May 03, 2014
Efrem Zimbalist Jr., star of 'The FBI,' dead at 95
Efrem Zimbalist Jr., the son of famous musical parents who established his own lasting celebrity in two of television's most popular series, "77 Sunset Strip" and "The F.B.I.," died Friday at age 95.
Zimbalist died at his Solvang home in California's bucolic horse country, said family friend Judith Moose, who released a statement from his children Stephanie Zimbalist and Efrem Zimbalist III.
"We are heartbroken to announce the passing into peace of our beloved father, Efrem Zimbalist Jr., today at his Solvang ranch," the statement read. "He actively enjoyed his life to the last day, showering love on his extended family, playing golf and visiting with close friends."
Zimbalist's stunning good looks and cool, deductive manner made him the ideal star as the hip private detective ferreting out Hollywood miscreants in "77 Sunset Strip," which aired from 1958 to 1964. As soon as that show ended he segued seamlessly into "The F.B.I." which aired from 1965 to 1974.
At the end of each episode of the latter show, after Zimbalist and his fellow G-men had captured that week's mobsters, subversives, bank robbers or spies, the series would post photos from the FBI's real-life most-wanted list. Some of those pictures led to arrests, which helped give the show the complete seal of approval of the agency's real-life director, J. Edgar Hoover.
The son of violin virtuoso Efrem Zimbalist and acclaimed opera singer Alma Gluck, young Efrem initially appeared headed for a musical career. He studied violin for seven years under the tutelage of Jascha Heifetz's father, but eventually developed more interest in theater.
He became an actor and "77 Sunset Strip" made him a star.
His daughter Stephanie also took up acting — and small-screen detective work, in the hit 1980s TV series "Remington Steele." Her father had a recurring role in that show as a con man.
After serving in World War II, Zimbalist made his stage debut in "The Rugged Path," starring Spencer Tracy, and appeared in other plays and a soap opera before being called to Hollywood. Warner Bros. signed him to a contract and cast him in minor film roles.
He also had a recurring role in the hit 1950s Western series "Maverick," playing con man Dandy Jim Buckley.
Then in 1958 "77 Sunset Strip" debuted, starring Zimbalist as a cultured former O.S.S. officer and language expert whose partner was Roger Smith, an Ivy League Ph.D.
The pair operated out of an office in the center of Hollywood's Sunset Strip where, aided by their sometime helper, Kookie, a jive-talking beatnik type who doubled as a parking lot attendant, they tracked down miscreants.
Kookie's character, played by Edd Byrnes, helped draw young viewers to the show, and his constant hair combing created the national catchphrase, "Kookie, Lend Me Your Comb."
The program brought Zimbalist an Emmy nomination in 1959, but after a few seasons he tired of the long hours and what he believed were the bad scripts.
"A job like this should pay off in one of two ways: satisfaction or money. The money is not great, and there is no satisfaction," he said.
When the show faltered in 1963, Jack Webb of "Dragnet" fame was hired for an overhaul. He fired the cast except for Zimbalist, whom he made a world-traveling investigator. The repair work failed, and the series ended the following year.
Zimbalist had better luck with "The F.B.I.," which endured for a decade as one of TV's most popular shows.
Perceiving that the series could provide the real FBI with an important P.R. boost, Hoover opened the bureau's files to the show's producers and even allowed background shots to be filmed in real FBI offices.
"He never came on the set, but I knew him," Zimbalist said. "A charming man, extremely Virginia formal and an extraordinary command of the language."
In 2009 the FBI honored Zimbalist with his own special agent's badge, making him an honorary G-man in recognition of the contributions his show and his character, Inspector Lewis Erskine, made to the agency's reputation.
"We could not have asked for a better character, or a better man, to play his role," FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III said at the time.
During summer breaks between the two series, Warner Bros. cast Zimbalist in several feature films, including "Too Much Too Soon," ''Home Before Dark," ''The Crowded Sky," ''The Chapman Report" and "Wait Until Dark." In the latter, he played the husband of Audrey Hepburn, a blind woman terrorized by thugs in a truly frightening film.
Zimbalist also appeared in "By Love Possessed," ''Airport 1975," ''Terror Out of the Sky" and "Hot Shots."
But he would always be best known as a TV star, ironic for an actor who told The Associated Press in 1993 that when Warner Bros. hired him he had no interest in doing television.
"They showed me in my contract where it said I had to," he recalled.
"I ended up with my life slanted toward television and I just accept that," he said. "I think you play the hand the way it's dealt, that's all."
In the 1990s, Zimbalist recorded the voice of Alfred the butler in the cartoon version of the "Batman" TV series. That role, he said, "has made me an idol in my little grandchildren's eyes."
Efrem Zimbalist Jr. was born in New York City on Nov. 30, 1917.
His mother, reasoning that living amid the musical elite was not the best upbringing for a boy, sent him to boarding schools where he could be toughened by others his age. But young Efrem was bashful and withdrawn in school. His only outlet was acting in campus plays.
"I walked onstage in a play at prep school, and with childish naiveté, told myself, 'Wow, I'm an actor!'" he once recalled.
He was kicked out of Yale after two years over dismal grades, which he blamed on a playboy attitude.
Afraid to go home, he stayed with a friend in New York City for three months, working as a page at NBC headquarters, where he was dazzled by the famous radio stars. Unable to break into radio as an actor, he studied at the famed Neighborhood Playhouse.
During World War II he served in the infantry, receiving a Purple Heart for a shrapnel wound in his leg.
In 1945, Zimbalist married Emily McNair and they had a daughter, Nancy, and son, Efrem III.
After his wife died in 1950 he gave up acting for a time to teach at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, where his father was an artist in residence. He returned to Hollywood five years later, marrying Loranda Stephanie Spalding in 1956, and she gave birth to their daughter Stephanie.
He is survived by his children, four grandchildren and several great-grandchildren.