Years before anyone ever heard of CSI or NCIS, there was The FBI. Starring Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., this TV series ran for an impressive nine seasons and 240 episodes on ABC. While the Law & Order franchise has become well-known for featuring stories “ripped from the headlines,” The FBI’s scripts were mostly based on actual bureau cases that were supplied to the production team by J. Edgar Hoover himself.
The beloved program is finally being released on DVD, exclusively as part of the Warner Archives program. Part one of the first season (the first 16 episodes) is available now for $39.95 on four DVDs. Guest stars on these installments include Robert Blake, Beau Bridges, Dabney Colemen, Robert Duvall, Jack Klugman, Leslie Nielsen, and Burt Reynolds. If there’s enough interest in this initial offering, hopefully additional sets will be forthcoming.
Thanks to the folks at Warners, I recently had a chance to chat with Zimbalist. At 92 years old, this veteran actor is still as sharp as a tack and a big supporter of the real FBI agents and the law enforcement agency.
TVSeriesFinale: The show ran for nine seasons and 240 episodes. That’s a very impressive run for those days or today. Was it difficult to play Inspector Erskine each week and keep the show fresh?
Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.: Well, it wasn’t difficult. I signed originally for five years. And, at the end of the five years, my contract was up and I was looking forward to doing films which I had done for a number of years while I was under contract with Warners. But now, I was free and at that point, [executive producer] Quinn Martin, who was a very dear friend of mine, a very close friend, called me and he said, “Look, I have a personal request. Of all the shows I’ve ever done, The FBI is by far the biggest show I have and if I have a few more years of it, I can retire with everything I could possibly want for the rest of my life. And what I’m calling for is to see if you would sign for another five years.”
Well, you know, I was looking forward to not doing the series at that point but, with this urging from a very dear friend I said, “Well, Quinn, if that’s what you need and you want, you can count me in.” So, I signed another five year contract, and the show only ran four as it turned out, but I was not unhappy doing it. The screenplays that came to me for movies were not as good as The FBI scripts so I really wasn’t that unhappy about it.
TVSeriesFinale: Did you know that the show had been cancelled when you wrapped at the end of the ninth season?
Zimbalist: No, I don’t recall that we did. We were still something like number 20 on the ratings list. And we were doing quite well by the end of our ninth year. But, we were cancelled by the network and they brought in another show which (laughs), to replace us, never got through the season. It was cancelled before the season was over so they would have been better off if they had left us on.
(Note: The FBI tied for 30th place for season eight and wasn’t in the top 30 for season nine. It was replaced by The Sonny Comedy Revue which was Sonny Bono’s attempt at a variety show without Cher. It quickly tanked and was off the air within a couple months.)
TVSeriesFinale: I know that Quinn Martin and you worked very closely with FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover. Was he essentially a consultant on the series?
Zimbalist: Well, he was more than that. He was the one who gave permission to do the show in the first place. The producer and the FBI agent that was with us and all of us, were responsible to him for every show. If he didn’t like it, he’d let the producer know.
TVSeriesFinale: Did he have specific input about casting or…
Zimbalist: No, he never found, he never wrote me anything like that or called me but he did turn down some scripts that were not cases over which the FBI didn’t have jurisdiction. That was the primary consideration. He wanted it to be real and if a show was written by one of the writers about a topic over which they did not have jurisdiction, he would turn thumbs down and they would have to write a new one.
TVSeriesFinale: Did that happen often?
Zimbalist: That happened a few times. He made all of cases in the FBI files available to the writers, thousands of them, endless. But some of [the writers] had an idea on their own and that’s where they ran into problems with him.
TVSeriesFinale: Mark Felt was an assistant director of the FBI back then and we now know he was the “Deep Throat” source during the Watergate scandal. I’d heard that he was an adviser on the show…
Zimbalist: Well, I don’t know. I mean, I never met him. As far as I know, he wasn’t but I may not know everything.
TVSeriesFinale: During the 1980s, several popular shows of the 60s and 70s were revived for TV movies. Were you ever approached about reprising your role as Inspector Erskine?
Zimbalist: Well, no, I never was. Quinn Martin produced the show and was really more responsible for its success than anybody. He was an extraordinary producer, just wonderful. He retired after it ended, more or less. I think he had one show still running. But he retired and tragically died very prematurely, just about the time he was looking forward to enjoying his life and his time. It was very sad. So, the figure that was really responsible for all of the successful things about the series, was gone so I never heard of any interest in bringing it back.
(Note: An updated version of the series called Today’s FBI aired during the 1981-82 season on ABC. It lasted just 18 episodes. Producers of Today’s FBI also worked with the Bureau but there was no other relation to the original FBI series.)
TVSeriesFinale: Many years before FOX’s America’s Most Wanted, some of the episodes of The FBI ended with you talking to the camera, talking about various criminals that were on the FBI’s most wanted list. Do you recall if these ever led to any felons being caught?
Zimbalist: Yes, they told me that they did lead to capture, some of them. I don’t any particular ones at this point but they apparently were effective. It was very nice to know.
TVSeriesFinale: Two years ago, you were given a plaque by FBI Director Robert Mueller and were named a special agent, some 35 years after you last played Inspector Lewis Erskine. Could you speak about that for a moment?
Zimbalist: Well, it was very thrilling. I’ve always had a very tender spot in my heart for the Bureau. I feel very close to them and always have. And, Director Mueller is, in my opinion, a wonderful figure. When he presented that to me, I was really overcome. I only discovered this year that my old prep school, St. Paul’s in New Hampshire, is having my 75th class anniversary and through that I learned that he was also a graduate of that school. I didn’t know that when he and I were together [for the ceremony].
TVSeriesFinale: You’ve had a long and distinguished career aside from The FBI but many will always associate you with it. Do you have any thoughts on how it’s influenced your career?
Zimbalist: That’s a very hard thing to answer because I’m living my life, not observing it. For example, I did one of my very favorite movies, Wait Until Dark. And I did it because Audrey Hepburn and her husband, Mel Ferrer, who I had gone to school with a thousand years ago in New York as little boys, they came onto the set of The FBI and asked if I would play this part in Wait Until Dark. Whether they would have asked me had I not done The FBI, I don’t know. But I did [the series] and possibly it influenced them in asking and wanting me to play her husband. It’s hard to answer because my career happened to me.
TVSeriesFinale: A lot of actors who worked in television around that time found that they were typecast and it was difficult to find other work. It doesn’t seem like that happened to you, true?
Zimbalist: Not at all. I did all kinds of things afterward and none of them were really close to The FBI. I’ve been very fortunate.
Part one of the first season of The FBI can be ordered from the Warner Archives.