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Applauding the life of Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.

Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.'s parents, opera singer Alma Gluck and violinist, Efrem Zimbalist, Sr.
Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.'s parents, opera singer Alma Gluck and violinist, Efrem Zimbalist, Sr.
Image from YouTube user edmundusrex

Upon hearing the news of the passing of actor Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. on May 2, 2014, at the age of 95, two thoughts rushed to mind. The first was personal; in a book of precious memories kept for decades, I found a handwritten letter he’d sent me, postmarked May 1, 1984, mailed from Houston, Texas, where he had been appearing in a play, to enthusiastic crowds and rave reviews. Thirty years to the very day he died, I’d opened his response recognizing my gift I’d mailed, in care of the theatre, hoping it would actually reach him. It was a collage I’d made in appreciation for a body of television acting work that had meant so much to me, personally, during my childhood.

Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., passed away at the age of 95, May 2, 2014.
Vince Bucci/Getty Images

Zimbalist’s life began seemingly star-studded from his youth, but that was not an advantage as much as it was just a fact of life. Imagine growing up, as many people do, when both of your parents are famous, the penultimate talents in their fields at the time, and then that’s the “act you have to follow.” Quite the daunting premise for some.

Longtime television viewers and Zimbalist fans recall that his father, Efrem Alexsandrovich, Sr., was an internationally heralded violinist, born in Russia. His mother was the beloved opera singer, Alma Gluck, born in Romania. Efrem, Jr. was born November 15, 1918, three years after the arrival of his sister, Maria Virginia, the couple’s first child.

Professional work weeks revolved around producing masterworks, the recordings of which are still today prized commodities. Weekend gatherings at their home would see streams of talented people coming and going with normal regularity. Yet in their home, life was as normal, a safe haven for the famous to simply be themselves.

If memory serves, it was in one of the books by Marcia Davenport, Efrem, Jr.’s stepsister, music critic and writer, the daughter of Alma Gluck and Bernard Glick, where she wrote that Albert Einstein and Efrem, Sr. were good friends. One of the greatest joys in Einstein’s life was to join a quartet occasionally at the Zimbalist family home to play with “the best in the world,” even if Albert wasn’t that good at the violin. He did other things well, though.

Similarly the world of the Metropolitan Opera and contemporary music were joined by Alma Gluck, as she “recorded ‘Carry Me Back to Old Virginny’ for the Victor Talking Machine Co., thus producing the first celebrity recording by a classical musician to sell one million copies.” By the time Efrem Zimbalist, Sr. was 21, he was considered one of the world’s greatest violinists, for whom a Violin Concerto was dedicated to him by Gian Carlo Menotti.

After Alma’s passing, Efrem, Sr. would later marry Mary Elizabeth Curtis Bok, founder of the famous Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Efrem taught there, and together they enjoyed many wonderful years. Music is and always has been the great common denominator that brings people together when they are otherwise worlds apart.

So, for Efrem, Jr., that was mom and dad at work and later, father and stepmother at work. Close your eyes and go back in time to modern America coming of age. Times spent together with family were prized, important, and kept safe. Faith was important. Although both his parents were born into the Jewish faith by heritage, in America, it’s been shared that the Zimbalist family joined the Episcopalian church. Education was a priority and expectation of young men and women at the time. And so it was that Efrem, Jr. was educated in a prep school before entering college.

At Yale, the handsome young namesake of his famous father was blessed and cursed, concurrently, with good looks and grand charm, which kept him at the center of social occasions and a little farther from the library and classrooms than his parents would have approved. At Yale he did find his calling in acting and thus began his life’s pursuit of his soon-to-be professional career. Those today in their 80s and 90s would recall Zimbalist’s earliest movie roles, but Baby Boomers know and love him best for his TV roles.

The glory days of television in the 1950s and 1960s included a group of versatile actors who could bring characters to life in such a way that, for the time you were watching, you focused on the words being shared rather than the people who shared them. The best actors make their work look so effortless that it is, indeed, real to the audience. And so it was with Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. He could be in a movie, which he preferred, or a television show, which sources say his movie contract stipulated, or at home on a stage, and more to his liking, at home on a golf course. Yet every day the same person showed up to work and was the same no matter who was around to watch.

Many actors have the impact of instant name identification with the characters they portray. You say James Garner, and depending on your generation you come up with, “Maverick,” or “Jim Rockford.” Today you say Mark Harmon, and the next word is “Gibbs.” And yet, when the name Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. is shared, the first names that come to mind are not the roles he played as much as the series he was in. His acting talents cast such a large shadow that, for many, he “was” 77 Sunset Strip,” and he most definitely “was” “The FBI,” a Quinn Martin Production.

Indeed Efrem was so very much identified with the Federal Bureau of Investigation for years, that it surely had to be one of the reasons for their success in recruiting new agents. Watching the show each week, if you had an interest in law enforcement, who didn’t want to be in the “real” FBI? It’s the same phenomenon that is seen today in recruitment for NCIS, based on the popularity of the show, an agency which had been essentially invisible before.

In June 2009 (see accompanying slide show), Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. was honored by FBI director Robert Mueller, who presented him a badge as an honorary special agent, the highest civilian honor awarded by the FBI. Zimbalist, of course, “became” Inspector Lewis Erskine from 1965 to 1974 on the weekly show. For me and so many others, he represented law and order, calm, doing the right thing, following the rules, and catching people who broke the law, one of our early childhood heroes.

Throughout his career, Efrem Zimbalist off screen remained a man of honor, principle, grace and charm, a high pedestal upon which to place an actor, or any human being, but he was always that knight in shining armor to which many others have been compared during childhood. Yes, he was acting, but he was so good at it that he was as convincing as he was talented. He was not “just an actor.”

After “The FBI,” Zimbalist cherished time with his family. The actor had two children, daughter Nancy (who passed away in 2012 from cancer) and son Efrem, III by his first wife, Emily McNair. Efrem, Jr. married Loranda Stephanie Spalding, the mother of actor, Stephanie, whom she resembles almost identically.

Efrem Zimbalist, III, nicknamed “Skip,” as a child, founded Active Interest Media in 2003 and as Chairman and CEO, today they publish 34 magazines. Previously he’d been the CFO of the Times Mirror organization. In a way it’s life coming around full circle (with a gap of 80+ years) as Efrem Sr.’s second wife, Mary, grew up to become director of the Curtis Publishing family. Mary’s first marriage to Edward Bok ended with his passing from a serious illness in 1933. She had two sons by Edward, Curtis and Cary Bok.

Exposure to literature and music at such young ages provides a wealth of knowledge for the combined, blended family to share with the next generation. The Los Angeles Times obituary also shared that Efrem, Jr. was on faculty at Curtis Institute for a time. Efrem Sr. was named Director of the Institute during his career there. Efrem’s sister, Maria, married twice, the second time to Henry F. Bennett; she passed away at age 66, in 1981.
Mary Curtis Zimbalist was the founder of the “Ladies Home Journal” and began writing professionally when she was just a teenager, under a pen name. Growing up surrounded by fine arts and culture, creativity will blossom and flourish when encouraged. Skip continues to serve as Chairman of the Board of Overseers of the Curtis Institute.

One can expect that the fourth generation of Zimbalists will have an impact on the arts in similar fashion. Skip and his wife presented Efrem, Jr. with four grandchildren, Efrem, IV, Kristin, Alexis, and Mikhail. There are also now three great-grandchildren.

It’s easy to see why love of family was sufficient for Efrem, Jr. to simply hang around the house and be a doting grandfather, but he also had a strong work ethic. Hollywood called frequently, and he had roles and worked as often as he wanted. When “Remington Steele” came along, starring his daughter Stephanie and Pierce Brosnan, television called Efrem, Jr. back in front of the cameras.

Likely no other role gave Efrem, Jr. as much joy as in portraying con man Daniel Chalmers in five episodes of “Steele,” from 1983-1987. In later career years he was a hero to his grandchildren when he supplied the talent on animated television series including voices for roles in episodes of “Batman,” “Superman,” “Spider-Man,” and “Justice League.” Once, twice, three and four times a hero.

In later years, Zimbalist took some time to pen his biography, the 2004 “My Dinner of Herbs,” which is still available in print and e-book formats. If you were flipping or clicking through the channels in the last 1980s and 1990s, you might spot Efrem reading Bible verses aloud on the Trinity Broadcast Network, where he frequently appeared. His voice was ever as much a gift as his acting talent was.

As I held his handwritten note in my hands once again, I knew from his beautiful penmanship on a piece of stationery that had a flourished letter, “Z” in the upper left-hand corner, that not only had he received and appreciated my gift, but he carried with him the kind of gracious manners that have almost all evaporated in contemporary society. Few take the time or have the wherewithal anymore for handwritten thank-you notes. It moved me then to receive it, and warmed my heart still to have it to see again, just as I’d done 30 years ago almost to the day I’d opened it the first time.

We are fortunate today, still, for the medium of television, for the existence of satellites and cable systems by which we can continue to enjoy the works of Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. virtually any time we want.

Also, we can be thankful for classic television channels, including Memory Entertainment Television (ME TV), COZI-TV, TV Land and Nick at Night, for rerunning shows that remind us with regularity that we were all once very young, had our lives ahead of us, to create, do, become and be whoever we wanted to be. If we could dream it, we could do it, and we always had our favorite friends along the way, to inspire and encourage us forward. For so very many people, Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. was one of those you could count on.

My final thoughts during the celebration of Efrem’s career five years ago, were the words his daughter, actress Stephanie Zimbalist, shared as she and a crowd of 100 family and friends who surprised Efrem on the occasion of his 90th birthday. As he looked around and visited with all, and saw the beautiful film that Stephanie and her friend, actor Dean Butler, had put together to showcase his career, Efrem was moved. He told Hollywood reporter, Army Archerd, “I feel like I was in heaven for a day and back,” about his 2008 surprise “party of a lifetime.”

Yes, he probably did feel that way, and today, he’s there forever. As the film concluded that night, perfectly appropriately, Stephanie said, “Every once in a great while there comes along a life that simply has to be applauded. May I invite all of you to do just that.” Indeed we will, as we will never forget the talents, gifts and grace of Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., actor, husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, faithful Christian servant, gardener, golfer, and friend.