Efrem Zimbalist Jr., a legendary TV actor best known for playing tough but cool criminal investigators — but who was most recently known as the voice of Bruce Wayne’s loyal manservant “Alfred” on the Batman animated TV series — passed away at his home Friday.
The star of the long-running ABC-TV crime drama The F.B.I., whose role on the program made him, in effect, the Bureau’s most public spokesperson, was 95 years old.
His son, Efrem Zimbaist III, said his father remained healthy until the end, playing golf three times each week. But on Friday he passed away while watering the lawn at his ranch in Solvang, California, in Santa Barbara County north of Los Angeles.
Born in New York City in 1918, Efrem Zimbalist Jr. studied at Yale University, from which he was expelled and reinstated several time. After serving in the Army during World War II, he returned to New York and ventured into acting. He appeared frequently in television roles from the earliest days of the medium, making is first appearance in 1946.
But though he worked steadily, his big break did not come until 1958 when at age 40, he was cast in the lead role of private eye Stuart Bailey in 77 Sunset Strip. Zimbalist was the only cast member who appeared in all 163 episodes of the show, which set its often tongue-in-cheek crime “capers” against the glamorous backdrop of Rat Pack-era Los Angeles.
Zimbalist claimed that he never liked the series, but recognized its importance to his career.
As a staunch political conservative, who had converted from Judaism to Christianity, Efrem Zimbalist Jr. found his next major TV role far more to his liking. He portrayed the no-nonsense FBI agent Lewis Erskine in the nine-year run of The F.B.I., a hard-edged procedural that would influence such later, hour-long crime dramas as Law and Order and CSI.
The plotlines of each episode of The F.B.I. were purportedly drawn from actual F.B.I. case files and the Bureau’s secretive and authoritarian director J. Edgar Hoover personally acted as creative consultant until his death in 1971.
The series remained on the air from 1965 until 1974, and though it overlapped one of the most socially turbulent periods of the 20th century, including the period of the F.B.I.’s own controversial domestic spying and sabotage program COINTELPRO, the show never once questioned the mission or integrity of the Bureau, whose agents were presented as unambiguous heroes throughout.
Later, Efrem Zimablist Jr. had a recurring role on the popular, 1980s detective series Remington Steele, of which his daughter Stephanie Zimbalist was the star.
He was 79 when he began providing the voice of Alfred in the animated Batman TV show, a role Efrem Zimbalist Jr. continued until 2003, when he was 85.