R.I.P. Efrem Zimbalist Jr., star of The F.B.I. and 77 Sunset Strip

R.I.P. Efrem Zimbalist Jr., star of The F.B.I. and 77 Sunset Strip

The actor Efrem Zimbalist Jr. has died at the age of 95. Zimbalist was perhaps best remembered as the star of the TV series The F.B.I., a Quinn Martin Production that ran on ABC from 1965 to 1974. With his large frame, solid profile, and off-screen image as a conservative Republican, Zimbalist was one of the last actors to unironically embody the Agency-approved stereotype of the G-man as rock-ribbed, all-American guy, a quarterback for justice whose efficiency, incorruptibility, and patriotism more than made up for anything he may have lacked in hipness and personality.

He also had the distinction of being one of the last people to do so while J. Edgar Hoover was still alive and running the Bureau, and to receive coaching from the director and win his personal seal of approval. (The longest-running of Quinn Martin’s many detective series, The F.B.I. outlived Hoover by just two years.) An outspoken fan of Hoover’s, Zimbalist took great pride in having aced his background check and introductory interview with him, and maintained a relationship with the FBI after the show had run its course by appearing at FBI functions and charity events and in recruiting videos. In 2009, FBI Director Robert Mueller presented Zimbalist with an “honorary special agent” badge and called his TV character, Inspector Lewis Erskine, “the standard-bearer for the FBI in the public imagination.”

Zimbalist’s father was a renowned violinist, and his mother was the opera singer Alma Gluck. In the 1940s and early 1950s, Zimbalist acted onstage, making his Broadway debut in 1946 in The Rugged Path with Spencer Tracy; produced three operas by Gian Carlo Menotti; worked at the Curtis Institute of Music, which was founded by his stepmother, Mary Louise Curtis Bok; made his movie debut in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s House Of Strangers (1949); and appeared on TV in the soap opera Concerning Miss Marlowe.  In 1956, he was signed to Warner Bros., though movie stardom never seemed to materialize—even as he had prominent roles in some big pictures, including Raoul Walsh’s Band Of Angels (1957) and the Jean Simmons vehicle Home Before Dark (1958).

He had better luck on television, starting with a recurring role on Maverick, and then the lead on the private-eye series 77 Sunset Strip (1958-1964). It was a starring role on a hit show, but Zimbalist took it with some reluctance, and had mixed feelings about being upstaged by the show’s breakout star, wacky teen idol Edd “Kookie” Byrnes. When ratings declined by the end of the fifth season, the network brought producer Jack Webb in to reshape the series. Webb fired all the cast members except for Zimbalist, and he dropped the show’s light, spoofy tone in favor of a more hard-edged feel. Webb’s version was canceled after only half a season, but it may have been the only time Zimbalist really fit on his own show.

Zimbalist also starred in the 1961 movie version of James Gould Cozzens’ cover-of-Time-magazine bestselling novel By Love Possessed. He played a sex researcher whose devotion to science partially melts the frigid heart of the young Jane Fonda in George Cukor’s The Chapman Report (1962). He took on a character modeled on William Powell in the 1965 Hollywood biopic Harlow. And he co-starred with Audrey Hepburn in the thriller Wait Until Dark (1967). 

After The F.B.I. was canceled, he played the ill-fated pilot of a commercial jet in Airport 1975, appeared in the 1980 TV miniseries Scruples, and had a recurring guest role on Remington Steele—which starred his daughter, Stephanie Zimbalist. In the late 1970s and 1980s, he could also be frequently seen and heard in announcements for the fundamentalist-Christian Trinity Broadcasting Network, a relationship that came to an end when Zimbalist returned to the Episcopal Church.

In recent years, Zimbalist continued to do voice acting, playing Bruce Wayne’s butler Alfred in Batman: The Animated Series and several spin-off series and video games, and turning up as Doc Ock in the animated Spider-Man series.

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