They’ll never forget that first meeting four years ago, when he smiled and said, “It browns up beautifully in the pan.” The occasion was the filming of a Libby’s hash commercial, and actor Bob Urich was actually simmering over his co-star, Heather Menzies. Afterward, he reports, he had to badger her for days to accept a date, and then she hardly spoke to him during an afternoon of sailing. But later, after dinner and a movie, Bob recalls, “I said, ‘Should we go to your house and feed the cat or my house and feed the dog?’ She said she’d already fed the cat, so we went to my house and we haven’t really been apart since.”
Urich, 31, has been one of TV’s handsome young yeomen, featured in four series—Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice, S.W.A.T., Soap and Tabitha—before hitting the jackpot as Dan Tanna, the good-natured gumshoe of ABC’s Vega$. The new show is a ratings hit even if one critic labeled it “eminently worthless.” Menzies, 28, has been showing up on TV since her teens (“I always played the little girl gone wrong or the lawyer’s daughter getting busted for dope”), was in the Logan’s Run series and is currently starring in the enjoyably bad movie Piranha, a sort of low-budget Jaws.
The two married in 1975 and have come a long way from their canned hash days when, Urich recalls, “We’d practice our concentration by standing on an old table in the backyard reciting Shakespeare while one of us sprayed the other with a hose. No laughing allowed.”
Urich enjoyed an auspicious start in the business. In his rookie year as a professional he was spotted by Burt Reynolds in a Chicago production of The Rainmaker. “He invited me back to his hotel suite and told me I was going to do really well,” recalls Urich. “The next thing I know, he sends for his agent and manager to come to Chicago to see me. The next thing I know, I’m moving out to the coast and I’m living in Burt’s house because he’s going away to do a movie.” (Urich adds, “I’m not an isolated case of Burt’s largesse. Nobody talks about these things ’cause it makes Burt mad as hell.”)
Urich began landing TV and movie parts, including one as a motorcycle gang member who menaces Clint Eastwood in Magnum Force. “In one scene we were supposed to peel off on our bikes and go down this ramp,” Bob recalls. “Well, I’d lied, saying I knew how to ride a motorcycle, so when I went down the ramp I ran over the others—just knocked them all down. Clint stood there and laughed.” Urich also played the tennis pro murdered on Soap before hitting in Vega$.
Menzies, who was born in Toronto, Canada to Scottish parents, started as rapidly as her husband. Her father was a struggling artist, and by the time she was 14, her family had moved to Vancouver, Miami, London and Southern California. “I never really had any friends except my sister Sheila,” Heather says. “I’m so attached to her that Bob and I took her on our honeymoon.” The Menzies clan finally settled in Burbank “when I’d made enough money from a movie role to buy us all a house.” The film was The Sound of Music, in which Heather, 14, won the role of the second oldest Trapp daughter, “because I looked like I belonged in the family.” (She still speaks fondly of Julie Andrews: “She could get angry if provoked, but she loved the kids and we adored her.”)
Two years later she played a murderer on Broadway in We Have Always Lived in the Castle (“The rehearsals lasted longer than the run”). At 19, she met acting student John Cluett through mutual friend Michael Douglas; they were married and it lasted four years. She did guest shots, B movies (Sssssss was her big one) and “some commercials to survive.” Then she met Urich.
“I took one look at Bob,” she recalls, “and my defense mechanism went into full fast forward. I just didn’t want to get mixed up with some hotshot Hollywood type who would do numbers on me.” Bob insists she misjudged him. “I was a virgin until I was 21,” he says, “and the first woman I ever slept with was my first wife!”
Menzies adds, “I was finally able to let down my guard because he understood that, while I wanted someone to support me psychologically and emotionally, I didn’t want to be dominated. His sort of macho looks are deceptive, because he is a very sensitive man.” Urich also found support. “Heather gave me self-help books to read,” he says. “That, coupled with the positive force of my acting coach, Milton Katselas, really turned me around.”
Urich (the name is Slovak) grew up in Toronto, Ohio, “a mill town of about 8,000. We had every kind of religion and race on earth—and some great fights. It was the main recreation outside of high school sports.” Home life was “ethnic Ozzie and Harriet—Dad was the mill foreman and worked at night, but he was home days, and Mom was always baking cookies.” At his Catholic elementary school, “Instead of studying history we would go over and dig the foundation for the nuns’ new residence. You can imagine what kind of an education I was getting.”
He fared better at sports, winning a football scholarship to Florida State (coincidentally, Reynolds’ alma mater). Urich, who was on “the suicide squad and pretty good at kickoffs and punt returns,” saw action as a freshman. The next season, however, “We played Alabama one Saturday and by Thursday, after I had passed out a few times, they found I had a blood clot on my brain.” The clot dissolved, but so did Urich’s football hopes. Because his brother Tom was an actor in New York, Urich took a degree in drama and broadcasting, earned a master’s from Michigan State and sold radio time briefly before turning to acting in Chicago. Several months later he married actress Barbara Rucker; they were divorced in 1974.
Because Vega$ is shot on location, Menzies is taking a respite from her own career to be with her husband. She is, however, studying with Katselas in a class with David and Cheryl Ladd and plays a homicidal maniac in an upcoming episode of her husband’s show. “I won’t give acting up,” she says, “but right now I’m very domestic.” Urich, too, has settled into marriage. “I’m just glad,” he says, “to have a hit series, to have Heather and hopefully to start our family soon. The other day,” he adds, “someone told me Robert Redford was coming to Vegas to do a movie and suggested we get together for a drink. Can you imagine me, a steelworker’s son from Toronto, Ohio, having a few beers with Robert Redford?”