By Kathy Mackay
April 19, 1982 12:00 PM

As gang buster Eliot Ness on The Untouchables 20 years ago, Robert Stack played the tough leader of an elite band of Treasury agents—and created a TV legend. This year Stack, at 63, is back as Capt. Frank Murphy, the tough leader of an elite police team on ABC’s Strike Force, but now legends are harder to make. Like James Arness in McClain’s Law and Mike Connors in Today’s FBI, to name just two of many returning oldies, Stack is struggling in the ratings. The Nielsen families, it seems, have just about accomplished what hundreds of baddies always failed to do: bump off Ness, Mannix and Matt Dillon.

Whether Strike Force returns next fall (its competition has been CBS’ formidable Falcon Crest), Stack feels the experience has been worth it. “Ness was a stone face with fires underneath,” he says. “Murphy shows what he feels. He gets mad as hell or he is touched to the point of crying. He has qualities I’ve never played before.” Indeed, for most of his 42-year, 35-film career, Stack has played rugged men for whom emotion just rhymed with commotion. His most famous (and favorite) movie role was the by-the-book airline captain at odds with co-pilot John Wayne in 1954’s The High and the Mighty. His soldier-pilot-outdoorsman typecasting became so strong that he could spoof it as the crazed ground officer in the 1980 smash Airplane! and as Gen. Joseph “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell in 1941. Despite his success, Stack says, “I’ve never liked myself as an actor. But my great-grandfather built the first theater in Los Angeles, so I would have been kicked in the backside if I hadn’t gone into the business.”

His roots in showbiz and Hollywood could hardly be deeper. His great-granddad’s was among the first five American families to settle in the sleepy pueblo now known as L.A. The clan became wealthy transporting lumber from Oregon. Grandmother Marina Perrini and Grandfather Carlos Modini became noted opera singers, performing around the world. Stack’s ad exec father died when he was 9, but, thanks to the family fortune, Bob was raised opulently by his socialite mother. By the time he entered the University of Southern California he had made an international name for himself as a sportsman. At 16, he was World Skeet Champion (he was named to the Skeet-Shooting Hall of Fame in 1971), and in 1940 and 1941 he was the West Coast’s leading speedboat racer with his 225-cc hydroplane, Thunderbird. He quickly became a star of the Trojan polo team, quitting the sport only after fracturing his right wrist three times.

He got a luckier break about the same time. “I was visiting a movie set when somebody said, ‘Would you like to be in pictures?’ ” Stack recalls. “I meant to learn the craft, but Spencer Tracy told me that if I stopped to learn I’d never get another chance.” (He debuted in 1939’s First Love, giving Deanna Durbin her second screen kiss.) Despite a World War II Navy stint as an aerial gunnery instructor, Stack soon was also starring offscreen as one of Hollywood’s most eligible bachelors. “Marriage scared the hell out of me,” Bob says, laughing. “I couldn’t think of one happily married couple.” Then his agent introduced him to model-actress Rosemarie Bowe. They courted two years, but separated over Bob’s refusal to propose. At 37, Stack got the message. “Something inside of me said, ‘Don’t do it,’ but I told Rosemarie, ‘I can’t help it, I’ve got to marry you,’ ” he remembers. “I couldn’t stand anyone else around her.” They wed in 1956, and Rosemarie, now 50, shelved her career to raise their children, Elizabeth, 25, an aspiring actress, and Charles, 23, a music student at the California Institute of Arts.

“I dig her because she’s a super lady,” Stack says of his wife, “and I have a long memory. I’d get home after work at 3 a.m. from The Untouchables, and she’d bring out the cold towels to revive me. She used to bring wine and a tablecloth on location and we’d have a candlelit dinner on the set.” Echoes Rosemarie: “Our personalities are alike, and I really do want for my husband more than I want for myself.” They live in a $3 million home in L.A.’s exclusive Bel Air. Johnny Carson’s compound, with its tennis courts and five guards, is just a lob away. Stack has remained active in shooting, duck hunting, golf (12 handicap) and tennis. Sometimes he misses the old sporting Hollywood, and he deplores what has replaced it. “Life is a gift, and if you want to screw it up with cocaine, you can,” he says. “What the hell is life but a series of experiences? If you want to jump out the window after three experiences, fine. But if you want more,” Stack adds, “you’ve got to stick around.”