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Monday, April 16, 2012

"Face Every Day Like Your Hair Was on Fire": Remembering Robert Urich

[This essay was originally posted to "The Third Tale," a blog on Weebly. In transferring it I have updated and made corrections where necessary.]

Robert took "alone time" whenever he could. He knew the value of working on oneself.

It's been 10 years since my friend Robert Urich died, and I'm just now beginning to feel I can write about him.

Calling Robert and Heather "friends" sounds so lame: in Hollywood, someone once said, a friend is "someone you've heard of."

These two have been so much more than that.

At the lowest time in my life, they took me into their home in Utah. They gave me a space to live in, time to heal, honorable work to do (in tutoring their son Ryan), and their time, friendship, and love.

They took me on family outings, to church, to their house in Canada. I probably spent more time with Heather--sightseeing, discussing books and movies, helping her with the kids, just hanging around the house. It was her idea to reach out to me, and she is every bit the friend he was, but today I'd like to talk about Bob.

Robert Urich was a doer. He had a go-getter attitude that was summed up in his delightful misquote of an Indian saying. They said, "You must seek enlightenment like a man whose hair is on fire seeks a pond." Robert's version was more appropriate for his way of living: "Face every day like your hair was on fire."

Many was the (late) morning when Bob would bang on my bedroom door and call in: "Baquet, are you alive in there? Let's go do something."

Despite his great success, Robert was still a blue-collar boy, as am I. He was immune to the trappings of fame and stardom, and despite the difference in our worldly status, when we were together we were just "Bob and Jim." He was no snob.

We'd talk about everything, from movies to family to philosophy to history to reminiscences of childhood. He was a voracious reader, and--not a quick--but a deep thinker.

One of my favorite things about him was how I'd toss an idea out there (as teachers do), and he'd say, "Aw, that's horsesh*t!" (though he rarely swore), and then we'd talk and talk and talk. Sometimes he'd end up agreeing with me, sometimes I with him, sometimes there was no resolution, but it was always the camaraderie, the being together, that was important, not the conclusion.

Once at the dinner table he said, "Hey, Heather. Maybe we ought to keep Baquet around after the kids go off to school, and he can teach us all the stuff we should have learned in high school." He even told a reporter later that I was the family's "resident academic adviser." I loved him for his attitude toward personal growth.

That was January through June, 1995, and I stayed on in the house when they went to Canada for the summer.

Hero on a white horse

He could fill a doorway

How he loved dogs!

Back in L.A. at Christmas, I called to greet the family and Bob asked what I was doing, which wasn't much. "Come up for New Years," he said, "then come to Santa Fe and run lines with me." He was then shooting The Lazarus Man.

It wasn't long before we discovered that an old pro like him didn't NEED help in learning his lines. But he kept me on as an on-set assistant, which largely meant hanging around with him, recommending books, talking about what we were reading--and occasionally taking a phone call or reminding him of an appointment.

From our time back in Utah, we had become close enough that we could be "real" with each other. And as Robert was the only weekly character on Lazarus, he carried much of the stress that made the show go. This sometimes manifested itself in--shall we say--a bit of pique? But he never turned it on me.

One day, he had a radio interview to do, and... I forgot. And we missed it. (Can you imagine the radio host building up to the interview, and then receiving no call?)

Knowing I had no choice, I prepared to face The Wrath. I went to him and said, "Hey, Chief. I screwed up. We missed the blah-blah-blah interview."

He looked down for a minute--as I stood there waiting for it--then looked up, and said: "We should probably be more careful about these things."


Set-up for a morning filled with back-to-back TV interviews. He LOVED playing cowboy!

Here's where it gets hard.

Shortly after the season was over and we'd gone back to our respective homes, I called to say hi, and he told me he'd been diagnosed with cancer. They moved to L.A., and over the next few months I went by the house whenever I could. The philosophical discussions we'd had in Utah and New Mexico now took on some depth, some urgency, and I learned a lot from him.

In February of 1997, with things looking better all around, I left for Japan to teach for a year, but my one year became nearly five.

On one of my summer visits home, I flew up to Canada to see Bob and Heather. One night when Robert and I had washed, dried, and put away the dishes, he set down his towel, wrapped those giant arms around me, and said quietly, "I love you, Jim."

It won't surprise you, then, that one of the primary reasons I moved back to the U.S. in late 2001 was to be near the Urichs.

Regrettably, I only saw them a few times before the news came.

I was staying at my parents' house in April 2002, having just started a new job. My parents were away, and when the phone rang one morning it was my aunt saying, "I'm sorry to tell you, but your friend died." "What friend?" I asked stupidly. That's how much this took me (and most of us) by surprise.

I called Robert and Heather's house immediately, and their daughter Emily answered. She told me something that pains me to this day: They had called me the night before to come to the bedside for Bob's last moments. But because it was my parents' phone, not mine, I never got the message.

No chance to say goodbye. I'm crying again (still) as I write this, ten years later.

Heather and I are still friends, though I've been in China over eight of the past ten years. I'll always be grateful to her and Robert for their great kindness, their great generosity, their great love.

I'm sure that everyone who knew him will agree: no one has ever taken his place.

I miss you, Chief.

Skipping stones across the Rio Grande

Robert's fighting spirit lives on in the work of the Robert Urich Foundation's efforts to fund cancer research and patient care. Please consider a gift.

For more about the Urich family today, including details on the newly-released The Sound of Music Family Scrapbook, visit Heather's website.

[Note: Lila and I were blessed to have dinner with Heather and their daughter Emily in New York City in 2015. We didn't know it would be the last time we saw her: she, too, succumbed to cancer, on December 24th, 2017. No words.]



You manifest beauty and love....


Kelly Smith Ritson:

He as well as you are truly blessed to have had eachother as we are to have you in our family.

This was very beautiful, you inspire me.

now go to peep!!!

love you Kelly aka. dillis Filler


Jesse Y. Leal:

I was at the service driving friends of the Urich family.


My Reply:

Wow, Jess. Small world--I was there!


Diane Bloom:

So beautifully written, he was, and always will be one of my favourite actors...sadly missed :(


jenni mitchell:

What a beautiful story of a great man sadly missed


Karen Lalonde:

Thank you so much for sharing all of those beautiful moments with us and giving us an insight to Robert Urich..the person. All too often we see "celebrities" as larger than life individuals who are leaps and bounds "above" we everyday folk. It is so nice to know that Robert Urich was that "everyday folk"..and a very kind, and generous man. I can only imagine how you do indeed miss him. He left you with great memories and the blessing of being able to call him a true friend. And I am will one day see him again.


Sally Gaines:

I never had the pleasure of meeting Robert in person but in reading your wonderful tribute to him, I feel as if I too knew him. He was everything I thought him to be. Thanks for sharing your memories. I am sure he is smiling down on you...


Dave Waldschmidt:

While Bob was filming the Lazarus Man in Santa Fe a long time friend of Heather's introduced my wife & I to Bob & Heather. We had breakfast the next day and Heather & I discovered we were related (had to go back a bit through our Scottish roots). I realized when I met them how important they were to each other (not the Hollywood norm) and how they cherished their relationship. I am honored to have met Bob - and wish I had a chance to get to know him ... he was a gift ...


Charles Sizemore:

I never had the pleasure to meet Mr. Urich, but I became Catholic because of him, I think the way he carried himself was an example for me to follow, he may be gone, but he's looking out for us all, We love you Mr. Urich



yes he was great man and great actor he was one of my favorite and I watch old e runs of Vegas and swat in fact I just found old rerun when he did battle of network star it was great to see him I know that up in heaven but it warm smile and care heart lives in his wife heather and there three children He will also be missed I was shocked when I found out of his passing I will also miss you I wanted a guy just like Dan Tanna.



I never met Mr. Urich personally unfortunately, but felt I knew him through his work. He always seemed very down to earth, had everything; good looks, talent, fame and fortune but always seemed down to earth, seemed very approachable, never into his fame and looks like sooooo many celebrieties, seemed very intelligent man and always wanting to learn. May he rest in peace and thank you for sharing your experience. I will always be a big fan of his. A role model for all. Just watching some old Vega$ episodes. Dan Tana was the man!!!! Cheers!!!!!!!



I have been a fan of Robert Urich for a number of years and was shocked and upset to hear of his passing. Such a lovely man with a great deal of love determination. Nobody knows their destiny, we should most certainly 'Face Every Day Like Our Hair Was On Fire'

My heart reaches out to all Robert's family.


Joseph DuPont:

I was always impressed with Robert Urich.. He was one of those people Darren McGavin who you could not get enough of. He is still missed.


Judith A Torr:

As I was dosing off to sleep just the other night, almost in a trance like state, Robert Urich came to mind.

How I adored him!!

Then, just today I received this lovely email and website relating to Robert's life, by his good friend.

Robert is sadly missed. Sending love and prayers to Heather and all Robert's faimily

Categories: Bio, Compassion, Gratitude, The West

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