Coming from a theatrical family, Stephanie Zimbalist can’t remember when she didn’t know that her father, Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. was a big movie star, or exactly when she started putting on shows in her own bedroom. She even put on plays on her neighbor’s fireplace hearth (it served as a sort of proscenium.) Zimbalist is perhaps best known for her leading role as private eye Laura Holt, co-starring with Pierce Brosnan in “Remington Steele,” which played on NBC from 1982 to 1987. She appears in the Pulitzer and Tony Award-winning play “The Subject Was Roses” by Frank Gilroy, now in previews at George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick. Opening night is Friday, February 11.
Between “Remington Steele” and now, Zimbalist has had a varied and extensive theater, film, and television career. During a phone interview, she says she is still good friends with people from that chapter of her life. “Michael Gleason, who was the creator/producer, is one of my best friends.” Her hairdresser on the show lives down the street from her in Los Angeles and still cuts her hair. “I don’t talk to Pierce any more because now we E-mail.” A highlight for her of the “Remington Steele” time was traveling to locations such as Malta, France, Ireland, and England. She reminds me, “Location shooting like that wasn’t done much in those days. And the reason we did it was to get away from the Olympics in Los Angeles.” (Those was the contentious summer games in 1984 that were boycotted by 15 countries.) “Actually, nobody came. So it was a moot point.” But it did instigate the travel that the creative team, cast, and crew all enjoyed and it helped to enhance the show.
A far cry from Laura Holt, the character that she plays in “The Subject Was Roses” is a housewife/mother in a serious (as she terms it, “kitchen sink”) drama dealing with homefront battles between husband, wife, and their son, who is a soldier just returned from World War II. “Anyone who’s had even the tiniest bit of therapy will get the picture. It’s about dysfunction, co-dependency, and abuse of a certain kind; all those things at a time before we had a name for them. It’s a play about the anger, the pain, and the complexity of family ties. You know, tsouris,” she says, dropping the Yiddish term for the outcome of a painful situation.
Michael Mastro directs. Mastro is well known to George Street audiences for his performances in “The Sunshine Boys” with Jack Klugman, “The Pillowman,” and “Inspecting Carol.” He is also one of the reasons that Zimbalist agreed to do this play. “I love Michael. I know him as an actor, and I also knew of his reputation as a highly respected acting coach in New York,” she says. At the time Mastro E-mailed and asked her to read the play and see if she might be interested in doing it, Zimbalist was appearing in Los Angeles in the one-woman play about Katherine Hepburn, “Tea at Five.” She says, “It happened at a time I had no time to read. I was in the final days of the play, hosting Thanksgiving, involved with Christmas, I was traveling, and blah blah blah blah. I thought: well I won’t be able to read it, and he’ll forget about me, and that’ll be it. About a month later, the offer came and I was surprised.”
Another deciding factor was David Saint, who directed her in Westport in a production of A.R. Gurney’s “Far East” in 1999, which, she says, was a wonderful experience for her. “I love David. I thought, ‘Sooner or later, I’m going to work at George Street.’”
Involved in theater camps and high school drama growing up Zimbalist applied to Stanford and other colleges, thinking of a career in art history, but once accepted into the prestigious Juilliard School in New York City, the choice was made. In school, she says, she was somewhat impatient. “I didn’t get into much heavy duty there — a lot of lying on the ground and breathing.” She actually got booted out of Juilliard but considers it a blessing. How does one get booted out of Juilliard? “By the time my classmates had finished their second year, I had done 9 or 10 movies of the week for television.” At the time, it was Juilliard policy at that students could not work — except their school work.
Re-established on her home turf in California, she also made two feature films: “The Magic of Lassie” with James Stewart and “The Awakening” with Charlton Heston. Then came her five-year stint on “Remington Steele” and other television appearances. She made her stage debut in 1979 in a musical, “Festival,” at Las Palmas Theater in Los Angeles, appearing with Gregory Harrison and Brian Stokes Mitchell. Since then, she has made impressive jumps back and forth between musicals and serious dramas, from “The Tempest” with Anthony Hopkins at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles to a national tour of the musical “My One and Only” with Tommy Tune. Her only New York City stage appearance was as the producer and star of “The Baby Dance” by Jane Anderson at the Lucille Lortel off Broadway theater in the fall of 1991.
Her more recent theater credits lean more toward dramas and include playing the role of Varya in “The Cherry Orchard” with Alfred Molina at Circus Theatricals in Los Angeles. “That was,” she begins and pauses, “That was delicious.” She had always been an admirer of Molina’s work. At the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis she starred in productions of “The Rainmaker” and “Sideman.” However, she has appeared most often at the Rubicon Theater in her home town, where, in a production of Tennessee Williams’ “Night of the Iguana,” she was on stage with her father. In 2007, they were together again at the Rubicon, this time in “Hamlet” — she as Gertrude, her father doubling as the Player King and the British Ambassador. Like his daughter, Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. has had a stage, film and television career, but is best known for his television work in “77 Sunset Strip” and “The FBI.”
Zimbalist says she is very close with her father and reports that even though he is 92, “He’s still very handsome and compos mentis — delightful, funny, sweet, and smart. People who meet him can’t believe he’s the age he is. He plays golf, has lunch with friends, and answers his fan mail. He’s always done that, and I guess he always will.”
Her plans for “what’s next” center around her family responsibilities. In addition to her dad, she has a beloved dog, Scampi, a nine-year-old long-haired dachshund. “She was on my mother’s bed when she died, and I took her. She’s a dear little girl. She’s my family.” This is rather a miracle dog who has survived a herniated disc, moving about on wheels, and enduring surgery, physical therapy, acupuncture, underwater treadmill, and homeopathy. For a time, Zimbalist reports, “I lived on the floor with her because she couldn’t move.”
Happily, Scampi is now “up and running and doing great” and, of course, is in residence in New Brunswick while her mom is doing the play. She has enjoyed a walk through the snow. She still needs constant care and Zimbalist will make this a top priority. “Everything is sort of on hold. I guess I don’t have an agenda anymore. If someone wants to hire me, great. If it comes, I do it, I love it.” Meanwhile, she’s enjoying the family atmosphere at the George Street Theater. Then she and Scampi are back to California. “I’m busy with my dad. That’s my life.” After a pause she adds, “Scampi’s licking my leg right now. She doesn’t understand when I’m talking on the phone, that I’m not talking to her.”
“The Subject Was Roses,” George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Through Sunday, March 6. Opening night, Friday, February 11. Drama by Frank Gilroy about a young man’s return from service in World War II. $29.50 to $79.50. 732-246-7717 or www.gsponline.org.