Kim Darby: Daughter of the Dancing Zerbys

There was a stretch there, from the late ’60s through the early ’70s when Kim Darby (Deborah Zerby, b. 1947) was very “flavor-of-the-month”. I associate her especially with the title role in the classic 1967 Star Trek episode “Miri” (with Michael J. Pollard), with her career-defining appearance opposite John Wayne in the original True Grit (1969) and her guest shots in the pilots of Ironside (1967) and The Streets of San Francisco (1972). Something about her spoke to the moment. She was both tomboyish and attractive (her big brown eyes her best feature), but also articulate and natural in a way that seemed to represent the youth culture of the time, however artificial a construct that was.

In a word, she seemed to offer something “new”. Imagine my surprise and delight, however, when I discovered that she is from a show biz family stretching back generations. Her parents were a night club dance act called “The Dancing Zerbys”. Her mother was Inge Weire, sister of the Wiere Brothers! The Wieres were third generation performers. Kim’s father Jon Zerby was the son of a vaudeville dance team and first got on stage with them as a toddler. Clyde Zerby (Jon’s father) was the principal dancer of the act; his wife Mabel was the booker and his onstage assistant. Jon’s great-grandfather (Kim’s great-great) was a circus clown. This terrific 1991 LA Times profile of Jon gives more detail and color; he was still teaching dance into the 1990s. Kim is only mentioned as a footnote.

At any rate, Kim’s stage name was originally “Derby Zerby”. You can perhaps understand why she changed it. Her first major screen job (at age 16) was a dancing part in Bye Bye Birdie (1963). Her appealing natural quality however quickly catapulted her into acting roles. In 1965 she was in the William Inge penned Bus Riley’s Back in Town, billed under Ann-Margret, Michael Parks, Janet Margolin, Brad Dexter, Jocelyn Brando, and Larry Storch. In addition to Star Trek and Ironside, she worked on shows like Gunsmoke and Bonanza, making her a natural to appear with John Wayne and Glen Campbell in True Grit. Though 21 at the time, her character was 14, her pixie-ish quality more than selling the illusion of her being a younger girl. There’s Hollywood magic in her performance as a bossy, brave little fussbudget who orders Wayne’s drunken Marshall Rooster Cogburn around like he was her dog. I really love Charles Portis’s dialogue, perhaps my favorite of any western, and can easily conjure Darby’s voice speaking his lines: “I will not put a thief in my mouth to steal my brains!” she declares, with respect to the topic of liquor.

Wayne reportedly didn’t like working with Darby, and there are some indications that she may have been a difficult person to get along with. She was married twice during this period. Her marriage to James Stacy of the show Lancer lasted around a year (1968-69). Her union with a man named James Westmoreland lasted just two months in 1970.

Wayne won an Oscar for True Grit, but Darby’s next few films were mostly quirky obscurities that played upon her countercultural public image, In the comedy Generation (1969) she played a pregant hippie aggravating her family with fixation on natural childbirth (a novelty at the time). The Strawberry Statement (1970), written by Israel Horowitz, cast her as a student radical, alongside Bruce Davison and Bud Cort. She played an unwed mother in the road movie Norwood (1970), written by True Grit‘s Charles Portis and directed by Jack Haley Jr. True Grit‘s Glen Campbell (no thepsian, let’;s be frank) starred in this one, and, most delightfully it also features Jack Haley himself, after nearly 25 years off the screen, as well as Joe Namath, Carol Lynley, Pat Hingle, Dom Deluise, Meredith MacRea, Cass Daley, David Huddleston, and Gil Lamb. In 1971 she co-starred with Elliott Gould in his self-produced A Glimpse of Tiger, but reportedly Gould had some sort of drug-induced melt-down and the project was scuttled. Next she starred in Robert Aldrich’s crime drama The Grissom Gang (1971) with Scott Wilson and Tony Musante.

By this stage, Darby was no longer box office as a star, not even theoretically, and she did a stretch of made-for-tv movies: Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (1973), The Story of Pretty Boy Floyd (1974), This Is the West That Was (1974, in which she played Calamity Jane) and the mini-series Rich Man, Poor Man (1976). In 1978 she co-starred with Happy Days’ Henry Winkler in The One and Only, directed by Carl Reiner, with whom she had worked in Generation. After this came turns on TV shows like The Love Boat, Fantasy Island, and Murder She Wrote, and supporting parts in films like Better Off Dead (1985) with John Cusack, Teen Wolf Too (1987) with Jason Bateman, and Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (1997). After Cold Ones (2007) with C. Thomas Howell and Geoffrey Lewis, she went into semi-retirement, 2017 saw the release of a horror film she appeared in called The Evil Within, which had been directed in 2002 by oil magnate Andrew Getty (grandson of J.Paul).

For more on vaudeville history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,