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Roger Smith, the suave leading man of television who starred on the popular 1950s-’60s ABC private eye series 77 Sunset Strip before a neuromuscular disease ended his acting career in his 30s, has died. He was 84.
Smith, who went on to manage the career of Ann-Margret, his wife of 50 years, died Sunday at Sherman Oaks Hospital, a representative for the actress told The Hollywood Reporter. No cause of death was announced.
On 136 episodes of 77 Sunset Strip, Smith portrayed Jeff Spencer, one-half of a breezy detective pair who solved crimes and chased women while working out of their ultra-hip offices on the Sunset Strip. Efrem Zimbalist Jr. played his partner, Stu Bailey.
Also lending a hand in the adventures was Kookie (Edd Byrnes), who parked cars next door at Dino’s Lodge. (The real-life Hollywood nightclub, owned by Dean Martin, served as the actual backdrop in the show.)
From its jazzy, finger-snapping theme by Mack David and Jerry Livingston to the teen idol popularity of Byrnes’ character, 77 Sunset Strip captured the cultural zeitgeist of the era during its six-season run from 1958-64. Ironically, the 77 address didn’t exist as Sunset Boulevard has only four-digit street numbers. An engraving on the sidewalk at 8524 Sunset between La Cienega Boulevard and Alta Loma Road commemorates the location where the series’ offices supposedly were.
Smith’s career in front of the camera, however, was cut short by medical issues. He left 77 Sunset Strip in 1963 after five seasons when a blood clot was discovered in his brain. Surgery successfully corrected the problem and Smith was able to resume performing, but in 1965, Smith was diagnosed with myasthenia gravis, which causes extreme weakness.
But by that time, Smith was entering a new phase. Having finalized his divorce from his first wife, Australian actress Victoria Shaw, Smith was dating Ann-Margret. He proposed to the Swedish sex kitten in 1966 on a horse-drawn carriage ride through Central Park, and they married in May 1967 in a hotel room at The Riviera in Las Vegas.
Roger LeVerne Smith was born on Dec. 18, 1932, in South Gate, Calif., to Dallas and Leone Smith. By age 6, his parents had already enrolled him in singing, dancing and elocution classes.
The family relocated to Nogales, Ariz., when Smith was 12. Throughout high school, he was a fixture on the stage as well as on the football field. When he wasn’t starring in school productions or serving as president of the acting club, he was anchoring the defense as the team’s star linebacker.
Smith attended the University of Arizona on a football scholarship. But when the opportunity arose, he grabbed his guitar and entered amateur talent contests as a singer and appeared on television’s Ted Mack & The Original Amateur Hour in 1948.
After graduation, Smith signed on with the Naval Reserve. While stationed in Hawaii during his 30-month tour of duty, he had a chance encounter with James Cagney. The legendary actor saw a star quality in Smith and encouraged him to come to Hollywood. When he hung up his uniform, Smith followed Cagney’s advice.
Smith showed up in 1956 on an episode of The Ford Television Theatre. Over the next year, he would land roles on Damon Runyon Theatre, Celebrity Playhouse, Sheriff of Cochise, West Point and The George Sanders Mystery Theater.
Smith also married Shaw in 1956. The couple had children Tracey, Jordan and Dallas before divorcing in 1964. (He had no children with Ann-Margret.)
In 1957, Columbia Pictures put Smith under contract. This led to a string of film appearances, including No Time to Be Young (1957), Operation Mad Ball (1957), Crash Landing (1958) and Auntie Mame (1958), in perhaps his most notable film role as the adult Patrick Dennis.
Smith got the opportunity to work with Cagney twice. In 1957, Cagney played Lon Chaney and Smith his son in the biopic Man of a Thousand Faces, and they appeared in Never Steal Anything Small (1959).
During this time, Smith continued to pop up on the small screen on Father Knows Best, Wagon Train and Sugarfoot.
And then came the role that made him a star. Created by Roy Huggins, 77 Sunset Strip began as a 77-minute episode of the series Conflict. Smith wasn’t in it and Byrnes played an icy hitman named Smiley. When Warner Bros. decided to go to series, Smith was featured as the former government agent Spencer, who also was a non-practicing attorney. Byrnes was recast as the wannabe investigator Kookie.
The freewheeling, wisecracking style of the characters, combined with their sophisticated lifestyle, was something TV viewers had never seen before.
“The heroes of 77 Sunset Strip were far removed from the stifled officers of Dragnet and Gangbusters,” Douglas Snauffer wrote in his 2006 book Crime Television. “They had a French secretary in the office and often hung out next door at Dino’s, a hip L.A. eatery. Their cases would often take them to exotic locations around the globe.”
Snauffer noted that 77 Sunset Strip also was TV’s first hourlong private eye series.
In 1960, at the height of the show’s popularity, Warner Bros. Records released Beach Romance, featuring 11 songs sung by Smith. He also penned seven episodes of the series (including “The Silent Caper,” a clever installment without dialogue) and wrote for Studio 4, Teletale and Surfside 6.
Smith’s last 77 Sunset Strip episode, the fifth-season finale “Our Man in Switzerland,” aired May 24, 1963. He also appeared earlier as Spencer in two episodes of Hawaiian Eye and on an episode of Surfside 6. Both Warner Bros. shows were created to cash in on the popularity of 77 Sunset Strip.
In 1964, Smith, well enough to return to acting, toured the country in a production of Sunday in New York. He showed up on TV’s The Farmer’s Daughter and Kraft Suspense Theatre and had an uncredited role in the feature For Those Who Think Young.
Smith took another shot at a series in 1965, signing on to play the title role in a version of Mr. Roberts. The half-hour comedy lasted one season. After that, he made only two more acting appearances, both in 1968, in Rogue’s Gallery and in Criminal Affair, an Italian caper comedy that starred Ann-Margret.
Smith in 1964 had struck up a friendship with Allan Carr, who agreed to be Smith’s manager. As Smith decided to leave acting, the duo formed Rogallan Productions. The company produced The First Time (1969) starring Jacqueline Bisset, and CC & Company (1970), starring Ann-Margret and Joe Namath. Smith wrote the screenplay for both.
Soon the lion’s share of Smith’s duties were as Ann-Margret’s manager. He produced many of her stage shows and TV specials, including Ann-Margret: From Hollywood With Love (1969), Ann-Margret: When You’re Smiling (1973) and Ann-Margret … Rhinestone Cowgirl (1977), and co-produced her 1994 telefilm Nobody’s Children.
“Roger had tremendous confidence in me, much more than I did,” his wife said in a 1985 interview. “I can be hurt very easily, but he can’t. He gradually brought me out of my shell.”
As the years went on, Smith made fewer and fewer public appearances because of his failing health. When he was seen, it usually was in support of his longtime love at such events as the Golden Globes or Emmy Awards.
The funeral service will be private.
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