By SUSAN STEWART
Efrem Zimbalist Jr., an actor whose mellifluous voice and air of European sophistication left a distinctive stamp on two popular television crime series, died Saturday at his ranch in Solvang, Calif. He was 95.
His son, Efrem Zimbalist III, confirmed the death, saying that his father had been outside watering his lawn when a handyman found him lying in the grass.
“He was healthy, playing golf three days a week and always in his garden,” his son said.
Mr. Zimbalist personified the suave and unflappable leading man as an Ivy League-educated private eye on the lighthearted “77 Sunset Strip” and as a stalwart agent who always got his man on “The F.B.I.,” which ran for nine seasons and made him a household name. “The F.B.I.” was unquestioning in its support of the organisation it depicted, and both on screen and off Mr. Zimbalist became its unofficial symbol.
His life imitated his art. Politically conservative, he was a strong defender of J. Edgar Hoover, the F.B.I.’s director, and a close friend of Ronald Reagan.
Although he had some success in movies, big-screen stardom eluded him; he did his most memorable work on television, a medium he sometimes resented but always understood.
Efrem Zimbalist Jr. was born on Nov. 30, 1918, in New York City. In a 1959 interview with The New York Times, he said his unusual surname was good for at least one thing: “It’s kept me out of westerns. I can’t imagine a Hopalong Zimbalist.”
He was in fact proud of his name, and of his heritage. His father was a Russian-born violinist and composer who became the director of the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. His mother was the well-known concert soprano Alma Gluck.
After graduating from prep school, Mr. Zimbalist attended Yale University, where he led the life of a bon vivant. He was expelled, reinstated and expelled again for low grades and amassed, by his own account, thousands of dollars of debt at New Haven haberdasheries and gourmet shops.
He then worked as an NBC page (a fellow page was Thomas Merton, who would achieve literary fame after he became a Trappist monk) and studied acting at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York, where Gregory Peck was also a student.
In 1941, he enlisted in the Army. He received the Purple Heart after being wounded in the battle of Hürtgen Forest, on the German-Belgian border.
After returning to New York, he made his Broadway debut in “The Rugged Path,” starring Spencer Tracy. Other roles followed, including one opposite Eva Le Galliene in “Hedda Gabler.”
Mr. Zimbalist augmented his budding stage career by producing three lyric operas by Gian Carlo Menotti. The double bill of “The Medium” and “The Telephone” was a popular success, and “The Consul” won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 1950.
That year Mr. Zimbalist’s wife of five years, Emily, died of cancer, and he stopped acting to work for his father at the Curtis Institute. In 1954, he returned to New York, where he appeared on the NBC soap opera “Concerning Miss Marlowe.” That led to a contract with Warner Brothers and roles in a handful of movies, most notably “Band of Angels,” starring Clark Gable.
When Mr. Zimbalist was first approached to star in “77 Sunset Strip,” he resisted. “I fought doing this series for six months, but I lost,” he told Time magazine in 1959. By then the show was a certifiable hit, but Mr. Zimbalist was clearly ambivalent about the work.
“As long as they don’t bounce me back a hundred years into a Wyatt Earp episode, I may survive,” he said. “I am in no position to say as much for the viewer.”
Despite his mixed feelings, Mr. Zimbalist remained the stable centre of the series, which won a Golden Globe in 1960. He and Roger Smith starred as private eyes but found themselves both playing straight man to the show’s most popular character, Kookie, a jive-talking parking attendant played by Edd Byrnes.
“77 Sunset Strip” was on the air until 1963, although in its final season Mr. Zimbalist was the only original cast member left. He was soon back on television again, this time more willingly.