Obituary: Efrem Zimbalist Jr. / Actor starred in popular shows '77 Sunset Strip' and 'The FBI'

Nov. 30, 1918 - May 2, 2014

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Efrem Zimbalist Jr., an actor whose mellifluous voice and air of European sophistication left a distinctive stamp on two popular television crime series, died May 2 at his ranch in Solvang, Calif. He was 95.

His son, Efrem Zimbalist III, confirmed the death, saying his father had been outside watering his lawn when a handyman found him lying in the grass.

Mr. Zimbalist personified the suave and unflappable leading man as an Ivy League-educated private eye on the lighthearted "77 Sunset Strip" and as a stalwart agent who always got his man on "The FBI," which ran for nine seasons and made him a household name. "The FBI" was unquestioning in its support of the organization it depicted, and both on screen and off, Mr. Zimbalist became its unofficial symbol.

His life imitated his art. Politically conservative, he was a strong defender of J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI's director, and a close friend of Ronald Reagan.

Although he had some success in movies, big-screen stardom eluded him; he did his most memorable work on television, a medium he sometimes resented but always understood.

Efrem Zimbalist Jr. was born Nov. 30, 1918, in New York City. In a 1959 interview with The New York Times, he said his unusual surname was good for at least one thing: "It's kept me out of westerns. I can't imagine a Hopalong Zimbalist." He was in fact proud of his name and of his heritage. His father was a Russian-born violinist and composer who became the director of the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. His mother was well-known concert soprano Alma Gluck.

After graduating from prep school, Mr. Zimbalist attended Yale University, where he led the life of a bon vivant. He was expelled, reinstated and expelled again for low grades and amassed, by his own account, thousands of dollars of debt at New Haven haberdasheries and gourmet shops.

He then worked as an NBC page and studied acting at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York, where Gregory Peck also was a student.

In 1941, he enlisted in the Army. He received the Purple Heart after being wounded in the battle of Hürtgen Forest, on the German-Belgian border, in World War II. After returning to New York, he made his Broadway debut in "The Rugged Path."

Mr. Zimbalist augmented his budding stage career by producing three lyric operas by Gian Carlo Menotti. The double bill of "The Medium" and "The Telephone" was a popular success, and "The Consul" won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 1950. That year Mr. Zimbalist's wife of five years, Emily, died of cancer, and he stopped acting to work for his father at the Curtis Institute.

When Mr. Zimbalist was first approached to star in "77 Sunset Strip," he resisted. "I fought doing this series for six months, but I lost," he told Time magazine in 1959.

Despite his mixed feelings, Mr. Zimbalist remained the stable center of the series, which won a Golden Globe in 1960. He and Roger Smith starred as private eyes but found themselves playing straight men to the show's most popular character, Kookie, a jive-talking parking attendant played by Edd Byrnes.

"77 Sunset Strip" was on the air until 1963, although in its final season, Mr. Zimbalist was the only original cast member left. He was soon back on television, this time more willingly.

"The FBI," on the air from 1965 until 1974, provided a respite from the social upheaval of the era and captured the imagination of viewers, if not the respect of critics. As Inspector Lewis Erskine, stalker of cheats, Communists and counterfeiters, Mr. Zimbalist was a stoic and dignified presence. With its emphasis on procedure and its impersonal characters, the series prefigured crime dramas such as the "Law & Order" franchise.

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