77 Sunset Strip

INTERVIEW WITH EFREM ZIMBALIST, JR. - by telephone - Nov. 27, 1997

Interview conducted by Sylvia Stoddard

SS: You came from a family with a father who was a virtuoso concert violinist and your mother was an opera star. Yet you and your daughter are actors. None of you really went on into music?

EZ: I studied the violin for seven years. I played rather well, actually, but when I went away to boarding school, it just didn't fit in and I never went back to it after that. Later on, I did do some composing and that experience with the violin helped me. I wrote a violin sonata so I was able to draw on that experience.

SS: You started in the theatre as many actors did and you've gone back to it from time to time.
EZ: I once did a play of Noel Coward's, Fallen Angels, which had been written many years before and it was distinguished by a second act that was so hilarious that you got sick laughing and nothing else. Bad first act, bad third act. The play, to the extent that it lived, lived on this second act. It was done in London by the two Hermiones [Gingold and Baddeley] and pulled all the stops out in the second act. Anyway, our second night on Broadway, we were asked to wait on stage because he [Coward] was coming, he was going to see it. He came backstage and he said, "I'd first of all like to congratulate the producers. The play was excellently mounted, excellently directed, cast uniformly excellent. One last comment. Sitting out front tonight, I distinctly counted twelve minutes of a good play and when I reflect that 27 years ago, I could write 12 minutes of a good play, I feel enormously gratified."

SS: Do you prefer live theatre, television or films?
EZ: To me, there's no difference between movies and television. They're the same as far as I'm concerned. The theatre has wonderful rewards but the good thing about film is that you do it and it's over--finished with. With theatre, I always found that a play was fascinating through rehearsals and then through maybe the first month or two playing before audiences, but then, if you're lucky enough to run that long, you begin to dread the repetition. Night after night, the same lines, the same costumes the same audiences because you've experienced them all and there are just so many kinds of audiences and you know where the laughs are coming. It got to the point in the American Repertory Theatre, I'd walk in there and smell the costumes of Henry VIII and I would dread it--dread the heavy woolen costumes that weighed thirty pounds. But the creative part of it is marvelous but I never could seem to be happy after a certain point, say two or three months, I got bored. That's what we do in the theatre, over and over again. Your own sensibility says enough is enough.

SS: Yes, with television, it's written, shot and it's over.
EZ: But the opposite side of the coin is that it's so brief all the work is finished and done and forgotten in one second. At least in a movie, there's a run of some kind and it goes around the world and people see it. But a television show just chews up talent. Except a series, which has a curious life of its own which continues on. An identity that just doesn't evaporate in one hour.

SS: Such as 77 Sunset Strip.
EZ: Yes. But isn't it extraordinary [until this interview], I always thought it ran seven years. Six with all of us and one on my own, but I was wrong.

SS: Perhaps it was the alliteration of sevens.
EZ: [laughs] Yes.

SS: You hardly ever filmed on location at Dino's and the building used as 77.
EZ: Once a year. We rented and then bought a house in Beverly Hills and I used to drive by Mary Webb Davis's establishment every day on the way to work. And of course, they hated this whole identification with the show. One morning when I passed it, there were painters out front, but I didn't pay much attention. I went to work, worked all day and when I came home, they had finished their work. And what they had done was on that familiar marquee, they had erased the small address and in giant letters, they had put "8544" almost with an exclamation point, not 77.

SS: Yes, Mary Webb Davis said Warner Bros. paid $25 to use it.
EZ: Anybody but Warner Bros. would have paid $20,000. Bill Orr was simply marvelous the way he ran that television department. The whole game was not to give the actors anything if they didn't have to.

SS: Give anybody anything.
EZ: That's right. I never held it against Warner Bros. I was so grateful for that whole contract system. It was marvelous. I loved Jack and I loved the studio. But one was amused by their thriftiness. It was incredible. Even the cheats they used to do in production were hilarious. They would do dodges like we had these dingy dungeons--permanent dressing rooms. Awful, smelly places. I never went near them because you had a mobile thing, but we had those, nevertheless. Some of the people under contract would say "This is ridiculous," and they'd say, "We'll take care of you, you're our family" and they'd promote them to the new building and these very nice dressing rooms. I was always suspicious and I never did that. Seven years, and I kept my dank, foul hole the whole time because when something important came up--money, a raise--they'd say "Listen, we take care of you. Didn't we give you a new dressing room?" In that same spirit, Bill would manage to do things like if an actor was coming up to complain about his salary or billing or whatever it was, Bill would manage to have his tailor there. And this all would take place during a fitting. That immediately put you at a disadvantage. You're not sitting face-to-face with somebody. He's looking in the mirror and saying "What was that again?"

SS: Of course ABC didn't have the money then that the other networks did. Bill Orr said they got $75,000 a show.
EZ: That's right. I think our budget was $64,000. I could tell you the most heavenly cheats Warners did on that show. They were sublime. Bill was, I think, responsible for most of them, but Jack Warner was holding the purse strings behind him. Like a slanted bar that I saw one day when I came to work to do a scene. This was not on the set, but off to the side, stuck in the ground at an angle going up in the air. It looked so peculiar, I asked "What is that thing?" And they said, "That's the thing where you have to go down stairs and you hold onto that, that's the banister." And they shot it. My knees bent more and more with each step as I went downstairs. Rather than building the set with stairs. You've got to love people who would do those marvelous things to save a buck.

SS: That's why there were episodes like "The Silent Caper" with no dialogue and "Reserved for Mr. Bailey" with only you in the episode.

EZ: Yes. Both of those stemmed from...Roger [Smith] is enormously gifted and was enormously helped by the genius of 77 who was Monty Pittman. Monty had these marvelously inventive plots and colorful settings and so forth. He wrote "Reserved for Mr. Bailey" and others and his sense of the outré and his sense of the quaint and the unusual. He invented the country San Dede. And he helped Roger with that first script. After that, [Roger] didn't need any help. It was that kind of original genius that got Roger off on the right foot. Gave him a leg up on his first script. I adored Monty. The first time I met him, I don't know how long we'd been on, and I was having lunch in the commissary. This portly half-drunk, blowzy-looking character descended on me at the table and said [raspy, drunk voice] "Hi, I'm Monty Pittman and I'm writin' your next show and I'm havin' a little trouble finishin'. I can't seem to get an idea for the end." I thought, my God, have we sunk this low? I was about to call Bill. The next day, he was still there and he was still drunk and he said, "I found the end. I fixed it, but I'm not happy with it." He gave it to me and I took it like a piece of garbage back to the set. We finished the show that night and I went home and opened his script and it was pure gold. It was "The Secret of Adam Cain," a marvelously inventive thing. And from then on we became the dearest friends. We had a relationship on the show...it was the kind of relationship of mutual admiration and respect which pushed each of us higher and higher and higher. It was like my first marriage--she thought so much of me that I had to behave that way not to disappoint her. It was that way with Monty. And so you kept reaching higher and higher and so did he. And when he'd direct, he never had to tell me anything. I always knew what he was thinking. I just read his mind and it was an incredible relationship.

SS: I'm glad he was able to do so many because it kept the show at a peak.
EZ: Don't kid yourself. It was the show. If a show has six wonderful shows a year and the rest mediocre to nothing, it will succeed. The luster of those six rubs off on all the others. And that was what Monty did. It seems to me he wrote something like six a year and they were so superlative. Roger's were too, no question about it. And those kept the quality of the show up. And George Waggner wrote some wonderful scripts. All the writers at Warner Bros. had to bring in a treatment and then they'd look at it and say, "You have to do this" and so forth and they'd go write the script. But Monty was the only one who would come in with a finished script. No prior thing of any kind. He'd bring a script in and they would do it because they knew it was marvelous. And he was a very independent man. He'd get in that old car of his and go hunting ghost towns. A scene from "Downbeat" was from Monty's life. Steve Cochran brought Monty to Hollywood--to clean his house. Steve would go off to work and he'd come home at night and find his booze gone. So he finally built these bars he put in front of the door where he kept the bottles. And he'd still come home and the bottles would be empty. What Monty had done was get down with a coat hanger and stick it through the bars and get the neck of the bottle through and lie on the floor and drink it. And he gave that to me in "Downbeat."

SS: Who did the voice of your nemesis in "Reserved for Mr. Bailey"?
EZ: Bobby Douglas. [Director Robert Douglas.] One of the best actors who ever came to Hollywood. He became a wonderful director at Warner Bros. And when Monty was dying, he couldn't direct the shows he'd written, he knew that Bob was trying to become a director there and had taken the course for directors there, he insisted that Bob replace him. So Bob did that first show of Monty's and went on to have a wonderful career directing. He was a great villain in films. He was always on the wrong end of Erroll Flynn's sword. An Englishman and a superb actor.

SS: You took Stu Bailey through a transition from Roy Huggins's man who would do anything for money on the Conflict episode through Girl On the Run to a partner in Bailey & Spencer. Did you prefer one Stu Bailey over the other?
EZ: The fact is, I didn't want any of it. I hated the idea. I didn't want to do television. I was there at Warners under contract doing films and they said "We've got this pilot for you to do" and I said "Not me, I'm not doing it." And they said "Yes you are," and they showed me in the contract there was a little small print where it said they could do this to the people they had under contract if they wanted to. I was actually forced into this series. I didn't want to do it at all. And when "Anything for Money" didn't sell, I was thrilled. I said "Thank God that's over." They said "Oh no, we're going to make another pilot." And so we did and so it sold and so my whole life changed because of that. I didn't want it in the beginning. I just wanted to get out of it. I had finished a marvelous film with Mervyn LeRoy [Home Before Dark] and when all of this became imminent I said, "Mervyn, I just don't want to do this." He said, "Don't worry, I'll see to it that you don't." He was very powerful at Warner Bros. But he wasn't powerful enough because Jack was determined to put me in this series and he did. Of course, I came to love the series with all my heart, but in the beginning that was my attitude.

SS: Well, both Bill Orr and Roy Huggins wanted you too.
EZ: Oh, I have a great story about Roy and our producer, Howie Horwitz. I don't know if you know much about Howie but he was a Broadway sort of character. He was a Damon Runyon character. Just lovely, wonderful dear man. And Roy, after we [the series] were very popular, he wrote a movie for Edd Byrnes and me. And it was more exploitational than anything else. I was sick about this and I didn't want to do this thing at all. It was purely drawing on the popularity of the series and Kookie and it had no quality as far as I was concerned. But you were under contract, you had to do it or you were laid off. So they then had what was called the Writer's and Producer's Building were they were all kept in and [laughs] lashed every morning, "Write, write, write." To get to Roy's office, I had to pass Howie's. He had a balcony--all of these offices had a balcony looking over a court below. Howie was sort of leaning in his doorway, characteristically, like Bugs Bunny. And he saw the look on my face and he said, "What's the matter?" And I told him "Roy's got this movie he wants to do with Eddie and me and I hate it, I don't want to do it, and I've got to go in and see him about it and I'm miserable." He said "You don't want to do it, no problem, you're off the hook. I need you, you're busy, that's all." I said, "Oh, God, Howie, thank you with all my heart. Bless you." And I went on, and get into Roy's office, and you know this incredible magnetism that he has--it's Madison Avenue sales at its ultra high pitch. And he started in describing this thing to me and he's talking about the values and the undercurrents. I'd read the script and saw nothing of that at all. But he said "This is what it all means, and this is what's behind it" and I'm sitting there getting hypnotized by him. I emerge an hour later, stunned. And I walk down the corridor and there's Howie, still there. As I walked by, he said, "Did you tell him?" And I said, "Well, you know, Howie, it's amazing. He started talking to me about what was behind all of these scenes and the deeper meaning of all these things. I don't know, I never saw that." Howie shook his head and walked away and over his shoulder said, "I wish you were a good-looking broad." [Laughs.] Anyway, we never did it, but Roy could talk an Eskimo into a deepfreeze. He's an incredible salesman. Roy always reminded me of David White, who played Larry Tate on Bewitched. He had those thyroid eyes and when he started talking, his eyes would come out an inch from his head. He got everything started at Warner's.

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EPISODE GUIDE
Season 1 1958-1959 Season 2 1959-1960 Season 3 1960-1961
Season 4 1961-1962 Season 5 1962-1963 Season 6 1964-1965




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