Joel McCrea, a real-life cowboy who starred in such Western classics as "Union Pacific" and "The Virginian," died early Saturday. He was 84.

McCrea, a tall, rawboned man with the look of the West about him, died of pulmonary complications at 4:50 a.m. at the Motion Picture and Television Fund Hospital in Woodland Hills after a short stay in the acute care ward, a hospital spokeswoman said.His wife of 57 years, actress Frances Dee, was with him when he died.

McCrea's last public appearance was Oct. 1 at a Beverly Hills fund-raising dinner for Republican Sen. Pete Wilson. Among the guest speakers was first lady Barbara Bush, who said afterward, "It was worth the evening just to see Joel McCrea," said A.C. Lyles, a Paramount Pictures executive producer and longtime friend of McCrea's.

"Joel and I and our wives were sitting behind Mrs. Bush, and when she finished her speech, she came up to Joel, reached over, put her hand in his hand and said `My hero,' " Lyles said.

McCrea always played the hero, whether in slick comedies or riding the range. Off-screen, he defied the old Hollywood mold of scandal and headlines and spent more time punching cattle on his own ranch in Thousand Oaks, Calif., than he did before the cameras.

In the ensuing years, while starring in such films as "Wells Fargo," "Cattle Drive,""Wichita" and "Barbary Coast," McCrea developed his 100-acre parcel of land in Ventura County north of Los Angeles into a 2,300-acre cattle ranch that made him a multimillionaire.

One of his proudest achievements was his election - behind Rogers and Gary Cooper - to the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City.

"I love being a member of that Hall of Fame," he later said, "because its purpose is to perpetuate the standards, ideals and culture of the Old West."