Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Happy birthday, Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.!

The actor who became one of the best public relations tools of the Federal Bureau of Investigation celebrates his 92nd natal anniversary today—Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., born in the Big Apple to noted concert violinist Efrem, Sr. and opera soprano Alma Gluck.  Naturally, with parents of that stature it was only fitting that the younger Zimbalist give serious consideration to a career in the performing arts, and upon completing his education at both the Yale School of Drama and the Neighborhood Playhouse he was tanned, rested and ready for the job at hand.

Zimbalist’s stage work in such productions as The Rugged Path (with Spencer Tracy) and Hedda Gabler (Eve Le Gallienne) soon attracted the attention of Hollywood; he made a rather auspicious film debut in 1949 with one of my favorite noirs, House of Strangers.  But Efrem put his acting career on hold shortly after that when his first wife Emily McNair succumbed to cancer, and his attention was diverted to musical studies, serving as an assistant director and researcher at the Curtis School of Music under his father.  Once the acting bug bit again, and he landed a contract with Warner Bros. and began to make appearances as “Dandy Jim Buckley” on the TV western Maverick—a role that then led to a more prominent gig on a WB-produced private eye series, 77 Sunset Strip.

Zimbalist starred as detective Stu Bailey on Strip for six seasons until the show folded its tent in 1964.  A season later, the actor began what would be his longest-running boob tube job—playing the part of FBI inspector Lewis Erskine on the popular ABC-TV series The FBI from 1965 to 1974.  As Erskine, Efrem was pretty much a promotional tool for the agency that often found itself rife with controversy—director J. Edgar Hoover was pleased with the choice of Zimbalist for the part, and the two men became friends and mutual admirers for the rest of J. Edgar’s cross-dressing stay on Planet Earth.  For his demonstration of fearlessly sucking up to a man most of us wouldn’t go near unless mandated by a federal judge, Zimbalist received a special plaque in 2009 from FBI director Robert Mueller in recognition for his television achievement.

In his later TV career, Zimbalist landed recurring roles on Hotel (as Charles Cabot) and Zorro—the latter series had him playing Don Alejandro de la Vega for a season before relinquishing the part to Henry Darrow.  He even turned up a few times (as David Chalmers) on the detective series Remington Steele, a show that starred his daughter Stephanie.  His busy television schedule didn’t leave Efrem much time for movie work but he did appear in the occasional feature film, notably vehicles like Band of Angels, The Crowded Sky, The Chapman Report, Wait Until Dark, Airport 1975 and—in the tradition of TV dramatic heroes demonstrating a sense of humor—Hot Shots.  These days, Zimbalist’s activity has been concentrated toward doing a lot of voice work; he’s been the voice of butler Alfred Pennyworth in many of the animated Batman series and its various permutations.

TVShowsOnDVD.com announced several weeks ago that Efrem’s signature series, The FBI, will soon be made available on DVD—and while it’s a slight disappointment that this will be a MOD project through the auspices of the Warner Archive, it’s gratifying to know that the actor’s television legacy will be out there for a new generation of viewers and fans.  Happy birthday to you, Mr. Z—and the best of natal anniversaries to these notables in the bargain:

Philip Sidney (1554-1586) – English author-poet, courtier and solider…but let’s be honest, were it not for that Monty Python sketch (“I’m not Sir Philip bleedin’ Sidney!”) I’d probably have never heard of the guy

Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) – Irish satirist and essayist whose famous writings include Gulliver’s Travels and A Modest Proposal

Mark Twain (1835-1910) – Author and humorist who created such legendary characters as Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn

Winston Churchill (1874-1965) – British politician and statesman

Donald Ogden Stewart (1894-1980) – Author and screenwriter whose cinematic contributions include Going Hollywood, Holiday, Love Affair, The Philadelphia Story and Keeper of the Flame

John Dickson Carr (1906-1977) – Mystery novelist whose works were adapted into films like The Man with a Cloak and Dangerous Crossing; also created the character of Colonel March, who was seen in a 1956 TV series with Boris Karloff in the role

Gordon Parks (1912-2006) – Photographer, journalist, musician, poet-novelist and activist who also directed a few feature films like The Learning Tree, Shaft and Leadbelly

Charles Hawtrey (1914-1988) – Bespectacled English comic actor best known for his many appearances in the Carry On films

Virginia Mayo (1920-2005) – Stage, screen and television actress-dancer whose vehicles include The Princess and the Pirate, The Best Years of Our Lives, Colorado Territory, White Heat and The Flame and the Arrow

Graham Crowden (1922-2010) – English stage, screen and television actor best recognized on this side of the pond as the eccentric Tom Ballard on the Britcom Waiting for God

Allan Sherman (1924-1973) – Comedy writer and TV producer best known for his song parodies and for supplying the voice of Dr. Seuss creation The Cat in the Hat; also created the TV panel show I’ve Got a Secret

Shirley Chisholm (1924-2005) – Politician, author and educator who became the first black woman elected to Congress in 1968 and the first black major party Presidential candidate (and first female to run on the Democratic Party ticket) in 1972

Martin E. Brooks (1925-     ) – Stage, screen and television character actor best known for playing Dr. Rudy Wells on two series at the same time: The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman

Richard Crenna (1926-2003) – TDOY actor fave who, though he later matured to serious dramatic roles and even became a TV director, will always be remembered for his triumvirate of OTR nerds—Walter Denton on Our Miss Brooks, Oogie Pringle on A Date with Judy and Bronco Thompson on The Great Gildersleeve

Robert Guillaume (1927-     ) – Stage, screen and television actor best known to legions of couch potatoes as the acerbic manservant Benson DuBois on Soap and its spin-off, Benson

Rex Reason (1928-     ) – Beefcake film and television actor whose vehicles include This Island Earth, The Creature Walks Among Us, Band of Angels and TV’s Man Without a Gun and The Roaring 20’s

Joan Ganz Cooney (1929-     ) – Television producer who founded the Children’s Television Workshop—which is actually responsible for bringing kids Sesame Street, not the letters “H” and “M” and the number “9”

Dick Clark (1929-     ) – Radio and television personality who, as “America’s Oldest Teenager,” served as host of the long-running American Bandstand—not to mention The $10,000 Pyramid and TV’s Bloopers and Practical Jokes

G. Gordon Liddy (1930-     ) – Attorney, politician, radio talk-show host and convicted criminal douchebag; my first “what the f**k?” television moment was seeing him as a celebrity panelist on Super Password in 1988

Jack Sheldon (1931-     ) – Stage, screen and television character actor who had regular roles on the sitcoms The Cara Williams Show and The Girl with Something Extra but remains better known as the star of The Fugitive parody Run, Buddy, Run

Abbie Hoffman (1936-1989) – Social-political activist famous for founding the Youth International Party (the Yippies) and for being a member of “the Chicago Eight”

Ridley Scott (1937-     ) – Motion picture director-producer whose oeuvre includes Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma & Louise, Gladiator, Black Hawk Down and American Gangster

Frank Ifield (1937-     ) – Australian-English pop music vocalist

Jimmy Bowen (1937-     ) – One-time pop music vocalist turned major record producer, overseeing such artists as Frank and Nancy Sinatra, Dean Martin, Hank Williams, Jr., the Oak Ridge Boys and Garth Brooks

Terrence Malick (1943-     ) – Motion picture writer-director-producer whose skimpy oeuvre includes Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line and The New World

David Mamet (1947-     ) – Gleefully profane playwright and director-screenwriter whose oeuvre includes House of Games, Things Change, Homicide, The Spanish Prisoner and State and Main

Kathryn Witt (1950-     ) – Film and television actress-model whose vehicles include Tropic of Cancer, Lenny, Looker, Philadelphia and TV’s Flying High

Margaret Whitton (1950-     ) – Stage, screen and television actress whose vehicles include The Best of Times, The Secret of My Success, Major League and The Man Without a Face

June Chadwick (1951-     ) – English stage, screen and television actress whom I always remember as the alien Lydia in the original TV series of V but she’s also in the movie This is Spinal Tap

Mandy Patinkin (1952-     ) – Stage, screen and television actor best known for his roles on the TV series Chicago Hope, Dead Like Me and Criminal Minds—and whose “singing” has been known to be an effective tool in interrogating terrorism suspects*

June Pointer (1953-2006) – Pointer Sister

Billy Idol (1955-     ) – English rock musician and one-time front man for the punk band Generation X who, upon remarking that he could be an idol just by calling himself one prompted a college buddy of mine to observe that that principle would work for “asshole” as well

Kevin Conroy (1955-     ) – Stage, screen and television actor whose extensive resume is overshadowed by the fact that he’s best known as the voice of Bruce Wayne/Batman in many of the animated Batman series and its various permutations

Ben Stiller (1965-     ) – Actor-director-comedian whose schtick works best at ten minutes or less; his vehicles include Flirting with Disaster, There’s Something About Mary, Meet the Parents, Zoolander, Night at the Museum and Tropic Thunder

Mindy McCready (1975-     ) – Country music vocalist who constantly seems to be running afoul of the law

*Okay, I may have made that up

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quizshowbob said...

I had no idea that Efram's mother was Alma Gluck.

I still have my Shirley Chisholm presidential hopeful trading card from 1972.

Scott said...

MST3K fans will remember Richard Crenna as one of the three doomed astronauts in Space Travelers (AKA Marooned), the only Oscar®-winning movie they ever riffed.

Fans of the show will also remember Rex Reason as the slab of leading beefcake in the movie within Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie and as the man who didn't learn what a bong was until he was in his early 70s.

Yvette said...

Rex Reason is still alive? Wow. I wonder if his brother Rhodes is still around. I loved THIS ISLAND EARTH, even though Jeff Morrow steals the show. Well, it wasn't hard to steal the show from Rex, possibly one of the worst actors ever. But he was nice to look at.

Today seems to have been a good day for birthdays.

Pam said...

Jack Sheldon...the difference between us in a nutshell. You go right to television. (Actually, I'm surprised you didn't mention Dragnet and Schoolhouse Rock.) To me his is best known as a trumpet player.