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Remembering Efrem Zimbalist Jr.'s acting career — and his violin sonata

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Off-Ramp commentator Marc Haefele remembers a brief but memorable encounter with Efrem Zimbalist Jr., who died Friday at the age of 95.

There is still no reasonable accounting for how I ended up interviewing Efrem Zimbalist Jr. back in 1987. Of course, there was a reason: As a fabulously underpaid L.A. City Hall reporter, I moonlighted for a national AM radio network to keep up my car payments.

The bright and patient woman who employed me didn’t want my political reporting. She needed entertainment coverage. “That’s all that matters nationally about Los Angeles,” she explained.

Unfortunately, it didn’t matter much to me. I did not own a TV. I was not paid enough to go to movies, let alone rock concerts, plays, theatrical musicals and so on. So I didn’t even know what most '80s celebrities looked like, let alone what their latest projects and personal problems were.

Usually, I could fake it by following the other reporters around the event venue to the glittery goal. My boss would prime me with some stock queries, none of them very deep. And I would usually return with useful sound, out of which my voice would be snipped and a professional’s pasted in.

Of course, there were disasters. As with the octogenarian Oscar-winning former ingénue who simply found my questions too stupid to answer. Or the coked-up South American drummer who screamed bilingual threats at me because I didn’t ask about his wife, the singer.

There were plenty of rewarding moments, though. The best of all was my interview with Efrem Zimbalist Jr. At least I knew what he looked like: the suave barfly P.I. Stuart Bailey from the '50s “77 Sunset Strip’’ TV series.

Now he was in another series, something called “Remington Steele.” Might this not be some “Dallas” style soap about a Connecticut arms corporation?

Of course, the man who walked in the door was 25 years older than Stu Bailey, and having acquired a dapper gray mustache, looked like Bailey’s father. He instantly saw I was both out of my depth and harmless, went right to the point and told me all my listeners’ needed to know about what “Remington Steele” really was, how he and his daughter Stephanie became involved in it and where the show seemed to be headed. He knew what I needed better than I did, and gave it over like a pro.

Then I surprised him by asking him about his musical career. “I heard your violin sonata on the radio last year. I really liked it.” He’d trained as a musician when young and dropped out of acting in the early '50s to work at Philadelphia’s prestigious Curtis Institute of Music; that was where his father, world-famous violinist Efrem Zimbalist Sr., officiated.

(His folks: Efrem Zimbalist Sr. and Alma Gluck. Image: George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

So, having got what I came for, we discussed what my employers didn’t want — his career in classical music before he became a TV star. And about how he and Werner Klemperer, who played Col. Klink in “Hogan’s Heroes” and who happened to be the son of the great L.A. Philharmonic conductor Otto Klemperer, would get together to discuss the great concerts their fathers had performed together. He also spoke of his resignation to becoming a major star of the black-and-white tiny screen rather than being perhaps less stellar in the movies, and of the one time that he bucked the producers on his most popular series,  “The FBI.”

“I refused to wear a hat on the show,”  he said. “Lewis Erskine (Zimbalist’s character) was supposed wear one, but I said no. I told them ‘a hat makes me look like an Armenian rug merchant.’ And they backed off.”

This was in the early '60s, Zimbalist recalled, a trifle regretfully.

“That was about the same time that JFK refused to wear a hat at his inaugural. Between the two of us, I think we killed the men’s hat business for a couple of decades," Zimbalist said.

As we wrapped the interview, Zimbalist asked me something no interviewer had ever asked me: “What do you do when you aren’t going around poking microphones in celebrities' faces?”

I said I covered City Hall.

“Isn’t that great,” he answered. “You guys do a terrific job and don’t get any credit for it. Without you, how would we know what those bums downtown are trying to do to us?”

I was astonished. As I shook his hand and thanked him, I thought something like, “May you live a long and happy life, Efrem Zimbalist Jr.”

And it seems that he did — dying peacefully on his front lawn at 95.

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