Ron McLarty, Actor on 'Spenser for Hire,' 'Cop Rock' and 'Law & Order,' Dies at 72

Ron McLarty - Photofest - H 2020
Fox Broadcasting Co.

He was the beneficiary of a publishers' bidding war after Stephen King heard an audiobook of his novel 'The Memory of Running' and gushed about it.

Ron McLarty, the familiar character actor known for his turns on Spenser for HireCop Rock and Law & Order who became a published author thanks to a rave from Stephen King, has died. He was 72.

McLarty suffered from dementia since 2014 and died Saturday night in New York, his wife, actress Kate Skinner, told The Hollywood Reporter. "He was the light of my life and I am bereft and heartbroken," she said.

The Rhode Island native appeared in more than a dozen features, including Sidney Lumet's Daniel (1983), Garry Marshall's The Flamingo Kid (1984), Mike Nichols' Heartburn (1986), James L. Brooks' How Do You Know (2010) and, in his final role, St. Vincent (2014), starring Bill Murray and Melissa McCarthy.

McLarty portrayed Sgt. Frank Belson on all three seasons of the 1985-88 ABC private-eye drama Spenser for Hire, starring Robert Urich and Avery Brooks.

He surely had high hopes when he was cast as a detective on Steven Bochco's Cop Rock, but that ABC show — which combined police drama and show-stopping Broadway-style singing and dancing — lasted a mere 11 episodes in 1990.

Later, he presided over several Law & Order episodes as Judge William Wright.

McLarty was a leading audiobook narrator; since the 1990s, his 100-plus credits included work for such authors as King, Danielle Steel, David Baldacci, Anne Rice, Richard Russo, Elmore Leonard, Ed McBain, Scott Turow and George W. Bush.

In 2001, McLarty persuaded the small company Recorded Books to produce his third novel, The Memory of Running, directly onto tape as an audiobook. (The actor also narrated what is believed to be the first recorded audiobook of an unpublished novel.)

King heard it and loved the story — about a 43-year-old man who, after his parents die, takes a cross-country road trip on an old Raleigh bicycle to find his sister's body — and in 2003 devoted one of his "The Pop of King" columns in Entertainment Weekly to it, calling Memory "the best book you can't read."

The endorsement sparked a bidding war among publishers that led to McLarty getting a reported $2 million from Penguin that included rights to release the novel in 2004 (and later two others) in the traditional way.

"During the auction for the book, I asked these editors and publishers that I could never get to, who represented this great iron wall that I could never climb over, 'You're paying me this money because Stephen King liked the book?'" he recalled in a 2005 interview with Jay MacDonald for BookPage. "And they said, 'No, but we wouldn't have read it if Stephen King hadn't liked it, especially at your age.'"

Born on April 26, 1947, in Providence, McLarty earned a bachelor's degree in English from Rhode Island College in 1969. 

He made his Broadway debut in 1972 in the comedy Moonchildren, also featuring James Woods, Jill Eikenberry and Christopher Guest, and his first onscreen role came in The Sentinel (1977), featuring Ava Gardner.

McLarty went on to portray the father Fred Trump in the 2005 ABC telefilm Trump Unauthorized and appear on the big screen in Bloodbrothers (1978), the Al Pacino-starring Two Bits (1995) and the Kevin Costner-toplined The Postman (1997). On TV, he could be seen on Person of InterestRescue MeSex and the CityThe Practice and Judging Amy.

McLarty also received money from Warner Bros. for the film rights to The Memory of Running. He penned the screenplay, though the movie was never made.

McLarty also wrote dozens of plays and 10 novels in all; after The Memory of Running, he had published Traveler in 2007, Art in America in 2008 and The Dropper in 2012.

"In acting, you have to audition; you're looking for them to give you permission to do what you do. But I didn't need that for writing," he said. "I'm sure it would have been great to have a book contract, but I could take this pen and feel its importance in my hand and observe people and always have these themes in my head and not feel pressured to get permission to do it, I could just do it. It's just been sort of a writer's life for me — without anything like income getting in the way."

McLarty donated the original manuscripts of his novels, plays and poems as well as his audiobook narrations and other items to the Adams Library on the campus of Rhode Island College. On Monday, the school called him "one of our most illustrious alumni" on Twitter.

In addition to his wife, whom he married in 2004, survivors include his children Zachary, Lucas and Matthew and seven grandchildren. His first wife, Diane — they were married for 32 years — died of lung cancer in 2002.