Efrem Zimbalist Jr. dies at 95; star of ‘77 Sunset Strip’ and ‘The F.B.I.’

May 3

Efrem Zimbalist Jr., the son of famous musical parents who established his own name in the long-running television series “77 Sunset Strip” and the even
longer-running TV hit “The F.B.I.,” died May 2 at his home in Solvang, Calif. He was 95.

His family announced his death in a statement. The cause was not disclosed.

Mr. Zimbalist’s stunning good looks and cool, deductive manner made him the ideal star as the hip private detective ferreting out Hollywood miscreants in “77 Sunset Strip,” which aired from 1958 to 1964. After that show ended, he segued seamlessly into “The F.B.I.” which aired from 1965 to 1974.

At the end of each episode of the latter show, after Mr. Zimbalist’s character, Inspector Erskine, and his fellow G-men had captured that week’s mobsters, subversives, bank robbers or spies, the show would post photos from the FBI’s real-life wanted list. Some of the photos led to arrests, which helped give the show the seal of approval of the agency’s director, J. Edgar Hoover.

Mr. Zimbalist was the son of violin virtuoso Efrem Zimbalist and Alma Gluck, an acclaimed opera singer.


Veteran actor Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., shown in 1982, was known for his starring roles in “77 Sunset Strip” and “The F.B.I.” (Wally Fong/Associated Press)

Young Efrem studied the violin for seven years under the tutelage of Jascha Heifetz’s father, but he eventually developed more interest in theater. He became an actor, and “77 Sunset Strip” made him a celebrity.

His daughter also took up acting — and small-screen detective work, in the 1980s TV series “Remington Steele.” Her father had a recurring role in that show as a con man.

After serving in World War II, Mr. Zimbalist made his stage debut in “The Rugged Path,” starring Spencer Tracy, and appeared in other plays and a soap opera before being called to Hollywood. Warner Bros. signed him to a contract and cast him in minor film roles.

“77 Sunset Strip” starred Mr. Zimbalist as a cultured former OSS officer and language expert whose partner was Roger Smith, an Ivy League PhD.

The pair operated out of an office in the center of Hollywood’s Sunset Strip, where, aided by their sometime helper, Kookie, a jive-talking beatnik type who doubled as a parking-lot attendant, they tracked down miscreants. Kookie’s character, played by Edd Byrnes, helped draw young viewers to the show and make it an immediate hit.

The program brought Mr. Zimbalist an Emmy nomination in 1959. When the show faltered in 1963, Jack Webb, of “Dragnet” fame, was hired for an overhaul. He fired the cast except for Mr. Zimbalist. The series ended the following year.

Mr. Zimbalist had better luck with “The F.B.I.,” which endured for a decade as one of TV’s most popular shows.

Perceiving that the series could provide the real FBI with an important P.R. boost, Hoover opened the bureau’s files to the show’s producers and even allowed background shots to be filmed in real FBI offices.

“He never came on the set, but I knew him,” Mr. Zimbalist said. “A charming man, extremely Virginia formal and an extraordinary command of the language.”

During summer breaks between the two series, Warner Bros. cast Mr. Zimbalist in several feature films, including “Too Much Too Soon,” “Home Before Dark,” ‘’The Crowded Sky,” ‘’The Chapman Report” and “Wait Until Dark.” In the latter, he played the husband of Audrey Hepburn, a blind woman terrorized by thugs.

Mr. Zimbalist appeared in other films, but he was always best known as a TV star, ironic for an actor who told the Associated Press in a 1993 interview that when Warner Bros. first hired him he had no interest in doing television.

“They showed me in my contract where it said I had to,” he recalled.

“I ended up with my life slanted toward television, and I just accept that,” he added. “I think you play the hand the way it’s dealt, that’s all.”

In the 1990s, Mr. Zimbalist recorded the voice of Alfred the butler in the cartoon “Batman” series, which, he said, “has made me an idol in my little grandchildren’s eyes.”

Efrem Zimbalist Jr. was born in New York City on Nov. 30, 1918. He attended Yale University but said he was kicked out after two years over dismal grades, which he blamed on a playboy attitude.

He found a job as a page at NBC and began to study acting. During World War II, he served in the Army infantry and received a Purple Heart.

In 1945, Mr. Zimbalist married Emily McNair, with whom he had two children. After his wife died in 1950, Mr. Zimbalist gave up acting to teach at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where his father was an artist in residence. After five years, he returned to Hollywood. He married Loranda Stephanie Spalding in 1956, and she gave birth to a daughter, Stephanie Zimbalist.

Mr. Zimbalist’s second wife died in 2007. Survivors include his three children; four grandchildren; and several great-grandchildren.

In 2009, Mr. Zimbalist was named an honorary special agent, the FBI’s highest civilian honor. In presenting a badge to Mr. Zimbalist, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III said the actor had inspired many people to become FBI agents.

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