The Original “F.B.I.”

For the birthday of Efrem Zimablist Jr. (1918-2014), a look at his best known show The F.B.I. (1965-1974).

The show is a fascinating artifact itself, but the life of Zimbalist is also plenty interesting. For he comes from a surprising background of high culture. His father Efrem Zimbalist, Sr was a concert violinst; his mother Alma Gluck was an opera singer, whom we wrote about here. Both parents were immigrant Jews from Eastern Europe but converted to Christianity (Episcopalianism) when they moved to America, and Efrem Zimablist was raised a Christian, and always remained a pretty serious one. When Gluck died in 1938, the elder Zimbalist married Mary Louise Curtis, the daughter of the founders of Ladies Home Journal, and the previous wife of its second editor Edward Bok, author of The Americanization of Edward Bok (1920). Curtis herself was the founder of the Curtis School of Music in Philadelphia.

There must have been a lot of pressure to shine intellectually amongst such a crowd. Unfortunately, Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. flunked out of Yale! But he did produce some Gian Carlo Menotti operas on Broadway in the late ’40s and early ’50s, the closest he got to the sort of accomplishments his parents were known for. Zimabalist was most drawn to acting. He’d studied at Neighborhood Playhouse, and played some small roles on Broadway in the mid to late 40s. In the early 50s he began to be seen regularly in films and television. His early TV works was before my time: he was co-star on Concerning Miss Marlowe (1954-55), had recurring parts on Maverick (1957-58) and The Hawaiian Eye (1959-62) and was a regular on 77 Sunset Strip (1958-64). Thus Zimbalist was already a well known face at the time The F.B.I. launched.

As agent Lewis Erskine, the tanned, nattily dressed and husky-voiced Zimbalist was something of a heart throb among the ladies (the older ones, anyway). The supporting cast, guys like Philip Abbott and William Reynolds, were sort of a colorless bunch, much like, one imagines, their real-life counterparts. The whole thing is quite a time piece now. Produced by Quinn Martin, the show has a dry, procedural presentation not unlike Jack Webb’s shows. At the top of each episode, an announcer gave that week’s show title, usually something promising high drama, like “Today’s Episode: The Fatal Showdown“. And swirling, roiling music would take us into it. The stories were based on actual FBI cases, though on the show they’re solved by our fictional heroes at the bureau. The real interesting part in retrospect is the caliber of guest stars. Unlike many shows, there would often be several of them, often actors who were already major stars or soon would be. It seems like everybody was on that show!

That said, there was a lot to keep the show from being TOO interesting. In fact, the apparatus around the show is kind of more interesting than the show itself. For this was a program produced with the blessing and involvement not only of the Bureau itself but with its Founder and Lord High Muckety-Muck J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover personally vetted every script, made suggestions and deletions, and saw to it that show reflected what he saw as the F.B.I.’s “brand”, although they would have said “image” back then.

And could there be a better time to talk about the image of the F.B.I. then right now? The Bureau has always had good p.r. and for lots of good reasons. It employs the nation’s top law enforcement officers, the cream of the crop. In contrast with the CIA and other security agencies, it has a reputation for integrity and competence as an organization that operates under the U.S. Constitution and not in some rogue, anarchistic fashion. Interestingly, the TV show came along just as Hoover was beginning to experience criticism for his surveillance and targeting of Civil Rights and Anti-War leaders and the left in general. This show of course references none of that; if anything, it was there to counteract that negative impression. So conservatives (and Zimbalist was a conservative) would have liked the show at the time; the left, not so much. Interestingly, nowadays, that has flipped. With the Bureau very much involved in investigating a rogue President, the left admires its integrity, and it’s the conservatives (or people who call themselves ones) who hate the F.B.I. What a difference 40 years makes! TV continues to sing the praises of the F.B.I on crime dramas today; it’s why I called this post, the ORIGINAL “F.B.I.

Zimbalist continued to act in movies while the show was on. You can see him in Harlow (1965), Wait Until Dark (1967) and Airplane 1975. When The F.B.I. went off the air, Zimbalist kept his career going as late as 2008, mostly on television. He had recurring roles on shows like Hotel and Remington Steele (which co-starred his daughter Stephanie Zimbalist). As he got older he started doing lots of voice-over work for animated versions of the Batman, Superman and Spiderman franchises. He was 95 when he died, just a few years ago!