Originally created 02/29/04

Star of TV's '77 Sunset Strip,' 'The FBI,' turns literary



BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. -- Efrem Zimbalist Jr., best known for hunting down culprits on television's "77 Sunset Strip" and "The FBI," has lately gone searching for book buyers.

Zimbalist has been touting his "My Dinner of Herbs" at book signings in Southern California. No, it's not a New Age cookbook, but a memoir of his remarkable life. The title comes from Proverbs 15:17: "Better is a dinner of herbs where love is, than a stalled ox and hatred therewith."

On a recent weekday, Zimbalist was playing the uncomfortable role as huckster, promoting his wares at a luncheon of Roundtable West, where book lovers gather monthly to hear authors discuss and sign their tomes. His audience was filled with predominantly white-haired ladies who virtually swooned over the elegant Zimbalist.

At 86, he cuts an impressive figure: suntanned, a full head of white hair, debonair mustache. He was dressed in a black jacket, gray slacks, conservative tie.

After he graciously signed books and the crowd thinned out, he sat for an interview in the hotel dining room. "My Dinner of Herbs" is no tell-all book. Zimbalist writes extensively about his parents, opera star Alma Gluck and violin virtuoso Efrem Sr., both legends in their time. Also detailed are his year of study in the Soviet Union, his five years in the U.S. Army, where he earned the Purple Heart, and his failed scholarship.

"I was kicked out of Yale twice," he confessed. "First after my freshman year, then they let me back in and I had to take the freshman year over. I was kicked out again." He attributed his academic failure to the playboy spirit that was prevalent in the prewar years.

"My mother died shortly afterward," he said. "All she knew was that her son was a total screw-up. That's the sadness of my life, a great sadness."

The book offers close-up looks at stars he worked with: Spencer Tracy, Errol Flynn (who drank two bottles of vodka during a day's shooting), Gary Cooper and others. But scandal, there is none.

"It wasn't going to be a book that hurt people or destroyed reputations," Zimbalist declared. "It was a book to give pleasure."

Unlike James Garner, Clint Walker and other stars of Warner Bros. TV series who battled management over long workdays and short paychecks, Zimbalist appears to have had a placid relationship with the studio.

"Maybe it was because I played tennis every weekend with the boss, Jack Warner, at his house," Zimbalist mused.

When he was in a turmoil over his second marriage and left "77 Sunset Strip" for a divorce in Reno, Warner kept him on the payroll. "The guy's in trouble," Warner told an underling. "Let's show him who his friends are."

Zimbalist changed his mind, and he remains married to Loranda Stephanie Spalding, mother of Zimbalist's actress daughter, Stephanie Zimbalist.

His first wife, Emily McNair, died of cancer in 1950. Despite his burgeoning career at the time, the mourning actor left Hollywood with their two children, Nancy and Efrem III, and studied music and taught at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, where his father was an artist in residence.

After four years, he returned to Hollywood and a fresh start in the new medium of television.

Today, Zimbalist and Spalding live in the Santa Ynez Valley north of Santa Barbara, not far from Michael Jackson's Neverland Ranch. No, he's never met Jackson, but he's met his ape.

Zimbalist explains that a few years ago, he appeared at a local animal lovers fund-raiser to which Jackson donated the use of his orangutan so that patrons could pose for pictures with the beast. The animal leaped into Zimbalist's arms, hugged and kissed him. He received the same warm welcome the following year.

Except for book signings, Zimbalist spends most of his time around home. His acting jobs are few.

"Nobody wants someone my age anymore," he remarked resignedly. "I do an occasional thing now and then, generally not on film.

"I'm out of it today. I don't know the people who are running (the studios) today. I don't even know the people who are making movies today. I stopped going to the movies over 20 years ago. The movies I used to be fanatic about they stopped making. They started making another kind of movie, and it's not my kind of world."