EZ and J. Edgar

   Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. was born in 1918. His father, Efrem Sr., was a Russian born violinist known for his lyrical style, his mother, Alma Gluck, was the noted soprano. Young Efrem grew up in an affluent, cultivated world. Summers were spent at the family's manor on Fisher's Island, winters in a New York townhouse. Efrem attended St. Paul's, then Yale where his social commitments resulted in a premature termination of his academic career.

    Drafted during World War II, Zimbalist served as an officer in Europe and was wounded on the German Front. After the war, he appeared in a Noel Coward play on Broadway and was brought to Hollywood by Warners and put under a seven year contract.

    On screen, Zimbalist's polished manner won him roles opposite Natalie Wood and Susan Hayward. But it was the new medium of television that brought him lasting fame. In 1958, he was cast as a smooth private eye in 77 Sunset Strip and then appeared as a FBI agent in The FBI, a show that ran for nine seasons.

    Today Zimbalist lives near Santa Barbara where he is active in his Episcopal church and in a charity on behalf of abused children. His wife Stephanie Spaulding passed away in 2007. Zimbalist is the author of a memoir, My Dinner of Herbs.

    This interview was posted on American Legends in January 2004; the session took place with Zimbalist over lunch at his golf club in Solvang where he lived the life of a country squire and on occasion teamed up with Edd Byrnes at a book signing. Zimbalist died at his ranch in 2014 at 95.



AL: In your autobiography, My Dinner of Herbs, you defend the contract system that Warners and other major studios used to tie up actors.



I think it is the best system that actors ever had. The studios developed actors, kept them working. They were never idle.

AL: The studio moguls benefited.

Jack Warner lived a very grand life. He had two or three Rolls-Royces, a gorgeous home in Beverly Hills, and a ranch in New Mexico. The ranch was so enormous that there was an atomic facility in the middle of it and nobody knew it was even there.

AL: Jack was a tough negotiator.

He negotiated his brothers out of the company. An Eastern bank came to Jack with a deal. The bank said if Jack could convince his brothers to join him in selling their stock, the bank would buy the studio and give it back to Jack to run. He got rid of his brothers. It was a subject no one brought up.

AL: Cagney and Bogart were always battling with Warner.



Jack regarded all actors as pawns. He was dismissive of them. He would say, "I don't remember who I had in this picture...some schmuck." It might have been some distinguished actor, Ronald Colman. It didn't matter.


AL: Each of the moguls had his own style.


Jack was a rough diamond. He made corny jokes. Everybody laughed at him, not the jokes. He really thought he was a comedian. He would have given his soul to have been Bob Hope.



In the 1940s Jack Warner supported Roosevelt. Later, he became more conservative.



There was a very Republican cast to Warner Brothers. I was part of that. When Nixon had his first television debate with Kennedy, he looked awful. So Warner brought him in and had makeup do a complete job on him for the second debate.


AL: The monopoly system depended on loan outs.


I wanted to do John O'Hara's novel, Butterfield 8 on loan out. Jack turned me down. He didn't have to give you an excuse. He was paying the bills. He was uncomfortable loaning out actors. He wanted to keep control, to know where his actors were.


AL: You finally got to do By Love Possessed, an independent production at Columbia.



My agent, Marty Baum, put up a huge fight. I read the Cozzens novel and loved it. It was the big novel that year But the screenplay turned out to be unshootable. We sat down with John Sturges, the director, and re-wrote it scene by scene as we went along. Lana Turner and Jason Robards were in it. Jason played my law partner. We all got along very friendly. John Sturges probably had the best cameraman in Hollywood, Russell Metty. There was a golden bronze glow to the whole movie which was the result of his lighting.


AL: Dwight Macdonald attacked the novel in Commentary and all but destroyed James Gould Cozzens's literary reputation.



I'm not aware of that. The novel dealt with upper crust people so he probably would have hated it.


AL: In the 1950s you had a hit television series, 77 Sunset Strip for Warners.



I didn't want to do television, but it was in my contract. I had a horror of being stuck in some series and never being heard from again. Jack said, "Look, television is the business today. Don't worry. We'll keep an eye on you. We won't let that happen." I liked him. He was good to me. He was a decent man, within that context.


AL: The show was very popular. Edd Byrnes became a teenage idol.



Warners television division was run by Bill Orr, Jack's son-in-law. They had a formula and used the same scripts for 77 Sunset Strip and Maverick, the James Garner show. During the writers' strike, Warners shifted scripts around and kept their shows on the air.


AL: From 77 Sunset Strip you went into The FBI.



The show was shot on Warners lot but produced by Quinn Martin. The studio had gotten a few extra years on my contract for letting me do By Love Possessed, but by then I was a free agent.


AL: The series ran for nine seasons.



The FBI was enormously popular. Actors were thrilled to be in the show. We had the best producer in Quinn Martin. Of course, Hollywood hated the show. They hated Hoover, and they hated me for being in the show. I lost work because of it but not at Warners. They never talk about the second blacklist.


AL: Did you see much of Jack Warner after leaving the studio?



The banks pulled the same trick on him that he pulled on his brothers. They said if he would sell his shares they would swing the deal so he would remain in charge of the studio. He went for it. When he moved in he had an office with nothing to do. He should have remembered what they did to his brothers. He didn't. Finally, after a year or so, they kicked him out of the office, and he was gone.


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