Saturday, 3 May 2014

He Overcame the Comb

You may be hard-pressed to finish the sentence “Remember the scene where Efrem Zimbalist Junior...”

Zimbalist, who died this past week at age 95, starred in two TV series. His last one, “The FBI,” is known more for Hank Simms’ intoning introductions (“A Quinn Martin Production!!”) than anything captured by the camera. But don’t blame Zimbalist. Lawrence Laurent of the Washington Post observed in a 1973 column: “He plays the role of Erskine with a restraint that can only be called wooden. He plays the role exactly the way that executive producer Quinn Martin and the FBI advisors wish to have the role played. It may not be much of a challenge to actor Zimbalist, but the pay is good and the hours are hard to beat.”

Zimbalist was one of many actors swallowed up by Warner Bros. as contract players for television, where the company was churning out detective shows and westerns in the late 1950s. And he may have been the first star whose show got unexpectedly sidetracked. Zimbalist was signed to star in “77 Sunset Strip.”

Zimbalist, Jr. Wants Neither Hit Or Flop

AP Movie-TV Writer
HOLLYWOOD (AP)—Efrem Zimbalist Jr. is a TV star in a dilemma. He doesn't want a flop, but he doesn't want a hit either.
Zimbalist is the suave private eye who matches wits with Hollywood's underworld on 77 Sunset Strip for ABC Friday nights. The son of the famed musician is also making a name for himself in theatrical films; he scored as Jean Simmons' sympathetic friend in "Home Before Dark."
Therein lies his dilemma.
"I think it's good for me to be doing a TV series now that film production is so low," said the Warner Brothers player. "If I didn't have this, I'd be off salary.
"Naturally, I hope the series is a success. But the thought of my being in it for five to seven years frightens me. I think I'd shoot myself first."
It looks as though he may be in for trouble. Because "77" has been doing very well in the ratings these Friday nights, and the sponsors seem content. Zimbalist could be in for a long run.
When I saw him between scenes, he was wolfing down a sandwich, which comprised his lunch.
"We've been working steadily since the season began," he explained, "and we're still not ahead. We couldn't get any backlog. Sponsor money was tight this year, so we didn't know if we were sold until the last moment. And Warners wasn't willing to shoot more than the pilot until the sale was made."
The studio pulled the wily stunt of making the first show 90 minutes long. Thus, if it didn't sell for TV, it could be sold to theaters. TV claimed it first, and the show won much attention for the novel opener.
The films are made in days, which is pretty speedy going for an hour show. Before Zimbalist hurried back into the scene, I asked him if he was one of the happy Warners TV stars or unhappy ones.
“Happy,” he said. “I don’t mind working this hard if the scripts are good, and some have been excellent.
I’ll check with him later.

Indeed, Thomas did check with him later. And we’ll check in with Thomas later. But first, let’s check in with syndicated columnist Steven H. Scheuer. He wrote a piece on Zimbalist published December 26, 1958. We’ll skip the biographical part, and just reprint the part dealing with “77 Sunset Strip.”

Zimbalist Plays Polished Role

In an effort to duplicate the success of Maverick's pair of fast-talking gamblers, Warner Bros., on Friday nights, have two smooth private detective kiss girls, solve murders and sip drinks between courses at Dino's Hollywood Restaurant in the hour ABC mystery series, "77 Sunset Strip."
The series began with a 90-minute show by writer Marion Hargrove. It was to be a full-length movie, but TV sponsors like it, and the show was cut down. The idea, of course, is to show the jazzy aspect of Hollywood and slip in a juicy case of murder.
Warners made a deal with Dean Martin to use a replica of his restaurant, signed Efrem Zimbalist Jr., who had been playing character parts on Maverick, Cheyenne and Conflict, and added unknown Roger Smith to complete the staff of Bailey and Spencer, the kissing private eyes.
Ingredients for a hit series are there, and if Marion Hargrove could write all the scripts. "77 Sunset Strip" might be farther along than it is today.
One thing is has done, though, is give Efrem Zimbalist Jr. a leading role. His characterization of Dandy Jim Buckley, a charming thief, gave Maverick a lift and furnished a brainy foil for Jim (Bret Maverick) Garner to play against.

Zimbalist and Smith were the stars of the show. But things suddenly developed quite differently. If “77 Sunset Strip” is remembered today, it’s because of guy and his comb, neither of which are mentioned in Scheuer’s story. Edd “Kookie” Byrnes was supposed to play a one-shot, hair-combing Bad Boy killer in the opening show. But something changed before it aired. An epilogue on the episode told viewers he’d be a loveable hipster associate to the main cast members starting next week. Within a few months, Byrnes was getting a thousand fan letters a week (a number that grew) and teenagers were sending him combs in the mail. Warner Bros. improbably released a Christmas album of its TV stars in 1958 that included Zimbalist (his mother was Alma Gluck, the top female recording vocalist of the early 20th century) but it was Connie Stevens’ “Kookie, Kookie, Lend Me Your Comb” that climbed the charts the following year.

How did this sit with the Yale-educated Zimbalist? The answer can be inferred by a wire service column of July 13, 1963. That’s when Bob Thomas checked in to report the combs and their owner were back on a shelf.

Sunset Strip Looks Brighter to Zimbalist

Hollywood (AP)—Efrem Zimbalist Jr., bereft of his buddies and even his office, was starting the sixth season of 77 Sunset Strip, a series for which he has expressed distaste.
Yet he seemed genuinely delighted with his lot, which happens to be Warner Brothers.
“I couldn't be happier,” he remarked.
The cause of his happiness appears to be Warner's Man Friday, Jack Webb. Chosen new head of television programming, Webb worked fast to save 77 Sunset Strip, which had been marked for extinction. Webb's ideas for altering the series won a reprieve.
The plan was bold. Swept out were all the regulars except Zimbalist — partner Roger Smith, teen favorite Edd Byrnes, comic Louis Quinn, receptionist Jacqueline Beer, cop Byron Keith.
Even the detective agency office next to Dino's Restaurant lapsed into limbo. “I now operate out of an office downtown,” said Zimbalist.
“But the biggest change has been in the scripts,” he added. “And that is why I am delighted with the new setup. The scripts we did during the first five years were garbage. They were simply awful. We would have shows with Louie holding up people with guns and solving mysteries. Louie is a good comedian, but that kind of plot was utterly ridiculous.
“Now we are getting first-class scripts and subjects that mean something. This one we're doing, for example, is about a colored girl, played by Elizabeth Montgomery, who passes for white. It's a touchy subject right now, and I've got to hand it to Webb for standing up to the network's doubts.”
Zimbalist is also pleased with the guest stars, who have included names like Joseph Cotton and Jo Van Fleet. There are indications that the series will be going on locations, instead of being bound to the Burbank studio.
“Sure, I'm going to be working hard,” Zimbalist said. “But an actor never complains about overwork as long as he has good material. And I'm not I complaining.”

Webb’s hard-boiled changes didn’t work. The revamped show was stripped off the schedule and replaced on February 14, 1964 with “Destry.”

Zimbalist went on to something that may have been even less popular in Hollywood—openly campaigning for Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater (along with Walter Brennan). He then passed an FBI background check to star in the series about the agency for nine seasons. Almost 20 years after that, Zimbalist launched a new career in animation voice work where he’s best known by those in the under-40 crowd.

A steady and lengthy body of work is what Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. has left behind. And though he may have been “wooden” in his biggest on-camera role, he had to have been good to avoid his career being derailed forever by a brief, teenager-loving fad. He overcame the comb.

1 comment:

  1. Efrem's wood in "The FBI" was solid, with the right screen command. The writing was at its best (IMO) around 1969; there were some good character studies among Inspector Erskine's prey.