It’s hardly surprising that the son of renowned Russian-born concert violinist Efrem Zimbalist Sr. (1889-1985) and Romanian-born opera singer Alma Gluck (1884-1938) would desire a performing career of some kind. Born in New York City on November 30, 1918, surrounded by people of wealth and privilege throughout his childhood, Efrem Zimbalist Jr. received a boarding school education. Acting in school plays, he later trained briefly at the Yale School of Drama but didn’t apply himself enough and quit. As an NBC network radio page, he auditioned when he could and found minor TV and stock theatre parts while joining up with the Neighborhood Playhouse.
Following WWII war service with the Army infantry in which he was awarded the Purple Heart after being wounded, a director and friend of the family, Garson Kanin, gave the aspiring actor his first professional role in his Broadway production of “The Rugged Path” (1945) which starred Spencer Tracy. With his dark, friendly, clean-scrubbed good looks and a deep, rich voice that could cut butter, Zimbalist found little trouble finding work. He continued with the American Repertory Theatre performing in such classics as “Henry VIII” and “Androcles and the Lion” while appearing opposite the legendary Eva Le Gallienne in “Hedda Gabler”.
Zimbalist then tried his hand as a stage producer, successfully bringing opera to Broadway audiences for the first time with memorable presentations of “The Medium” and “The Telephone”. As producer of Gian Carlo Menotti’s “The Consul”, he won the New York Drama Critic’s Award and the Pulitzer Prize for best musical in 1950. An auspicious film debut opposite Edward G. Robinson in House of Strangers (1949) brought little career momentum due to the untimely death of his wife Emily (a onetime actress who appeared with him in “Hedda Gabler” and bore him two children, Nancy and Efrem III) to cancer in 1950. Making an abrupt decision to abandon acting, he served as assistant director/researcher at the Curtis School of Music for his father and buried himself with studies and music composition.
In 1954, Efrem returned to acting and copped a daytime television soap lead (Concerning Miss Marlowe (1954)). It was famed director Joshua Logan who proved instrumental in helping Zimbalist secure a Warner Bros. contract. Despite forthright second leads in decent films such as Band of Angels (1957) with Clark Gable and Yvonne De Carlo; Too Much, Too Soon (1958) starring Dorothy Malone and Errol Flynn; Home Before Dark (1958) with Jean Simmons and Rhonda Fleming; The Crowded Sky (1960) with Dana Andrews, Rhonda Fleming, Troy Donahue and Anne Francis; A Fever in the Blood (1961) opposite Angie Dickinson and (his best) Wait Until Dark (1967) with Audrey Hepburn, it was television that made the better use of his refined, unshowy acting style. His roles as smooth private investigator Stu Bailey on 77 Sunset Strip (1958) and dogged inspector Lewis Erskine on The F.B.I. (1965) would be his ultimate claims to fame.
A perfect gentleman on and off camera, Zimbalist’s severest critics tend to deem his performances bland and undernourished. Managing to override such criticisms, he maintained a sturdy career for nearly six decades. In 1991, he made fun of his all-serious reputation and pulled off a Leslie Nielsen-like role in the comedy parody Hot Shots! (1991). In addition to theater projects over the years, he has made fine use of his mellifluous baritone performing narrations and cartoon voiceovers, including that of Alfred the butler on a “Batman” animated series.
In 2003, he completed his memoirs, entitled “My Dinner of Herbs”. The father of three, grandfather of four and great-grandfather of three, he settled in Santa Barbara and later in Solvang, California with longtime second wife Stephanie until her death in 2007 of cancer. Their daughter, also named Stephanie (Stephanie Zimbalist), is the well-known actress who appeared with Pierce Brosnan in the Remington Steele (1982) television series, in which Zimbalist had a recurring role. He and his daughter also appeared on stage together in his later years, their first being “The Night of the Iguana”. His eldest daughter Nancy died in 2012.
Zimbalist died peacefully at his Solvang home of natural causes at the age of 95 on May 2, 2014; he had been outside watering his lawn at his Solvang, Calif., ranch when a handyman found him lying dead in the grass. “He was healthy, playing golf three days a week, and always in his garden,” Zimbalist’s son said.