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She is not what you expected to find. In the second episode of her new NBC series, Remington Steele, she presides over a detective agency, lustily prepares to climb into bed with a crook she is trying to entrap, and casually contemplates having a steamy affair with her leading man.
Now, standing in the reception area of a studio publicist's office, you anticipate meeting nothing less than a young actress steeped in brashness and sensuality.
But there on a couch sits a freckled-faced woman in an unpretentious rayon dress, fidgeting with her hands, waiting with a frozen smile for you to ask your questions. The questions will have to wait, for the publicist is setting up a recorder to tape the interview.
"What are you going to do this weekend?" the publicist aks desultorily, arranging the recorder on a table.
"This weekend?" Stephanie Zimbalist answers softly, clearing her throat, fighting off the nervousness. "Well, I have to do some things around the house. Maybe grout my sink, for one thing."
Grout her sink. There would be no Hollywood parties for her, no fast nights on the sunset strip, none of the sybaritic wanderings that a gossip-conscious public has come to expect from its stars. "I just wanted to collapse after working last week," she will say the following Monday. "I don't go to a lot of parties. My tastes run ... well, I went to a swap meet recently. Just went there in shorts and a ponytail. People didn't know who I was."
Going unrecognized does not surprise her. As the daughter of a well-known television actor, Efrem Zimbalist Jr., she learned long ago about the limits of celebrity. "It is not often a glamorous life," she says after four hours of shooting one afternoon.
Others might argue, however. Only in her middle-20s, she is already the star of a television series that NBC hopes will be one of the new season's biggest surprises. As Laura Holt she plays a fledging private investigator who invents a fictitious male boss named Remington Steele in order to attract clients, only to wind up in reluctant partnership with a handsome rogue claiming to be Remington Steele. The two of them bicker, they scream, and then slowly, Laura finds herself growing attracted to her handsome "employer." She keeps this last fact to herself, however. "I'm probably the only woman he's ever met who didn't tumble right into bed with him," she shrewdly observes to her secretary.
Although Zimbalist plays a wowan struggling to make it in a profession traditionally dominated by men, she sees no message for women in her role. "The show doesn't attempt to make a statement," she says simply. "Laura is not necessarily a Gloria Steinem advocate or a supporter of the ERA. She's not representative of any percentage of American womanhood."
Her description of the character might well fit Zimbalist herself. ("Am I for the ERA? I don't think I'll answer that one. I will say this: I personally detest 'Ms.' It means manuscript, and that's all it means. To call a woman Ms. is ... well, I hate it.")
This is the era, in the words of one magazine, of "The New American Actress," of ingénues who have been discovered in rural classrooms, models without one line of summer-stock experiences, weathergirls doing situation comedies. Stephanie Zimbalist is not The New American Actress. After graduating from Virginia prep school, she studied drama for a year at Juilliard, then went to work in two TV-movies: as a kidnap victim in "Yesterday's Child" on NBC and as a high-school girl wrestling with the problems of a first love in CBS's "Forever," for which she won critical praise. In the years since, she has compiled 20 major acting credits, including a prominent part in NBC's Centennial, a costarring role with Charlton Heston in the feature film "The Awakening," and a chilling performance as "The Babysitter" in an ABC movie about a psychotic who moves in with--and begins to dominate--an unsuspecting couple and their young child. ("I am a real bitch in that one," she laughs.)
She has played a breadth of roles, yet she is always asked whether being the daughter of Efrem Zimbalist Jr. helped speed her ascent in television.
"Oh, I imagine it has helped a little," she says. "But not as much as people might believe. My father didn't influence me to get into the business. I didn't even get involved in acting until I went to a summer camp as a youngster. And from the time I got interested, all I wanted to do was theather. My poor pop. I remember saying to him, 'I don't want to do television.' I had a plan. I wanted to hit the New York stage and do musicals and Shakespeare and repertory. I said, 'Forget that other stuff'."
So she went to New York and enrolled in Juilliard. But things did not go according to plan. At the end of her first year, her acting teacher and voice instructor called her into an office and announced that the school would not be inviting her back for the following year. We think your life has been a little sheltered, they told her. Their advice: take a year to experience the world.
"It was one of those times when you can feel the air in a room," Zimbalist murmurs, her eyes glassy with the pain of remembrance. "Everything stood still. I can remember the T-shirt I was wearing and the bag I was carrying. I don't think I breathed for 15 minutes. It was a devastating moment. They said they wanted me to experience more things. OK. I began contemplating things. Maybe I should take LSD or become a hooker. I left Juilliard and was just meandering and drifting for a while. Thank God I had support from my family and close friends. Bad times."
She rebounded quickly, however. After "Forever" and a series of other television movies, she discovered that she had admirers in Hollywood's high circles. Returning home one day from a golf trip with her father, she found the script for Remington Steele's pilot episode on her doorstep and quickly told her agent that she had no interest in doing a TV series. Three days later, at 5:30 in the morning, her head on a pillow, she came to the frightening realization that she had spurned one of the few chances given to a young actress. "I must be an idiot," she thought to herself. "One day, I'm going to be doing extra work in a soap opera, and I'm going to remember saying, 'Oh, well, not today, thanks'."
She called her agent again, and soon wheels began to turn. Now she finds herself portraying a young woman with whom, on the surface, she has seemingly little in common. Her costar Pierce Brosnan, who plays the handsome Remington and whose tastes run toward the music of Elvis Costello, chooses his words carefully when talking about Stephanie. "Old-fashioned isn't the word," says Brosnan. "She's down-to-earth, practical to things. We're different people; all of us are different. We have our lives off the show.... Straight, yes. Stephanie is that."
And yet, during a break one day on the set, she takes off her high heels and strolls around, looking sophisticated and sexy in a pantsuit with a V-neck collar, Pan-Cake makeup covering her freckles, not at all the Stephanie Zimbalist of the publicist's office. "Hey," she smiles, plopping down on a chair, "I got my sink grouted last weekend. Had a friend over who helped."
A male friend. No, nothing serious, apparently. These days seem to be an interlude for her on the social front. She dated actor Gregory Harrison some time back, but since that relationship ended, she has been content to sit back and let the next one happen. "I've sown all the oats I want to sow," she says. "I know what I want, because I know what I don't want. It'd be nice if whoever it was had a master's in business. Vulnerability and humor are important to me. And integrity. Yeah, integrity is the biggest thing I look for in somebody. But I should say this: I'm in no rush. I enjoy my time alone."
She wants to build a house one day, she tells you then. Maybe learn more about gardening. Solitary pursuits. For she is a woman who values quiet, who detests confrontations above everything else. "I don't think I could be terribly demanding even if I wanted to be," she admits.
While Laura Holt regularly yells at Remington for abusing his expense account, Zimbalist has problems simply telling people that she is upset. "I'll want to blast somebody," she confesses, "and I'll go in and say, 'I have a small problem with something. But that's all right, I can see I'm taking up your time.' Then I go outside, really angry, and they never know..."
"You really mask your anger."
"Yeah, except with my cat."
She sighs. "I don't have a lot of anger, though," she says in the next breath.
So, what does this dedicated oddity of the television business see ahead for herself? "Oh, it's hard to predict those things," she says. "Just some good roles, I hope. And I see myself behind the typewriter at some point. I want to write. I've already tried my hand at a script, and though it wasn't accepted, I'm anxious to try another. I guess you have to keep plugging away at it, like anything else."
Off to the side, some admiring crew members steal glances at her. It is the first tranquil moment in hours for all of them, and then in the next instant the quiet is gone. From the set, an assistant director barks that they are ready for the next shot.
"Time to work," Stephanie Zimbalist says, and bounces off her chair for another take, whistling something operatic, her voice high and giddy, the crew members tagging along behind her. She is fast making old-fashionedness captivating.
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