Thursday, May 29, 2014

CBC's Republic Of Doyle Ending

It was supposed to be comeback day for the beleagured CBC as the network threw itself a party at the network's Front. St. headquarters in Toronto.
the occasion? To celebrate its upcoming season beginning in September.
But right off the top one of CBC's bona fide stars Allan Hawco announced to a startled bunch of TV critics that he's voluntarily ending his series Republic Of Doyle after one more season of just 10 episodes.
I could hear the gasp from the audience. Republic Of Doyle is one of CBC-TV's true ratings kings but Hawco assured me he's leaving voluntarily and wants to go out on a high note.
"No coasting," he told me. Production begins next week in St. John's Newfoundland with the final day's filming set for September.
And just to prove his point he came with a gaggle of co-stars who seemed none too happy at the announcement: Kristin Pellerin, Lynda Boyd, Sean McGinley, Mark O'Brien and Martha Bernard.
"We're back on Wednesdays which is our comfort zone. On Sundays we had to battle all those big awards shows. I just feel this is the right time."
On other CBC fronts incoming programming chief Heather Conway was decidedly upbeat about the product on both her TV and radio services.
In fact she got out all the big guns.
Both Peter Mansbridge and Rick Mercer had been notable for their absences in recent years but both showed up to rally the troops.
Indeed every star from CBC Radio One and Two was up on the podium and there was a full compliment of CBC News stars.
There's every indication the network is starting to fight back but resources are limited. NHL hockey continues on CBC-TV this fall but CBC wont be getting any of the lush revenue from it.
Conway also announced several new projects to rally the troops. there's the Book Of Negroes based on the best seller by Lawrence Hill and starring Cuba Goosing Jr. and Louis Gossett Jr.
Strange Empire is a dark western about a western town where towns folk keep disappearing.
Camp X looks at a Canadian camp during World war II where spies were trained --Flashpoint creators stephanie Morgenstern and Mark Ellis are making it.
Private's Passage is an animated yarn about smugglers produced by and starring Donald Sutherland.
Then there's the bizarre new comedy turn Schitt's Creek starring Eugene and Dan Levy and starring Catherine O'Hara.
Conway took over from Kristen Stewart who jumped to Twitter Canada --here is the first schedule to show her branding.
Canada's Smartest Person is back for nine episodes and Johnny Harris takes us to Of All Places as he unearths small town humor.
CBC has bought the BBC series The Honorable Woman starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and an Australian series Secrets And Lies.
Returning series include a recast Dragon's Den, Mr. D, Murdoch Mysteries, Heartland, Rick Mercer and This Hour Has 22 Minutes.
There doesn't seem to be any replacement for George Stroumboiulopoulods.
Cancelled shows include Rick James and the David Sutcliffe police drama Cracked.
Hawco told me he's "open" to suggestions about making Doyle into a TV movie or two. "A theatrical movie would really be something else again."


Monday, May 26, 2014

I Remember Knowlton Nash

It was September 1970 and I was new to the job of TV critic (at The Hamilton Spectator) being all of 24 and just out of university.
But there I was at the CBC's fall launch for critics mingling with the likes of The Globe And Mail's sage Blaik Kirby and  The Toronto Star's acerbic Patrick Scott.
There was a grand total of 35 others from across the country assembled at CBC's Jarvis St. headquarters --plus Mary Anne Lauricella from The Buffalo Evening News.
"Anything you need just phone me," smiled Knowlton Nash as I mingled with such CBC stars as Tommy Hunter, The Friendly Giant and radio's Barbara Frum.
As one CBC reporter told me that day "Knowlton is your best source for what's happening at the CBC. He knows where the bodies are buried. In fact he buried a few himself along the way."
Nash had been a bright on-air reporter until 1969 when he took a job as head of CBC News And Current Affairs.
Born in Toronto in 1927 he'd started out with the wire service British United Press and later worked for CBC Washington correspondent James Minifie who he told me "Was a legend. I learned all the elements from him."
When CBC-TV came on the air in 1952 it was Minifie who insisted the national broadcast be on at 11 p.m.
"That was the earliest film from Washington and Ottawa could be flown to Toronto to be edited and used on air," Nash explained.
Paul Kidd who worked the print side for Southam news in Washington said he'd watch in awe as "Knowlton was on the phone for hours tracking down stories. He also kept his bosses in Toronto fully informed --he had a real knack for seeming to know what stories they'd want covered."
Said Nash: "I covered the Cuban Missile crisis (1962) which seemed to change by the hour. I covered the 1968 riots after Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down. And I was just about the last reporter to interview Bobby Kennedy before he was assassinated."
I was at another TV critics convention in 1976 when Nash got up and told startled TV Critics that "I've lost my Mr. Clean" --a reference to the defection of Lloyd Robertson to CTV.
All the critics hailed taxis and rushed over to CTV for the Robertson press conference leaving the chief CBC flack Cec Smith in tears as he shouted "Come back! This is my junket!"
Nash later told me it was a blessing in disguise. "Lloyd left because he was classed as an announcer and couldn't change his copy, interview anybody on his own, he felt humiliated and left for that freedom. Subsequent CBC anchors owe a lot to Lloyd."
Nash surprised everyone by picking young Peter Kent as the next anchor but Kent eventually defected to NBC. Then in 1978 Nash had another surprise as Kent's successor --he picked himself.
Veterans grumbled but Nash was just right for the job. His owlish exterior got him dubbed "Uncle Knowltie". As a news reader he seldom stumbled--but that was because he virtually memorized each script starting hours before the air time.
In 1992 second stringer Peter Mansbridge announced he had a definite offer from CBS Morning News to take over as anchor.
Nash gracefully bowed out of anchoring The National rather than have the CBC lose Mansbridge and instead hosted several news programs on CBC News channel.
Nash wrote several must-read books on TV including The Microphone Wars on how the CBC was being reduced by government cut backs.
I last talked to him about four years ago when he was vacationing in Florida with wife Lorraine Thomson who produced Front Page Challenge and hosted her own CBC-TV series VIPs.
"The National isn't what it once was," he told me. "But then what is? TV's audience has fragmented. I miss the old days when a nation would sit down every night and get their news but today it's considered old fashioned.
" I think I was there at the best of times."

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Miracles Decoded Tests Religion

This is the crazy time of the TV year, well before most summer series start.
It's a time when a network can test market something as offbeat and challenging as Miracles Decoded.
The first hour episode premieres on History Sunday May 25 at 10 p.m.
This one is going to prove explosive from the get go.
It's a series that tries to satisfy both people with determined religious beliefs and viewers who favor reason and skepticism.
I think it's successful catering to both because there's a refusal here to sensationalize any of the stories portrayed as fact.
Miracles Decoded tells both sides of the same narrative and is reasoned and coherent. It leaves room for doubt on both sides.
Three stories are presented every episode.
In the first we visit with dedicated pentecostal Christians in rural Kentucky/
They are portrayed as nice, law abiding folk who take their Bible extremely literally as they interpret portions of the Gospel of Mark which teaches how to handle poisonous snakes as one act of sheer faith in the power of God.
In a second segment we visit a young Polish mother who has always venerated the Black Madonna and all things associated with Polish born Pope John Paul II.
The third part looks at the activities of a Mexican shaman who is trained in modern medicine but also uses ancient techniques to drive the devil from a severely possessed young woman.
In Middlesboro, Kentucky, this tiny congregation dare handle fore without any one being burned.
We're told outsiders are always going to be doubtful of their practices.
And indeed reptile experts show us that it's all in the way the congregationalists shake the snakes that disrupt the reptiles --usually the snakes do not bite in that state.
But I'm not giving away too much by saying something does occur before the cameras and how the preacher reacts will surely astound viewers.
The Polish segment looks at the case of a young mother told her unborn baby has not been developing in the womb and will be surely born dead. She works through the Virgin Mary and summons up prayer as her way of coping and the baby born at just two pounds continues to startle medical exerts by breathing and continuing to develop.
It's a case of science getting it very wrong and religion riding to the rescue.
The Mexican story set in Guadalajara shows how supernatural forces continue to defy modern psychologist until ancient treatments are used.
All three stories are exciting to watch and boldly presented.
This series plays like a 60 Minutes of the epic battle between Faith and Reason and was made by Saloon Media (executive producer Michael Kot)with Steve Gamester the show producer).
MY RATING: ***1/2.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Normal Heart: Must See TV

It only took 29 years for Larry Kramer's incendiary play The Normal Heart to make it to TV after numerous attempts to turn it into a movie (Barbra Streisand owned the rights for a decade).
The wait was well worth it.
Written during the heights of the AIDS epidemic, the original was a cry for help as thousands of gay men died from an epidemic nobody wanted to tackle.
The Normal Heart premieres on HBO Canada Sunday May 25 at 9 p.m. and is certainly one of the highlights of the spring TV season.
In brilliant prose Kramer took on the gay establishment, President Ronald Reagan and gay bashers everywhere who considered it retribution for an abhorrent life style.
Directed with feeling by Ryan Murphy (Glee) The Normal Heart is a mesmerizing tale of a particular moment in history when the world's humanity was tested and found wanting.
Of course the TV version lacks the visceral hatred of the original although the epidemic has never been cured --there are still thousands of recorded new cases every month.
What Murphy has done admirably is soften the edges of the narrative and turn it into a sad love story that is quite affecting.
At the core of the story there's vengeful New York city gay activist Ned Weeks --Kramer was writing in autobiographical mode here and turns Weeks into a brash loud mouth who many people simply cannot stand.
Mark Ruffalo gives a virtuoso performance as the tortured man watching friends die all around him and unable to change the attitudes of government or society.
At first I thought Ruffalo was being too quiet because Ned's screams and rants are the only things that seem to change the entrenched positions of the bureaucrats.
But as his performance deepened I was impressed by the way he balanced the difficult features of Ned's personality which so rattled his brother (played by Alfred Molina) that the two stopped speaking.
That's why The Normal Heart works best as an historical piece.
We're close enough to the event to remember the catastrophe but far enough away to need an over all guide to how it affected so many people in different ways.
The film starts strongly with the leading physician Dr. Emma Brookner (Julia Roberts) reading the riot act to a group of gay activists and telling to cease and desist from unrestricted sex.
Her suggestion sets off a firestorm --At the time sexual freedom was the way some gay activists defined themselves and they heckle and curse her.
The TV movie starts with a look at frolicking at Fire Island with anonymous partners but quickly turns dark and disturbing. On that very beach there is prolonged coughing from Craig (Jonathan Groff), the lover of closeted stock broker Bruce (Taylor Kitsch).
In fact so many events are jammed into the next two hours one critic has already suggested the material should have been expanded into a miniseries.
Murphy wisely uses a lot of TV names to puff up the ratings. As Kramer's lover and a New York Times Style reporter Matt Bomer (White Collar) shines --the actor really lost 40 pounds from his already slender frame as the disease wasted his character's body.
In a supporting role Jim Parson excels particularly when his character must enunciate at a funeral the mounting toll of victims --it's a gut wrenching moment.
Roberts is surprisingly strong as the doctor who equated her own polio bout with the mysteries of  AIDS. You can also spot Joe Mantello, BD Wong and Finn Wittrock.
TV has tackled the subject before most notably in the PBS TV movie Longtime Companion (1989) and the miniseries Angels In America (2003).
Which doesn't make The Normal Heart any less a must-watch experience.
MY RATING: ****.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Rookie Blue Is Five Seasons Old

Normally Canadian TV dramas have short and un-sweet shelf lives.
That's because of the economics of the business --these shows must service two masters: TV executives both in Canada and the participating U.S. network.
It makes for a formula for chaos as witness the fine summer series Combat Hospital, a hit on Global but a ratings loser on U.S. TV.
And so it got cancelled after one summer.
But Rookie Blue which returns Monday night at 10 on Global was luckier.
I once spent a few hours with the canny executive producer Ilana Frank who said her series had ABC executives rooting for it from the get go.
By the way Frank also made the sturdy series The Eleventh Hour which despite the talents of Sonja Smits and John Neville never even got aU.S. network sale and floundered after two seasons on CTV.
Rookie Blue looks at a bunch of young beat cops who, alas, are hardly rookies five seasons later.
The show is a walking advertisement for a group of young and photogenic Canadian actors including Missy Peregrym, Ben Bass and Greg Smith.
It's well made, shot mostly in and around Toronto and one of a number of Canadian procedurals which also play on the American networks --think Motive (shot in Vancouver).
Last summer season ended with two principals taking bullets---how's that for a hangover.
I like the show, watch it all the time but it's hardly on my list of "must see" TV series and never pretends to be anything else but a well made procedural.
A final order of 22 episodes means the series will last this summer and next. ABC obviously likes the show but doesn't feel it is strong enough to run during the regular season.
So the question is: are there any Canadian shows out there that rank as must-see TV?
I can think of only one right now: Orphan Black.
So meanwhile enjoy the romantic attachments of the regulars, try spotting the Toronto scenery and wonder about such fine series as Combat Hospital which failed to attract sufficient viewers south of the border to stay around for more than 13 episodes.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

The View And I

TV Maven Barbara Walters seemed to spend the whole of Friday on ABC saying farewell.
First she bid adieu on The View --a show that she co-owns with ABC --and who should be there to add her two cents but former First Lady Hilary Rodham Clinton.
Following Mrs. Clinton (who may be the next U.S. President) were Oprah Winfrey and Diane Sawyer both of whom surely owed part of their success to the trail blazing TV stardom of our Barbara.
Then in a two-hour prime time special which her company produced Barbara said farewell again aided by dozens of clips of the rich and famous she's interviewed in her almost five decades of  TV appearances.
What was evident was Walters virtually invented TV's present celebrity culture and there were hints along the way she thinks it may have gone too far.
I remember Walters from her early on appearances on the Today Show when she was "the girl" assigned to cover fashion and recipes --politics was definitely not part of the game plan.
When she defected to ABC to become co-anchor with Harry Reasoner there was a huge amount of tension.
I remember in 1976 I was interviewing Morley Safer in his CBS office and we were watching live coverage of President Carter's Inauguration on ABC.
Everything Walters said Reasoner interrupted her to say "No Barbara this is the real story."
Safer was incensed and said Reasoner's unprofessional outbursts meant one of them would have to go and soon it was Reasoner who left.
Walters left the anchor desk, too, and after interviewing the likes of Anwar Sadat and the Shah of Iran she became famed for her celebrity interviews.
She always had to get her subject to cry and she even asked Katharine Hepburn what kind of a tree she'd like to be.
The Walters specials filled the coffers of ABC  but I always felt Walter's reputation as a journalist had suffered.
In fact I was among the first TV critics to visit The View when it debuted on ABC 17 years ago --Walters devised the series, owned a part of it but chose Meredith Vieira to be the actual moderator while she was a mere panelist.
The Toronto Star entertainment editor of the day ordered me "not to go near that d-d show" because he thought it worthless. I defied him during a New York city trip so he plopped my story on the back page of the entertainment section.
He was soon gone from the section but The View persists to this day.
I got to sit in the audience and afterwards chat up the four co-hosts in their dressing rooms although Walters soon fled pleading another engagement.
The special contained nought bits of her often prickly personality that saw such co-hosts as Star Jones, Rosie O'Donnell and Debbie Mantelopoulos decamping from the scene from time to time.
Re-inventing TV culture has made Walters wealthy and famous.
But I'm wondering if deep in her heart of hearts she doesn't regret deserting the world of hard TV news for the soft underbelly of chatting up second rate celebrities?

Monday, May 12, 2014

Never Ever Do This At Home Returns

"It's crazy but we're being paid good money to blow things up," nervously laughs Teddy Wilson, one half (along with co-host Norm Sousa) of Never Ever Do this At Home.
The spin off of a Norwegian TV hit weekly sees the guys parachuting a bathtub into the air or hiding behind chairs as an electronic lazy susan goes berserk.
"I can't ever remember having so much fun," jokes Sousa. "It brings out the child in me --and in Teddy. Who wouldn't like to go on a binge like this?"
Last season the Canadian spin off went through the roof in the ratings wars causing Discovery to order a fresh batch of half hour episodes.
The first two are running back to back Monday night at 9.
But Discovery has a real feast for fans on Victoria Day with a marathon of all the first season episodes starting at 1 p.m. followed by new episodes at 9 p.m. Got that?
First of all the producers had to find a house the owners wanted completely destroyed.
"We found one this year outside Bradford (Ontario)," Wilson reports.
"It actually looks nice but it got prettied up a bit. The owners had to have it demolished anyway because it was ramshackle and crawling with asbestos.
"We merely hurried the process along."
Each episode consists of three "what if" propositions which the guys test out to instant merriment.
In the first episode the stunts involve launching a 150-kilogram cast-iron bathtub up a ramp, through the air and plop into a bathroom.
Also not to do at home: the boys motorize a lazy susan after building one and finding it is way too slow. Something goes awry and they are splashed from tip to toe with various condiments.
In another episode the bed of a flatbed truck is turned into a transportable hot tub --look out for potholes when the driver picks up speed!
I should mention about here that the boys do not deploy stunt doubles at all.
"There have been some nicks along the way," Wilson allows.
Wilson says "it is a scientific show --barely. " The show goes where no real scientist would dare to go. The explosions are bigger than in first year but that's us right there looking on in wonder."
Every experiment can only be done once for obvious reasons. So the crew use as many as 20 cameras in the hope everything will be caught.
Also there's the sad state of the house which is progressively deteriorating. Sousa says something that might knock it down has to be saved for last.
Also available is a fire fighting team from Brantford who were around all the first year. 'They've helped us innumerable times," allows Sousa.
Sousa says the show used up al the Norwegian experiments the first season. "Now we are all on our own."
Does anybody ever get hurt? Wilson says he tends to get grazed while "Norm is the injured one."
Sousa had molten lead plop on his head and he got scalded in the hot tub" but it's all in a day's work."
To their credit the co-hosts keep everything percolating --literally --and Sousa gets off some neat one-liners.
And Don't Ever Do This At Home is a big popular hit especially with the younger set who seem to thrive on such explosive tales.
Already this second season the series has used nine pounds of rocket fuel, 127 pounds of gunpowder, nine lawnmowers, 16 taxidermy heads and 24 cucumbers (don't ask).

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Canadian TV May Soon Be Extinct

The trouble with Canadian TV is that there's not much Canadian on your networks."
The speaker was a British friend of mine who happened to be traveling through and sat down in her hotel suite to catch the latest Canadian specials, series and miniseries.
"You have all those American signals beaming in and then you have those same American shows broadcast at exactly the same time period on the Canadian stations," she said.
And she's exactly right.
In many areas Canadian producers have given up trying.
Many of the so-called Canadian content series are thinly disguised American fodder for quick release to the U.S. networks.
I'm thinking of Saving Hope (which I like) which could take place in any midwestern American city.
I'm thinking of Motive (which I always watch), set in Vancouver, but it could be Seattle for U.S. fans.
I adore Orphan Black. It is truly Canadian outside of the talent both behind and in front of the camera.
In other areas like afternoon soaps and night time talk shows there's never been a Canadian presence.
In fact I was recently at a high class dinner where the hostess said there'd never ever been a Canadian TV soap.
"High Hopes!" I sputtered in mock indignation.
I was on the set up at CFTO. It ran a full season (1978)  in the afternoon syndicated across Canada and the U.S.
The star was that fine actor (Bruce Gray. And I got to interview Dorothy Malone who was guesting for a week or two.
Other Canadian actors included Gordon Thomson (later on Dynasty), Jayne Eastwood, Candace O'Connor and Colin Fox.
"And let's not forget Riverdale," I stated warming to the topic. "Linda Schuyler of DeGrassi High fame made it for a year of runs at 7 p.m. on CBC. The sets are still up and were later used for Paradise Falls which certainly counts as a raunchy soap."
But she was right soaps are not a Canadian tradition.
but we did have a fine tradition of making TV movies on distinctly Canadian subjects.
the CRTC allowed its strictures about content regarded scripted shows to fizzle out and all the networks dropped their bags of Canadian TV movie goodies.
Now we're reading the CRTC annual report saying revenues on Canadian stations are plummeting.
But what Canadian shows are affected I would like to ask you.
Every May all the Canadian TV programmers trek to L.A. for weeks of darkened screening rooms as they buy up virtually all the new American product for the upcoming year.
The Good, The Bad and The Ugly as one programmer aptly titled his haul.
Maybe it's the mediocrity of this harvest but more and more Canadian programmers are switching to Netflicks, Hulu, AOL, even Amazon which now offer quality fare.
For years the Canadian stations have been fascinated with their bags of American goodies.
Maybe just once they should start promoting Canadian shows.
And we could all see how Canadians react to this wind fall.
Canadian TV for and about Canadians?
Maybe its time has come.


Sunday, May 4, 2014

There Still Is Greatness On Canadian TV

In ye olden days --just a few years back actually --a documentary feature of the depth of Out Of Mind, Out Of Sight would have gotten major play on CBC-TV.
After all the director is John Kastner whose work I have been covering since I became the kid TV critic at The Hamilton Spectator in 1971.
Kastner has won  fistful of Emmys over the years and a new Kastner production used to be a big feature of every TV season on CBC along with the latest "Raskymentary" by another perennial Emmy winner the late, great Harry Rasky.
But Kastner's latest epic Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind is premiering on TV  Wednesday night at 9 on TVO which still champions the long form documentary.
This one is a sort of sequel to Kastner's last docu  2013's NCR: Not Criminally Responsible which focused on one inmate, violent offender Sean Clifton.
And over the weekend it won the "best feature documentary" at Toronto's Hot Docs festival.
This time Kastner examines in depth four very different inmates --he and his crew got almost unlimited access to the Brockville Mental Health Center.
Over 18 months he photographed 46 patients and 76 staff members ultimately focusing on just four patients all of them studies in contrasts.
We get to meet them, we think we understand where they're coming from but we never do. Because all four have dangerous pasts and they still grapple all day every day with their schizophrenia.
At first Michael dazzles us with his quiet ways, he is very handsome and understands what he did. The camera seems to rest on his beautiful face as we come to understand how sick he still is.
In one strangely unsettling scene his two brothers, sister and father watch a succession of images of the mother who was herself a real beauty --all the time they must grapple with the reality Michael killed her in a rage and then calmly telephoned the police.
"He was always the smartest person in the room," says younger brother John.
Sal is a very different character. He has had romances with other inmates. His mood swings are astonishing --and we learn he beat his mother so severely she continues to have serious neurological challenges.
Staff are caught laughing that the females on the floor are always more difficult to handle. It's an odd moment of hilarity that curiously fits the atmosphere of "Brock Psych".
Another strange moment comes when we're shown how patients evade taking their meds (they keep the pills under their tongues and spit them out later).
There is Carol whose mood swings are wild and unpredictable. And there is Justine who once was an institution mate of Ashley Smith and who exhibits the same scary behavior.
These patients have all committed serious crimes but were ruled not criminally responsible by the courts.
Kastner's method has always been to force the audience to take a stand. I well remember he got that feeling with the 1984 documentary The Lifer And the Lady (still his best)  and he achieved it again in 2007's Monster In The Family.
This means a deliberately show speed, an abundance of closely realized details, and getting these subjects to completely trust him.
The build up of emotions is sometimes hard to watch but it's just as difficult trying to turn away.
For example there's Michael's fear of being sent off to a group home where he thinks others may judge him.
Kastner as always asks a lot of the TV audience. Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind challenges us to invest a lot of our time and emotions with the knowledge there are no easy answers.
But the rewards are certainly plentiful --TV for the adult mind, certainly a rarity these days.
MY RATING: ****.

Remembering Efrem Zimbalist Jr.

I first interviewed Efrem Zimbalist Jr. not in some darkened TV studio where he spent a great deal of his life but in a cramped CBC Radio Studio on Jarvis street in Toronto.
It was 1978 and Zimbalist, already 60, was being celebrated in a CBC radio special with the full orcherstral treatment of some of his own compositions.
"Now this is a great thrill," he enthused. "This and just now bumping into Glenn Gould in the hall way."
Zimbalist joked that most people knew him from his two long running TV series: first up there was 77 Sunset Strip (1958-61) and later The F.B.I. (196574).
The residuals from both made him a very rich man.
And years later --in 1986 --I interviewed him on the set of his third big series Hotel --he had inherited the role of the owner of San Francisco's Fairmont hotel from Anne Baxter who died suddenly in the middle of production.
"Aaron Spelling phoned me up and said 'How would you like to work one day an episode and still pocket a full salary?'
"I immediately signed on the dotted line --I can't seem to escape from television you see."
What one immediately noticed about Zimbalist was his urbanity --and the fact that he aged beautifully. Even in his 60s he was a remarkably handsome guy.
An assistant appeared with cups of afternoon tea --Zimbalist inspected to see if they were the required Royal Doulton china.
"I have banned paper cups from this set forever!" he laughed.
Indeed it might be said he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth --his mother was renowned soprano Alma Gluck and father equally fabled violinist Efrem Zimbalist..
He was born in New York city in 1918 "and it was expected of me that I would be musical. I studied the violin for 10 years and was pretty good --but father was pretty great. I took my lessons from the father of Jascha Heifetz who one day asked me 'Junior, what are you going to do when you grow up?'
"That was a not-so-subtle hint that I'd better do something else than play the violin.
"I tried acting and got a spot in the 1945 Broadway production of The Rugged Path. It was Spence Tracy's return to the Great White Way but he lacked the stamina to do it. He was frequently sick, stumbled on lines. Behind the curtains Kate Hepburn kept egging him on. Finally, after 80 some performances he just quit and went back to Hollywood.He never tried the stage again."
Zimbalist made his movie debut in 1949's House Of Strangers opposite Edward G. Robinson but the death of first wife Emily the next year caused him to give up acting for five years.
In 1954 he tried again signing with Jack L. Warner and being cast in such Warners fare as Band Of Angels (opposite Clark Gable), Too Much Too Soon (with Dorothy Malone) and Home Before Dark (with Jean Simmons).
In 1958 Warners used him and Roger Smith as the stars of the swinging detective saga 77 Sunset Strip--it ran for 167 episodes until 1964..
"In the summers I starred with Angie Dickinson in A Fever In The Blood and the next summer I made The Chapman Report considered shocking in its day.
"I did have a career in movies servicing such formidable female stars as Lana Turner and Audrey Hepburn--their ambitions scared me. But that's why they were super stars."
Starting in 1965 Zimbalist  appeared in all 241 episodes of The F.B.I. and later the agency made him an honorable special agent. "I got to know and respect J.Edgar Hoover very much --he'd phone and give me his criticism of each episode."
In Hotel he appeared in nine episodes in 1986 and in 1990 he co-starred for 25 episodes on the TV series Zorro.
When TV movies were all the rage he co-starred in a slew of them --"My favorite is The Gathering, Part 2 with Maureen Stapleton. But I've even done The Love Boat. I'm airaid I have no shame."
I remember teasing Efrem about consulting fellow actor Dana Andrews before he booked a flight.
"Yes! Right! In The Crowded Sky (1960) he's the pilot of a jumbo jet and I'm the pilot of a private plane and we crash mid-air! In 1974 I'm walking to the set of my new movie Airport 1974 and I bump into Dana. He says he's going to do the new disaster movie with me --this time I'm the jumbo jet pilot and he's the pilot of the private plane and we crash again!"
The fancy china having been cleared Zimbalist indicated it was time t return to his chosen craft.
"Making faces --it's all I ever wanted to do."
Efrem Zimbalist Jr. died of natural causes at his Solvang (California) home on May 2, 2014, aged 95. Daughter Stephanie Zimbalist had her own series in Remington Steele while son Efrem III is a lawyer.