LOS ANGELES >> Handsome, debonair and blessed with a distinguished voice that reflected his real-life prep school upbringing, Efrem Zimbalist Jr. seemed born to play the television roles that made him famous, that of hip Hollywood detective and brilliant G-man.
A prolific actor who also appeared in numerous films and stage productions, Zimbalist became a household name in 1958 as Stu Bailey, the wisecracking private investigator who was a co-partner in a swinging Hollywood detective agency located at the exclusive address of “77 Sunset Strip.”
When the show of the same name ended in 1964, Zimbalist became an even bigger star playing the empathetic, methodical G-man Lewis Erskine in “The F.B.I.”
The actor, who in recent years had retired to his ranch in Southern California’s bucolic horse country, died there Friday at age 95.
“We are heartbroken to announce the passing into peace of our beloved father, Efrem Zimbalist Jr., today at his Solvang ranch,” the actor’s daughter Stephanie Zimbalist and son Efrem Zimbalist III said in a statement. “He actively enjoyed his life to the last day, showering love on his extended family, playing golf and visiting with close friends.”
Zimbalist’s stunning good looks and cool, deductive manner made him an instant star when “77 Sunset Strip” began its six-season run in 1958.
He and his partner Jeff Spencer (played by Roger Smith) operated from an office in the center of Hollywood 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 his constant hair combing created the national catchphrase, “Kookie, Lend Me Your Comb.”
When the program’s run ended in 1964, Zimbalist segued seamlessly into “The F.B.I.” the following year and that program aired until 1974.
At the end of each episode, after Zimbalist and his fellow G-men had captured that week’s mobsters, subversives, bank robbers or spies, the series would post real photos from the FBI’s most-wanted list. Some of them led to arrests, which helped give the show the complete seal of approval of the agency’s real-life director, J. Edgar Hoover.
“He never came on the set, but I knew him. A charming man, extremely Virginia formal and an extraordinary command of the language,” Zimbalist said of Hoover, who opened the bureau’s files to the show’s producers and even allowed background shots to be filmed at real FBI offices.
In 2009 the FBI honored Zimbalist with his own special agent’s badge, making him an honorary G-man in recognition of the contributions his show and his character made to the agency’s reputation.
“We could not have asked for a better character, or a better man, to play his role,” FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III said at the time.
The son of violin virtuoso Efrem Zimbalist and acclaimed opera singer Alma Gluck, young Efrem initially appeared headed for a musical career himself. He studied violin for seven years under the tutelage of Jascha Heifetz’s father, but eventually developed more interest in theater.
After serving in World War II, he 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.
He also had a recurring role in the hit Western series “Maverick,” playing con man Dandy Jim Buckley.
Then “77 Sunset Strip” debuted, starring Zimbalist as a cultured former O.S.S. officer and language expert whose partner was an Ivy League Ph.D.
The program brought Zimbalist an Emmy nomination in 1959, but after a few seasons he tired of the long hours and what he believed were the bad scripts.
“A job like this should pay off in one of two ways: satisfaction or money. The money is not great, and there is no satisfaction,” he said.
When the show faltered in 1963, Jack Webb of “Dragnet” fame was hired for an overhaul. He fired the cast except for Zimbalist, whom he made a world-traveling investigator. The repair work failed, and the series ended the following year.
Zimbalist had better luck with “The F.B.I.,” which endured for a decade as one of TV’s most popular shows.
His daughter Stephanie also took up acting — and small-screen detective work, in the hit 1980s TV series “Remington Steele.” Her father had a recurring role in that show, again playing a con man.
During summer breaks between his two hit series, Warner Bros. cast 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 in a truly frightening film.
Zimbalist also appeared in “By Love Possessed,” ”Airport 1975,” ”Terror Out of the Sky” and “Hot Shots.”
But he would always be best known as a TV star, ironic for an actor who told The Associated Press in 1993 that when Warner Bros. 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 said. “I think you play the hand the way it’s dealt, that’s all.”
In the 1990s, Zimbalist returned to television, recording the voice of Alfred the butler in the cartoon version of the “Batman” TV series. That role, 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.
His mother, reasoning that living amid the musical elite was not the best upbringing for a boy, sent him to boarding schools where he could be toughened by others his age. But young Efrem was bashful and withdrawn in school. His only outlet was acting in campus plays.
“I walked onstage in a play at prep school, and with childish naivet?, told myself, ‘Wow, I’m an actor!'” he once recalled.
He was kicked out of Yale after two years over dismal grades, which he blamed on a playboy attitude.
Afraid to go home, he stayed with a friend in New York City for three months, working as a page at NBC headquarters, where he was dazzled by the famous radio stars. Unable to break into radio as an actor, he studied at the famed Neighborhood Playhouse.
During World War II he served in the infantry, receiving a Purple Heart for a shrapnel wound in his leg.
In 1945, Zimbalist married Emily McNair and they had a daughter, Nancy, and son, Efrem III.
After his wife died in 1950 he gave up acting for a time to teach at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, where his father was an artist in residence. He returned to Hollywood five years later, marrying Loranda Stephanie Spalding in 1956, and she gave birth to their daughter Stephanie.
Zimbalist was preceded in death by his second wife and by his daughter Nancy.
In addition to his son and other daughter, Stephanie, he is survived by four grandchildren and several great-grandchildren.
Biographical material in this story was written by The Associated Press’ late Hollywood correspondent, Bob Thomas.