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Actor Efrem Zimbalist Jr. Dies; Played Sleuths On TV Hits

Actor Efrem Zimbalist Jr., seen here at his California home in 1982, died Friday, his family announced.
Wally Fong
Actor Efrem Zimbalist Jr., seen here at his California home in 1982, died Friday, his family announced.

Efrem Zimbalist Jr., an actor whose streak of leading-man success on TV stretched over three decades, has died. Zimbalist, who starred on ABC's 77 Sunset Strip and The F.B.I., was 95; his family announced his death, saying he died at home on Friday.

"We are heartbroken to announce the passing into peace of our beloved father, Efrem Zimbalist Jr., today at his Solvang ranch," the family 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."

An actor whose career included work on stage, in films and in animated series, Zimbalist was most famous for playing two dissimilar detectives: "the suave private eye Stuart Bailey on TV's 77 Sunset Strip beginning in the late 1950s and later ... as the buttoned-down Inspector Lewis Erskine on The F.B.I., the Los Angeles Times notes.

More recently, Zimbalist did voice work on animated shows, portraying Alfred the Butler on Batman and related series; he also played Doctor Octopus on Spider-Man.

His work on The F.B.I.endeared Zimbalist to the federal agency and its legendary chief, J. Edgar Hoover; the show often ended by broadcasting a call for information about fugitives from justice. In 2009, the FBI and then-director Robert Mueller honored Zimbalist by making him an honorary agent.

Zimbalist was the middle link in a family famous for its talents. His parents were violinist Efrem Zimbalist and the opera singer Alma Gluck; his daughter, Stephanie, is an actress who had her own detective show, Remington Steele.

A veteran of World War II, Zimbalist studied at the Yale Drama School. As The Hollywood Reporter notes, Zimbalist "began his career as an NBC page but soon found work in the theater and was cast in the 1945 Broadway production of The Rugged Path, which starred Spencer Tracy and was directed by Garson Kanin. Zimbalist's rich baritone and striking manner won notice, and he landed plum roles in Henry VIIIin 1946 and Hedda Gabler in 1948."

Zimbalist later moved on to film; The Reporter says his favorite work was in 1958's Home Before Dark,starring Jean Simmons.

The L.A. Times notes that Zimbalist had to be convinced to act on television:

"'When I was under contract at Warners, I didn't want to do television,' Zimbalist said in a 1993 Associated Press interview. 'They told me I was going to make a pilot, and they showed me in my contract where it said I had to.' "

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.