April 29, 2002 12:00 PM

Robert Urich was at home in Thousand Oaks, Calif., on April 8, contemplating a deskful of potential acting projects, when his wife, Heather Menzies, who was out shopping, had an intuition and phoned from her car. “Are you all right?” she asked. “No,” he replied. “I’m having a difficult time breathing here.” The 55-year-old former star of Spenser: For Hire was told last October that his synovial sarcoma—a rare cancer of the body’s soft tissues, with which he had been diagnosed six years earlier—had spread to his lungs. He was scheduled to undergo an innovative microwave treatment at L.A.’s Cedars-Sinai Medical Center on April 10.

“I think I need to go to the hospital a couple of days earlier,” Urich told Menzies, 52. She rushed home and drove him to the ER, “and that’s where the deck of cards came tumbling down,” she says. Complications, including internal bleeding and a collapsed lung, accumulated. On April 16, Urich died peacefully at Los Robles Cancer Center, surrounded by his wife of 26 years, son Ryan, 23, daughter Emily, 21, and friends such as actress Angela Cartwright and chef Emeril Lagasse, on whose sitcom Urich costarred last fall.

Urich had long regarded his cancer as a chance to bring to real life the qualities he showed in his TV roles. “I thought, ‘Let me exhibit the courage I’ve always seemed to display,’ ” he told ABC’s Diane Sawyer in 1996. As Officer James Street on S.W.A.T. (1975-77), private eye Dan Tanna on Vega$ (1978-81) and ex-CIA agent Robert Gavilan on Gavilan (1982), Urich had portrayed a succession of chiseled, upright tough guys. But in his best-known part, Spenser: For Hire (1985-88), he undercut his action-hero image by playing a cerebral sleuth who quoted Shakespeare and preferred frying a gourmet meal to firing a gun.

His Spenser persona, it turned out, was no act. “His macho looks are deceptive,” Menzies told PEOPLE in 1978, “because he is a very sensitive man.” He was also a notably approachable star. Recalls Tony Curtis, who played Urich’s boss on Vega$: “He had a friendly personality, no attitude, no conniptions or dilemmas.” Strangers warmed to him. “People are always coming up to me,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1993, “not to talk about my shows but about their families, their pets.”

And why not? Urich wasn’t so different from his fans. Raised in Toronto, Ohio, a steel town where his father was a foreman at the local mill and his mother worked for a dry cleaner, “I was a very uptight Catholic boy who played by the rules,” he said in 1996. After winning a football scholarship to Florida State, Urich was sidelined by a head injury. He went on to earn a B.A. in drama and broadcasting. At 21, he mil It wed actress Barbara Rucker and three years later gave up a job as a radio ad salesman to pursue a stage career. Burt Reynolds, who also attended FSU, costarred with him in a Chicago production of The Rainmaker and urged him to move to L.A., where he landed a short-lived 1973 series based on the movie Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice.

A year later Urich and Rucker divorced, and he began dating Menzies, the actress who played Louisa in The Sound of Music. They married in ’75. After several miscarriages the couple turned to adoption, bringing Ryan and Emily into their family.

In the spring of ’96 Urich was shooting a new series, The Lazarus Man, when he discovered a lump in his groin. A biopsy revealed cancer. After chemotherapy, surgery and radiation treatment, “he was virtually in remission,” says Menzies. In 1998 the couple adopted their third child, Allison, now 4. The following year Urich played lawyer Billy Flynn in the touring company of Chicago. In the middle of the run doctors found a malignant cyst in his groin. The cyst was removed and Urich, after undergoing a new round of chemo, had no further symptoms until last fall, when a tumor appeared in his lung.

In his final hours, “he told me he wanted everything done for him, because he wanted to live so much,” says Menzies. “But it got to the point where [life support] wasn’t the right thing to do. I went in and held him. And I said, T want you to let go and come into my heart because it’s safe there.’ He stopped breathing. And now he’s in my heart. I can feel his arms around me, you know.”

Michael A. Lipton

John Hannah, Frank Swertlow and Alison Gee in Los Angeles

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