Urich placed himself in the hands of medicine, his faith and his family. He believed equal parts of each were the balance needed to get through the trials of treatment to recovery. “I happen to believe in science. I was raised Catholic and I believe that all the wisdom and science comes from God. I believe in the spiritual nature of healing. The majority of my time while I lay in a bed getting chemotherapy and my hair was falling out, I was in a nonstop dialogue with God.”
During his treatment Urich said not once did anyone talk with him about lifestyle or diet. “So in some measure you’re thrown out there alone. You’ve got to go out and find out what the latest and best is.”
Urich discovered that with his type of cancer, people don’t usually live for five years, but he was a testament for good medical care and courage. At the time, it was difficult to believe he wouldn’t recover completely.
“The word remission is a tricky word,” he said then. “If you look it up in the dictionary it says, ‘A temporary or permanent subsidence of an outward manifestation of a disease!’ It doesn’t appear that you’re sick right now, but you probably are. It has that kind of connotation. I don’t like that word. I like cancer free and cured, although I get scolded for using that word.” Constant monitoring is needed and Urich did this, but he said it is always filled with anxiety.
The actor underwent another round of surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy in 2000. “The first time it was very public. The last time—last year at this time I had no hair—I kept quiet about it because there was definitely a professional backlash in Hollywood.
“There were some people to this day who don’t even mention it (his illness)—people I worked very closely with. I got telegrams and letters from people all over the world, people I didn’t know.” Urich met Jay Leno a few times while appearing on The Tonight Show and he said Leno sent flowers and telegrams, but some people he’d worked with didn’t call. “Which is okay,” he said with conviction. “Different people have a different way of reacting to it. You just go about your business in a nonjudgmental way and don’t worry about that.”
Urich was outwardly very positive. He made a difference in the short time he had left; raising money for cancer research and meeting with people who were either diagnosed with cancer or who had family going through treatment. On that day, it was difficult to believe he was sick. He continued to work during treatment, sometimes wearing a wig and other times just appearing bald. He finished the interview with a message of hope.
“Everyday we hear about some new breakthrough. I’m confident if we continue to work the problem, that we’ll live full lives, maybe not without monitoring, but it’s possible.”