After more than half a century in showbiz, Efrem Zimbalist Jr., a TV star of the 1950s and ‘60s (“The F.B.I.,” “77 Sunset Strip”), had put his long and fruitful career behind him. Broadway shows, films, TV and in recent years, cartoon voice-overs, narrations, readings on tape -- it had been a good run.
At 85, he had settled into retirement. No more acting gigs; his favorite putter beckoned.
“It was all behind me at my age,” he says, chuckling. “I was just thinking golf.”
His daughter had other ideas.
Stephanie Zimbalist, known to many from her 1980s TV series, “Remington Steele,” has established herself as a serious stage actor. Recently cast as spinster Hannah in Tennessee Williams’ “The Night of the Iguana” at Ventura’s Rubicon Theatre, where she often performs, Zimbalist immediately pictured her father in the play.
He would be perfect, she thought, for the small but pivotal role of Hannah’s 97-year-old grandfather, Nonno, a poet of faded fame whose attempt to finish a final poem before he dies is integral to Williams’ redemptive tale of lost souls.
It would be a chance for them to perform together on stage, something they’d never done, although the elder Zimbalist had appeared with his daughter on her television series.
“I knew that if he didn’t know the play, he would say no,” she says. “So, I said, ‘Daddy, do you think we could just read through it? I’d love your opinion on it.’ He read all the men, I read all the women, and he was fabulous.”
The next day, she suggested that they stop by to say hello to Rubicon co-founders Karyl Lynn Burns and James O’Neil.
“We were kind of hoping,” says O’Neil, who is directing the play, “that he would ask who would be playing the role, so we could say, ‘Well, of course it’s you.’ But he never did, so we just had to [ask].”
It took him a day to decide, but it was an offer Efrem Zimbalist couldn’t resist.
Waiting to begin rehearsal at the Rubicon, Efrem Zimbalist Jr., son of early 20th century violinist Efrem Zimbalist and opera singer Alma Gluck, has the courtly look and bearing of an Old World Spanish don. Trim and handsome, with a broad mustache and a luxuriant sweep of snowy hair, mellifluous baritone intact, the actor has aged remarkably well since his TV and film heyday.
In rehearsal with his daughter and Richard Eden, who stars as alcoholic ex-priest Shannon, Zimbalist nails the scene in which Nonno’s struggle to write a new poem culminates in the play’s redemptive climax.
His daughter fights tears. She isn’t the only one welling up -- not only at her father’s fully realized performance but also at the inescapable subtext of the pair’s real-life relationship.
“I don’t face all of it on stage,” she says later, “because it can’t be about the loss of my father or I wouldn’t be able to function.”
The respect and affection the two share is unmistakable. Stephanie Zimbalist, a slim and youthful 48, loses her air of taut self-possession only when she’s speaking to, and of, her father.
They defer to each other, make each other laugh and prompt memories of past and present events -- her early departure from Juilliard as a teenager (“They wanted me to take a year off. They told me I was too sheltered.”), his “F.B.I.” days (“Daddy said that the nadir of the scripts was when the United States invaded Cuba and they used five extras.”) and his recently published memoir, “My Dinner of Herbs” (“I never would have written it except for Stephanie. I was lazy. I didn’t want to sit down and put a whole chunk of life into a book.”).
Working together presents challenges, however.
“We’ll be rehearsing and I’ll have some expletive come out of my mouth, and I’ll go,” Stephanie Zimbalist covers her mouth briefly. “‘Oh, my dad’s over there.’”
Her father laughs. “I’ve never heard it.”
“My concern,” she says, “is that he doesn’t see my bad side.”
“I think it’s the other way,” Efrem Zimbalist says. “I think she’s hoping that I don’t make a jackass out of myself.”
The play opens Saturday at the Rubicon; it is a co-production with the Manitoba Theatre Centre of Canada, where the Zimbalists will reprise their roles in November.
“I’m just delighted to be yanked out of retirement,” Zimbalist says. “When it’s over, I don’t think I’ll ever work again.” He pauses, then smiles. “Well, you never know.”
‘The Night of the Iguana’
Where: Rubicon Theatre, 1006 E. Main St., Ventura
When: 2 and 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays.
Ends: Nov. 7
Price: $25 to $47
Contact: (805) 667-2900