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DVD Talk's Interview with Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.

DVD Talk's Interview with Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.

Conducted by Paul Mavis

46 years ago, the ABC television network aired the latest series from producer Quinn Martin (of The Fugitive fame): The F.B.I., starring Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., the star of a previous ABC hit that really put the network on the ratings' map: 77 Sunset Strip (both of which are now available through Warner Bros.' indispensable on-line M.O.D.-manufactured on demand--service, the Archive Collection). A frequent Top Twenty Nielsen hit, The F.B.I. enjoyed a solid nine year run, solidifying Mr. Zimbalist's popularity with a whole new generation of viewers. I recently had the good fortune to talk with Mr. Zimbalist over the phone, where we discussed The F.B.I., his time with Warner Bros. as a contract player, his relationship with studio mogul Jack Warner, and some of his feature films made through the studio, such as the terrific Mervyn LeRoy drama, Home Before Dark, starring Jean Simmons (also available through the Archive Collection). A gentleman in the truest sense of the word, as well as an erudite, engaging interviewee, Mr. Zimbalist was most gracious with his kind words, and his fascinating recollections.

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Paul Mavis: Hello, Mr. Zimbalist, how are you?
Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.: I'm fine, thank you.

PM: It's a pleasure to talk with you; I'm really glad we could do this. I know you've probably heard this many times, but I'm a big fan. We always watched The F.B.I. in our house, and it's great talking with you.

EZ: Well, I appreciate that very much, indeed. And those aren't just words: I do. [Laughs]

PM: I know our time is really limited, so if it's alright with you, I guess we'll just jump right in?

EZ: Good. Absolutely.

PM: I guess we'll concentrate on The F.B.I., since that's the latest [of your works] coming out. How did you come to The F.B.I.? Was it a contract obligation with Warner's, or was it something you came to yourself?

EZ: No, it was my decision. I had finished a contract at Warner Bros., a seven-year contract, and after a TV series, 77 Sunset Strip, I was free. And so I had a year to do films, which I really wanted to do. And the year didn't turn out as I had hoped. I did films, and they were so-so. One was fairly good, but the rest were not satisfactory. The TV specials [I did] were a little better, but I didn't feel it was a year that was worth what I hoped it would be. So I called my agent, and I told him, "I'd like to get another series," and he said, "Well, Warner Bros. has a series they're going to do called The F.B.I.; they've got Quinn Martin producing it. Let me call them and get back to you." So an hour or two later, he called me back, and he said, "You got it. It's yours."

PM: I've read some interviews with you where you discuss working with Roy Huggins for 77 Sunset Strip; what were your feelings working with Quinn Martin?

EZ: He's the best producer I ever worked with. He was the best producer in Hollywood. A dear friend, a gentleman. And the trademark of his productions was that he put the money where it showed. If it showed on the screen, he splurged; he put everything there. He wouldn't spend a nickel if it didn't show. And that's quite right. That's how he was able to do his shows and make them so outstanding.

PM: I think that still shows. If you watch the individual episodes [of Martin's] series, such as The F.B.I. or Barnaby Jones, they look like mini-movies; the production qualities are phenomenal.

EZ: Also the casting is luxurious. I mean, the guest stars that he imported were phenomenal.

PM: Exactly. I write a lot about TV from the era when I grew up, and the difference between television then and television now, for me at least, is night and day. And I think The F.B.I. is a good example of that.

EZ: I don't watch it [television] today. It just doesn't fit into my life anymore. I watched everything in my time, and Quinn's productions were so deliciously extravagant and beautiful. He invented, I think―I wouldn't want to swear in court on this―the idea that was so typical in The F.B.I., of having the secret given away right in the beginning. By the first reel you knew who committed the crime. There was no suspense, no whodunit, at all. We knew who did it. It enabled a minute study of both sides of the case: the criminal and the F.B.I. side, and that was, I think, one of the most fascinating things about it.

PM: And obviously it worked with the audiences, as well. You were on for nine years; you were up against heavy competition from Ed Sullivan and Walt Disney [on Sunday nights], so you must have been doing something right with the audiences. Nine years is a terrific run.

EZ: We have a very faithful audience.

PM: Speaking to that audience, a lot of the films and shows you were in haven't been available for quite some time, but now they're coming back because of releasing units like the Warner Archives Collection, and I wonder how you feel about that, now that you're able to see that there are audiences out there still receptive to your work?

EZ: Well, I don't have any feeling about it. The work that I did was in that day.

PM: You don't look back?"

EZ: Well, I look back with great pleasure. I had a wonderful life that I was privileged to have, but that's finished. I mean, I'm not that person today. I don't live that way today. I don't work anymore. Whether people see the films today or not is their business. I think if Warner brings some of these back as they're planning to, they [the audience] will see them and that will give me a great deal of pleasure, because The F.B.I. and 77 Sunset Strip and some TV specials and films I think are worth seeing, and I'd be very happy if they were current today.

PM: I think there are people out there who want to see series like The F.B.I. and 77 Sunset Strip, and they weren't able to, and I think it's great that now you can do that.

EZ: It's interesting, the two shows: the audiences were very different. First of all, they were different in time. But 77 Sunset Strip was a universally popular series. I mean, everybody loved it; it was the favorite. The F.B.I., because of the nature of the F.B.I. itself, because of the conditions in the world at the time, of the Sixties and so forth, [the public] was sharply divided. A lot of people were on the F.B.I.'s side, and a lot of people were not. We had that to contend with; we didn't have the universal audience put in our lap the way we had with the other series.

PM: Thinking back on your career, when you look back, do you see yourself essentially as someone who was in the theater who then went into movies, or do you see yourself as someone who was in the movies who branched off into TV, or do you see yourself as primarily a TV star?

EZ: [Laughs] I don't spend a lot of time thinking about myself. If I would characterize my life, I would say that I was a very lucky actor who came into very lucky times, and got to Hollywood, and was put under contract by Warners in the very last days of the studio contract era, and was privileged to go through that time which is gone now. I mean, people produce from the back of a pick-up truck today; it's a totally different world. But that world was invaluable and I treasure the memory of it.

PM: So you have good feelings about Warner's? I know there were contemporaries of yours such as Jim Garner and Clint Walker who had disputes with Warner Bros. and their television shows, but you have good memories.

EZ: Well, I never had happen to have those grievances. I understand their point of view. Warner Bros, and Jack [Warner] in particular, were pretty hard-nosed about contracts and obligations and so forth. I felt, frankly, when I was brought out from New York, after a screen test, and put under contract, I was very grateful to the studio for bringing me to Hollywood, and I felt that my end of the bargain was simply to do what they wanted me to do. It was not a question of my preference; it was a question of what I could best do to justify this wonderful gift that I had received of a seven year contract. So I did whatever was put in my way, and I did it the best that I could, and I had a good time doing it. I'm not a grudging kind of a person to begin with; I never felt that I was being taken advantage of by a heartless, monolithic studio, or anything like that.

PM: That's the image that you read about and hear about so often.

EZ: I'll tell you, I had a different view of Jack Warner. For one thing, I happened to be at that time a tennis player. I played all my life. And Jack Warner had a wonderful tennis court in Beverly Hills at his house, an extraordinary house, and I was invited every weekend to play, to be a part of that scene. So I got to know Jack in a way that many actors didn't. I knew him fairly well. I knew what a lot of people griped about, but I saw a side to him that was very human, and something that I could have great empathy for. Even though...he would talk about actors in the most ignominious way, no matter who they were. He called them, "schmucks," like that, the biggest stars in Hollywood. It didn't matter. But I knew it was just a kind of bravado with him; it was not the real person underneath. And I had a little acquaintance with that person underneath which was invaluable to me.

PM: That's wonderful. You just don't hear that particular take on [Warner or the studio era].

EZ: If we have time, can I tell you a story about Bette Davis?

PM: By all means, as long as you'd like to talk.

EZ: Yes, well good. Well, this was the occasion of Warren Beatty's first movie at Warner Bros. [Splendor in the Grass]. And Jack threw a huge party on Stage One at lunch time celebrating this production. And in his usual way, trying to be Jack Benny or whatever he was―he called Warren Beatty Warner Baxter―all the gaffes he usually made. He was a terrible jokester. Anyway, it was a huge dinner, and they had invited all of the old stars, like Pat O'Brien, who came, and [Edward G.] Robinson. [James] Cagney wouldn't come; he was very bitter about Warners. And of course, everybody who got up, made fun of Jack. Everybody did it; you couldn't get anybody to talk about Jack Warner without making fun and ridiculing him. There were a lot of things about him that invited that, you know. So they all did this. I happened, by the merest coincidence, to be seated at a table with Bette Davis. I had never met her before; of course, she was a goddess to me. And I had the most wonderful time with her. It was just superb chatting with her during lunch, and when she came to the microphone, it was just totally different from all the others. She said, "Papa," which she called him, "I owe everything in the world to you. You got me started, you gave me my chance, you were behind me. And I love you, and I always will. And thank you, and God bless you." She was the only one. So I was so moved by that; I think she saw something [in him]. Because she fought with him, and won. But that didn't make her hate him at all. She didn't hate him. She loved him.

PM: That's a wonderful story. I've heard similar stories about Joan Crawford, and how she felt about Louis B. Mayer: that they fought, but she had respect for him, and he made her who she was.

EZ: Well, he did. He made her from whatever her name was [Lucille Fay LeSueur], transformed her into a super, superstar. I had a great, great experience with her once, but we'll forget that.

PM : [Laughs] That's okay. I guess our time is up. I want to thank you again. This was wonderful. As I said, we never missed The F.B.I. in my house. I've seen most of your films; in fact I just saw that wonderful Jean Simmons movie you made, Home Before Dark, and you were terrific in it.

EZ: It's my favorite of all the movies I've been in.

PM: Really?

EZ: Yes.

PM: I thought you were great in it, and I thought you played so well off Jean Simmons.

EZ: Well, the glue of the whole thing was [director Mervyn] Leroy. He was wonderful. We loved him.

PM: Again, this was just a great pleasure. I'm happy to hear you; you sound great.

EZ: Well, thank you very much, Paul!

PM: I can't wait to write this up and re-experience it.

EZ: Well, thank you--good luck with it.

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