Efrem Zimbalist Jr : Actor who made his name as a suave private detective in '77 Sunset Strip' and a federal agent in 'The FBI'

Anthony Hayward
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The Independent Online

Efrem Zimbalist Jr starred in two globally popular television crime dramas – and his characters could not have been more different. As the Ivy League-educated Stu Bailey in 77 Sunset Strip (1958-64), he was one of two suave, wise-cracking, womanising private detectives running their own agency in Hollywood's night club quarter. Roger Smith appeared alongside him as Stu's partner, Jeff Spencer, although the heart-throb of the programme's younger generation of viewers was Edd Byrnes as Kookie, the hair-combing, slang-talking parking attendant and valet at the neighbouring restaurant who eventually joins the agency.

Humour was given priority over dramatic tension and many of the stories were referred to as "capers" – and the producers thrived on breaking new ground. In one episode titled "The Silent Caper", there was no dialogue. Another had Zimbalist in a ghost town – alone – for the entire hour. Roger Moore, William Shatner, Mary Tyler Moore, Shirley MacLaine and many more rising stars appeared in guest roles.

However, with audience figures falling, the entire cast except Zimbalist was dropped from the sixth series of 77 Sunset Strip and television cool was replaced by a more serious, film noir tone. When ratings dropped even more, the programme was axed halfway through the run.

So it was not such a major transition when Zimbalist resurfaced in a more pedestrian crime drama, The FBI (1965-74), as Inspector Lewis Erskine, a government agent rather lacking in personality. Endorsed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation's own director, J Edgar Hoover, who gave his co-operation, it featured stories based on real-life cases and was an uncritical advertisement for the government agency, but it was also massively popular, with up to 40 million viewers in the US alone.

Zimbalist, politically a Republican, was noted for his sharp suits and lack of emotion in the role. During the first of nine series, Erskine had a daughter, Barbara (Lynn Loring), but she was then written out. Alongside the FBI's endorsement was that of the Ford motor company, which supplied vehicles for the car chases, when the programme's directors were instructed to get the firm's logo in shot as much as possible. This was the height of the action because most of the blood-letting appeared off-camera, although Zimbalist took a crash-course on the FBI's firearms ranges.

He always seemed destined for a life in the entertainment industry. His father, Efrem Zimbalist, was a Russian-born violinist and composer, his Romanian-born mother, Alma Gluck, an operatic soprano. Zimbalist Jr, who played the piano and violin as a child, was born in New York and brought up in Connecticut. On leaving St Paul's School, Concord, New Hampshire, where he enjoyed acting in plays, he studied engineering at Yale University but was expelled for bad behaviour and low marks.

So Zimbalist moved back to New York in 1936, landed a job as a page for the NBC network – where he had a small role in an episode of the radio serial Renfrew of the Mounted and presented music programmes – and trained as an actor at the Neighborhood Playhouse alongside Gregory Peck. Then came Second World War service in the US Army Infantry. He was awarded the Purple Heart after being wounded at the Battle of Hürtgen Forest, on the German-Belgian border, in 1944.

The following year he was acting on Broadway. He made his début as Gil Hartnick, alongside Spencer Tracy, in The Rugged Path (Plymouth Theatre, 1945-46) and became a regular on the New York stage. He also produced three Gian-Carlo Menotti operas. The double bill of The Medium and The Telephone (City Center, 1948-49) was followed by The Consul (Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 1950), but Zimbalist's elation at his success was knocked back by the death of his first wife from cancer. He gave up acting and producing to join his father at the Curtis Institute of Music, Philadelphia, as assistant director and researcher.

Four years later he returned to acting. Apart from the role of Maurice Duclos in the Noël Coward Broadway comedy Fallen Angels (Playhouse Theatre, 1956), most of his future career was on screen. He played Jim Gavin in the daytime television serial Concerning Miss Marlowe (1954-55), then landed a contract with Warner Brothers that led to a handful of unremarkable films, appearing alongside Clark Gable in Band of Angels (1957), Alan Ladd in The Deep Six (1958) and Errol Flynn in Too Much, Too Soon (1958). Though he continued to appear in films – including Wait Until Dark (1967), as Audrey Hepburn's husband, and Airport 1975 (1974), as a blinded airline pilot – he found greater success on TV, Before Sunset Strip he had a recurring role as Dandy Jim Buckley (1957-58) in the Western Maverick. He won the 1959 Golden Globe as Most Promising Male Newcomer.

In the vein of other small-screen stars who never quite made it in the cinema, Zimbalist acted in many TV films. He also guest-starred in popular series such as The Love Boat (1984) and Picket Fences (1996), voiced Alfred Pennyworth in Batman: The Animated Series (1992-95) and The New Batman Adventures (1997-98), and had semi-regular roles as Daniel Chalmers (1983-87), mentor and previously estranged father of Pierce Brosnan's conman-turned-private eye, in Remington Steele (starring his second daughter, Stephanie) and ruthless financier Charles Cabot (1986-88) in Hotel.

Zimbalist's autobiography, My Dinner of Herbs, was published in 2003. Six years later, the actor was named an honorary FBI agent and presented with a badge by its director, Robert Mueller.

Efrem Zimbalist, actor: born New York 30 November 1918; married 1945 Emily McNair (died 1950; one son, and one daughter deceased), 1956 Loranda Spaulding (died 2007; one daughter); died Solvang, California 2 May 2014.