Actor Efrem Zimbalist Jr. Dies at 95

 Everett Collection

Efrem Zimbalist Jr., the suave leading man who starred on ABC for 15 straight seasons on 77 Sunset Strip and then The F.B.I., died Friday at his ranch in Solvang, Calif., his children announced. He was 95.

Zimbalist was a household name from 1958 through 1974 for his performances as dapper private eye Stuart Bailey on Friday night staple 77 Sunset Strip, which lasted six seasons, and as Inspector Lewis Erskine on The F.B.I., which ran for nine.

A close friend of then-FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover, Zimbalist ended many Quinn Martin productions on Sunday nights with a description of a fugitive wanted by the feds, exhorting viewers to be on the lookout. One of the more prominent names from this segment was James Earl Ray, assassin of Martin Luther King Jr.

“Efrem’s character embodied fidelity, bravery and integrity. So much so that he inspired a generation of future FBI employees, many of whom pursued a career in the bureau because they watched The F.B.I. series as they grew up,” FBI director Robert Mueller said when he presented an honorary Special Agent badge to Zimbalist in 2009. “In those days, he may well have been the bureau’s best and most effective recruiter!”

The son of renowned artists -- soprano Alma Gluck and violinist Efrem Zimbalist -- he was the father of actress Stephanie Zimbalist, who survives him. As the sly, silver-haired mentor of Pierce Brosnan’s title character on Remington Steele, he appeared on the 1982-87 NBC series with his daughter on a handful of episodes.

In a career that spanned roughly 60 years, Zimbalist provided the voices of Alfred the Butler on several Batman animated series, the villain Doc Octopus on a Spider-Man cartoon and King Arthur on The Legend of Prince Valiant. He had recurring roles on Maverick in the 1950s, Hotel in the ’80s and Zorro in the ’90s.

In Wait Until Dark (1967), he played the photographer husband of the blind Audrey Hepburn.

Zimbalist was born on Nov. 30, 1918, in New York and raised in a home of artistry and privilege. His father was a friend of poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, and young Zimbalist received violin lessons from the father of Jascha Heifetz.

Later, he studied at the Yale Drama School and the Neighborhood Playhouse, then served in World War II and earned a Purple Heart.

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Zimbalist began his career as an NBC page but soon found work in the theater and was cast in the 1945 Broadway production of The Rugged Path, which starred Spencer Tracy and was directed by Garson Kanin. Zimbalist’s rich baritone and striking manner won notice, and he landed plum roles in Henry VIII in 1946 and Hedda Gabler in 1948.

Restless waiting for roles, Zimbalist ventured into producing. He brought opera to Broadway, mounting such productions as The Medium, The Telephone and The Consul, which won a Pulitzer Prize.

Zimbalist made an impressive movie debut in 1949, co-starring in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s House of Strangers, which starred Edward G. Robinson as a tightfisted family patriarch. But he experienced personal tragedy the following year: His wife, Emily, died of cancer, and he gave up acting.

During the next five years, Zimbalist worked at the Curtis School of Music for his father. In 1954, he took a lead in a daytime soap opera, and, ready to act in the movies again, signed a seven-year contract with Warner Bros. (Later, he would be invited to play tennis at studio head Jack Warner’s Beverly Hills home every weekend.)

Zimbalist was cast in Band of Angels (1957) with Clark Gable; in the Barrymore family drama Too Much, Too Soon (1958) with Errol Flynn and Dorothy Malone; and in Mervyn LeRoy’s Home Before Dark (1958) with Jean Simmons; he called the latter his favorite film experience.

While he was winning popularity and acclaim for these roles, Zimbalist also was starting out in the Warner Bros. TV series 77 Sunset Strip, which was created by Roy Huggins (The Fugitive). It centered on a swinging '60s Hollywood detective agency run by Bailey and his partner, Jeff Spencer (Roger Smith).

The stylish agency, located at the fictional address 77 Sunset Strip, was, naturally, right next door to a nightclub, which led to appearances by curvaceous guest stars. Zimbalist parked his sports car in the club’s driveway that was manned by the cool attendant Kookie (Edd Byrnes), a dashing ladies’ man who caused women to clamor, “Kookie, Kookie, lend me your comb,” which became a song and a national catchphrase.

Zimbalist took film roles during the series’ hiatus. In 1961, he starred with Angie Dickinson in the courtroom thriller A Fever in the Blood and in the then-notorious The Chapman Report (1962), in which he starred as the head of a medical research clinic that studied the sex habits of suburban women.

Zimbalist appeared on all 241 episodes of The F.B.I., whose storylines came from actual cases. The bureau had casting control over the show. After the series ended, he participated in charity events that helped raise money for families of agents killed in the line of duty and lent his voice to narrate FBI recruiting videos.

Like other stars known for having a dignified persona, Zimbalist was good-humored about spoofing his career. He followed in the footsteps of such colleagues as Leslie Nielsen and Robert Stack, parodying his image in Jim AbrahamsTop Gun spoof Hot Shots! (1991), which starred Charlie Sheen.

His autobiography, My Dinner of Herbs, was published in 2004 and recounted his varied career, from the glitzy Sunset Strip to the power corridors of Washington.

In addition to his daughter, Stephanie, survivors include his son Efrem Zimbalist III.

“A devout Christian, he actively enjoyed his life to the last day, showering love on his extended family, playing golf and visiting with close friends,” his children said in a statement. “We will miss him dearly.”

Twitter: @mikebarnes4

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