Efrem Zimbalist Jr. dies at 95; starred in ’77 Sunset Strip’
Efrem Zimbalist Jr., the elegant actor with the mellifluous baritone who costarred as the suave private eye Stuart Bailey on TV’s “77 Sunset Strip” beginning in the late 1950s and later starred as the buttoned-down Inspector Lewis Erskine on “The F.B.I.,” died Friday at his home in Solvang. He was 95.
Zimbalist, the father of actress Stephanie Zimbalist, died of natural causes, according to his daughter and his son, Efrem Zimbalist III.
The handsome, dark-haired son of prominent concert violinist Efrem Zimbalist Sr. and acclaimed soprano Alma Gluck, Zimbalist made his debut on Broadway shortly after World War II.
Placed under a seven-year contract at Warner Bros. in 1956, he appeared in several films, including “Bombers B-52,” “Band of Angels” and “Too Much, Too Soon” before the studio cast in him “77 Sunset Strip.”
“When I was under contract at Warners, I didn’t want to do television,” Zimbalist said in a 1993 Associated Press interview. “They told me I was going to make a pilot, and they showed me in my contract where it said I had to.”
Despite his resistance to the little screen, “77 Sunset Strip,” which made its debut on ABC in the fall of 1958, made him a star.
The hourlong, Los Angeles-set show costarred Roger Smith as Bailey’s partner, Jeff Spencer, and Edd Byrnes as “Kookie,” the hip-talking, hair-combing young parking lot attendant at Dino’s, the restaurant next door to Bailey and Spencer’s detective agency on Sunset Boulevard.
A top-10 hit in its second season, “77 Sunset Strip” ran until 1964.
While “77 Sunset Strip” was in production, Zimbalist expressed frustration over how he was spending his time in Hollywood.
“To those I know, as well as to myself, the show is utter boredom,” he complained to TV Guide in 1962 when the series was in its fourth season. “It stopped being interesting years ago.”
To which the show’s producer Howie Horwitz responded in the same article: “Zim is a polite, charming, cultured, wonderful-natured gentleman. He merely voices the beef of most actors about TV. They feel they are using up all their exposure on television. To some extent they are, but at the same time the exposure on TV has made them stars. Who really knew of Zimbalist until ‘77’?”
In a failed attempt to boost sagging ratings in 1963, the regular cast members disappeared except for Zimbalist, whose Bailey character became a freelance investigator whose work took him around the world.
Despite his complaints about doing a television series, Zimbalist returned to TV in 1965 to star as Inspector Erskine on “The F.B.I.” The hour-long drama, which received the full cooperation of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, ran on ABC for nine seasons.
Zimbalist said in an interview four decades later that fans of the show occasionally approached him to say they had joined the FBI or had become police officers because of his portrayal of the calm and authoritative government agent on the series.
“I get more joy from that than anything in my life,” he said. “When you learn that you inspired someone, it’s a huge honor.”
In 2009, Zimbalist was named an honorary special agent, the FBI’s highest civilian honor. The badge was presented by FBI Director Robert Mueller, who praised Zimbalist as an icon who inspired a generation of FBI agents.
Born Nov. 30, 1918, in New York City, Zimbalist spent much of his youth in boarding schools.
Acting in school plays, he said in a 1977 interview with The Times, “gave me a chance to express my feelings. I had no special talent, but a self-deluding process took place. I walked onstage in a play at prep school and, with childish naivete, told myself, ‘Wow, I’m an actor.’”
Although Zimbalist entered Yale, his time there was short-lived.
“Having been kept pretty strict in prep schools,” he told TV Guide in 1962, “I guess I couldn’t cope with all the freedom at Yale. I had a wild, wonderful time, got abysmal grades and was bounced out in my freshman year. I then came back the following fall as a repeating freshman, lasted until April and got bounced out again — for the same reason. This time I quit.”
Back in New York City in the late ‘30s, he got a job as a page at NBC, where he hounded the network’s talent department to let him audition for parts.
After finally landing a small, one-shot role in an episode of “Renfrew of the Mounted” and acting in a small stock company in New Jersey, he joined the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre, whose students included Gregory Peck, Tony Randall and Eli Wallach.
“Suddenly I began studying hard for the first time in my life,” Zimbalist told The Times in 1977. “But my dreams were stopped short by a World War II draft call [in 1941], and I was whisked away to the Army infantry.”
As an infantry replacement officer, Zimbalist arrived in France a few weeks after D-day and was later wounded. Shortly after returning to New York after his discharge, he was cast as a reporter in the Robert Sherwood play “The Rugged Path,” starring Spencer Tracy and directed by an Army pal of Zimbalist’s, Garson Kanin.
Among several other Broadway productions he appeared in during the late 1940s are “Hedda Gabler” (with Eva Le Gallienne) and “King Henry VIII.”
Zimbalist made his film debut playing a sixth-billed role in “House of Strangers,” a 1949 drama starring Edward G. Robinson and Susan Hayward.
Before resuming his big-screen career in the mid-1950s at Warner Bros., Zimbalist brought opera to Broadway as one of the producers of Gian Carlo Menotti’s double bill “The Telephone” and “The Medium” in 1947 and again in 1950, with Menotti’s “The Consul,” which won the Pulitzer Prize.
While at the Neighborhood Playhouse in the early ‘40s, Zimbalist had met Emily McNair, whom he married while in the service and with whom he appeared in “Hedda Gabler” in 1948. They had two children, Nancy and Efrem Zimbalist III.
After Emily died of cancer in 1950, Zimbalist and his two children moved to Philadelphia, where he studied and composed music at the Curtis Institute of Music, where his father was director. Zimbalist also had a stint as dean of students at the institute.
Returning to acting in 1954, he played a recurring role for a time on the TV soap opera “Concerning Miss Marlowe” and was back on Broadway in a 1956 revival of Noel Coward’s “Fallen Angels.”
Among Zimbalist’s film credits are “By Love Possessed” (1961), “The Chapman Report” (1962), “Harlow” (1965), “Wait Until Dark” (1967), “Airport 1975” (1974) and “Hot Shots!” (1991).
In the 1980s, he had a recurring role as Daniel Chalmers on his daughter Stephanie’s TV series “Remington Steele” and played Charles Cabot on “Hotel.” In the early ‘90s, he played Don Alejandro de la Vega in “Zorro” on the Family Channel.
Zimbalist also spent more than two decades of his later career as a voice artist on numerous animated TV series, including that of butler Alfred Pennyworth on “Batman.”
Zimbalist’s memoir, “My Dinner of Herbs,” was published in 2003.
Zimbalist’s second wife, Stephanie, died of lung cancer at their home in Solvang in 2007.
In addition to his children Stephanie and Efrem, he is survived by four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. His daughter Nancy died in 2012.
McLellan is a former Times staff writer.
Start your day right
Sign up for Essential California for the L.A. Times biggest news, features and recommendations in your inbox six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.