One generation knows him as Eliot Ness, the relentless real-life lawman pursuing Al Capone in the popular 1960s television drama The Untouchables. Another might recognize him as one of several dramatic actors used to great comic effect in 1980’s Airplane! But for most people, Robert Stack will forever be known as the host of Unsolved Mysteries, the compelling true crime series that ran on NBC from 1987 to 1997 and then in various iterations on other networks.
For all his prowess as the face and voice of Unsolved Mysteries, Stack, who died in 2003, was a career actor with a long and storied background. As fans of his trademark show gear up for new installments on Netflix beginning July 1, we’re taking a look at some of the most compelling Stack facts.
1. Robert Stack didn’t learn to speak English until he was 7 years old.
Robert Langford Stack was born in Los Angeles on January 13, 1919 to father James and mother Elizabeth, Stack was a fifth-generation Californian but became a young man of the world early. After his parents divorced when he was 3 years old, he remained with his mother and moved with her to Europe so she could study opera. There, he learned both French and Italian as a child. English was his third language, one he didn’t learn until he was 7 years old after returning to California when his parents had reconciled.
2. Robert Stack was a national skeet shooting champion.
In high school, and later while attending the University of Southern California, Stack was heavily involved in athletics. He was on the school’s polo team and had also established himself as a national champion in skeet shooting, the sport that involves using firearms to target clay skeets. At 16, Stack was a member of the All-American Skeet Rifle Team, setting two world records and becoming the National Skeet Champion. At USC, Stack supplemented his sports pursuits with drama classes, giving him his first taste of performing. While standing off to one side of the stage at a talent show, a talent scout for Universal approached Stack and signed him to a studio contract.
Later, actor and family friend Clark Gable encouraged Stack to get into acting and to use any power or influence drawn from the profession to help people. “If you kick people around,” Gable told him, “I’m going to kick you.”
3. World War II changed Robert Stack’s career.
Stack made his film debut in 1939’s First Love, giving popular teen actress Deanna Durbin her first onscreen kiss. Because of Durbin’s fame, the romantic interlude created a lot of publicity for Stack. Other roles followed, including one as a Nazi in 1940’s The Mortal Storm and 1942’s To Be or Not to Be. While these early roles—even as a member of the Reich—featured Stack’s boyish demeanor, serving as a gunnery officer and instructor during World War II shaved much of the adolescent charm off his screen presence. When he returned to work following the war, Stack settled into his now-familiar screen persona of a strong authority figure.
4. Robert Stack was in the very first 3D movie.
Though stereoscopic films that created an illusion of depth had been in circulation since the turn of the 20th century, 1952’s Bwana Devil is believed to have been the first feature-length 3D color movie, a feat accomplished by using technology dubbed "Natural Vision." In Bwana Devil, Stack plays Jock Howard, a railroad worker desperate to capture the man-eating lions threatening the construction of a railroad in Africa. The film helped kick off the brief 3D movie craze of the 1950s that led to audiences wearing polarized lenses, often for horror films like André De Toth's House of Wax (1953).
5. Desi Arnaz asked Robert Stack to take on the role of Eliot Ness.
In the late 1950s, I Love Lucy star and Desilu co-owner Desi Arnaz, husband of Lucille Ball, approached Stack to star as famous 1930s lawman Eliot Ness in The Untouchables. Stack, who felt doing television might damage his film career—he had even earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor for 1956’s Written on the Wind—initially turned it down. He thought the title was “stupid” and worried what would become of the show once Ness captured nemesis Al Capone. But once he read scripts for the series, he changed his mind.
The tough, no-frills Ness ultimately became Stack’s signature role. The show was so popular that a catchphrase, “Call Eliot Ness!,” entered the lexicon. In the UK, where the show was extremely popular, teenagers took to wearing the pinstripe suits and fedoras favored by the onscreen gangsters. Stack was even approached on the street by people he assumed were actual criminals, who insisted that they would make good actors on the show.
The series aired from 1959 until 1963. Stack later reprised the role in an NBC TV movie, The Return of Eliot Ness, in 1991.
6. Robert Stack wasn’t too thrilled about Kevin Costner playing Eliot Ness.
In 1987, a few years before Stack returned to the role of Ness, a big-screen adaptation of The Untouchables premiered with Kevin Costner as the lawman and Robert De Niro as Al Capone. Initially, Stack was slightly annoyed by the casting. “They got a bright young actor to play Ness, which at first peed me off,” Stack told The Los Angeles Times in 1991. Stack eventually realized the film kept Ness on the minds of the public, allowing him to revive his own interpretation for the TV movie in 1991.
7. Robert Stack once participated in a magic trick for David Copperfield.
Before his mullet-adorned success in the 1980s, David Copperfield was still a bit of an unknown commodity in 1979 when he asked several celebrities, including Robert Stack, to participate in his Magic of David Copperfield special for CBS. In the clip above, you can see Stack being amazed by Copperfield forcing a cigarette through a coin.
8. Robert Stack got a little annoyed with NBC over Unsolved Mysteries.
Unsolved Mysteries was an early and dependable hit for NBC. With Stack hosting and narrating reenactments of tales involving crime, lost loves, missing heirs, amnesia, and the paranormal, viewers were hooked on the show’s ability to present a compelling story and then solicit their help in solving a case. (“Perhaps you can help solve a mystery,” Stack intoned.) But in 1995, Stack was annoyed to find that Unsolved Mysteries was being moved from its Wednesday time slot to different evenings, prompting confusion among viewers who thought the show had been canceled.
Stack even sent in a response to the Los Angeles Times reacting to a critical article about the show winding down and pointed to the scheduling confusion. “The bottom line is we truly have become an ‘Unsolved Mystery’ to our viewers,” Stack wrote. He also pointed out the show was up 43 percent in viewers on Friday nights compared to prior NBC programming. Unsolved Mysteries remained on the air with Stack hosting through 2002.