Sunday, May 4, 2014

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.

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