Actress Roles Over 40? ‘It’s a Big Fat Zero’

Remember Remington Steele ? The plush 1980′s NBC detective drama with the Henry Mancini theme was very good for Pierce Brosnan, who played the title role and would go on to become James Bond and marry buxom, beatific Keely Shaye Smith. Nor did it hurt the career of Doris Roberts (office assistant Mildred Krebs), who has won three consecutive Emmys for her portrayal of consummate mother-in-law Marie Barone on Everybody Loves Raymond . But what about its third star, Stephanie Zimbalist, who played Laura Holt, the strong-willed, slightly stern private investigator who would never really let Pierce get to second base, much to the frustration of her young adolescent viewers?

Ms. Zimbalist is alive and well and living in the Valley, but metaphorically she seems to have fallen into the dark rabbit hole that lies between actresses under 35 and those safely, cuddily into menopause, like Ms. Roberts. On Nov. 11 , she emerged to host a party for her father, veteran TV actor Efrem Zimbalist Jr. ( 77 Sunset Strip ; The F.B.I .) at the Hollywood History Museum on Highland Avenue. Mr. Zimbalist was celebrating his just-published memoir, My Dinner of Herbs -which his daughter helped him write, personally extracting about 17 hours of oral history-and donating some “showbiz” memorabilia to the museum: a gold-plated gun and F.B.I. credentials that had been issued to him by J. Edgar Hoover. Chairs had been thoughtfully strewn about for attendees of a certain age, and little pastries.

When Dad arrived, wearing a pinkie ring, striped tie and a rakish eyepatch (he recently had surgery to remove a basal skin carcinoma), Ms. Zimbalist gave him a big kiss on the lips.

“She’s the daughter,” murmured a stray dowager to an inquiring photographer.

A few flash bulbs popped. The Zimbalists are quite the dynasty: Stephanie’s late paternal grandfather, Efrem Zimbalist Sr., was a renowned violinist, married to the opera star Alma Gluck; her niece, Kristy Zimbalist, toiled under Kate Betts at Harper’s Bazaar. Stephanie inherited some of the musical talent. “I sing,” she said. “I sing, and I really should’ve stuck with it, because it’s really what I love to do. It’s probably what I’m best at, too.”

Security was nervously eyeing an unidentified sixtysomething woman with double-D breast implants and a Louis Vuitton bag, wedged into a short red tube dress and mugging for the cameras. The room was full of pulled faces; Ms. Zimbalist’s was not one of them.

“We don’t photograph like a blank slate anymore,” she said. “People don’t want to see wrinkles, because if they see wrinkles in actors then they have to face that they have wrinkles, too …. They’d rather see perfection up there. And so then you get rocket scientists who are 22 years old.”

Softer around the edges than in her Laura Holt heyday, her hair wavy, Ms. Zimbalist wore an Eileen Fisher–type droopy gray dress with a cuff bracelet and a slouchy black nylon bag, her very small feet in black slides, toenails painted maroon. There was something plucky about those toenails.

She was introduced to the crowd as a star of stage and screen. When the inevitable “And you all know her as Laura Holt from Remington Steele … ” came, she flinched slightly.

“Did I?” she said later. “I didn’t mean to. It’s just … it’s been 20 years, you know?”

Ms. Zimbalist is currently in rehearsal for a stage production of Defying Gravity , a play inspired by the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986, which opens on the 22nd at the Rubicon Theatre in Ventura County. She plays a character loosely based on teacher-astronaut Christa McAuliffe.

And that’s the only item on her dance card for the time being.

“It’s a big fat zero,” she said. “There are so few roles for women of a certain age, they really have their pick of who they want. It was just a field day for me about 10 years ago; I would have my pick of movies of the week. But that market has dried up, there’s no movie-of-the-week market to speak of, unless you want to do a project like the Reagan thing, which I wouldn’t go near-shame on her, by the way. You can’t wait and sit for the phone to ring, so I do theater.”

Ms. Zimbalist said that Ms. Roberts-one of whose costumes from Everybody Loves Raymond was under plexiglass display at the museum-takes care to attend many of these productions.

“It’s really, really sweet,” Ms. Zimbalist said. She’s also in e-mail contact with Mr. Brosnan’s makeup guy, but not so much with the man himself.

“I envy both Pierce and Doris’ bank accounts,” she said, “but with all that money comes a lot of responsibility. Success is inside!”

She’s dating a director named Peter Medak, whom she first knew two decades ago.

“He called out of the blue last fall, he had just separated from his wife, and we’ve been together ever since,” she said, adding that at her age, 47, “you don’t want to have to explain yourself all over again-and it’s also nice to be with a guy who knew you when you were the most beautiful that you’ll ever be.”

Is she bitter about the way it all turned out?

“Oh, heavens, no. Pierce was the one that was bitter.” (Mr. Brosnan had been offered Bond earlier but his contract wouldn’t allow him to leave the show; Timothy Dalton got Bond instead.) “Pierce is the one that had the People magazine ‘Take this job and shove it’ cover. The fact is, when Remington Steele ended, I was the one with a picture. I was the one that had been offered the lead in Robocop, and things were at M.G.M. waiting for me. Pierce did not have Bond. And he squawked and squawked, and I was the one that had to call Paul Verhoeven (the director of Robocop) and say, ‘I’m terribly sorry-I can’t do it because I have to go back to work.’ But I’ve never been anything but grateful. That series made me solvent. I’m eternally in debt to them.”

After the party, she ran next-door to Mel’s drive-in to get a cheeseburger with fries and an iced-tea/lemonade mix for her pop, gave it to him with a kiss and sent him on his way.

“It’s funny,” Ms. Zimbalist said. “When I meet people that love the show, a lot who come up to me, there’s a certain quality of woman that loved that show, and they’re usually very successful in their careers-doctors and lawyers-and they’re smart and they’re taking leaps in their own life, and I’m very, very touched. I was on the set of Remington when the Challenger accident happened, and I would bet money that Christa McAuliffe was a fan of Remington Steele , and was a fan of Laura Holt.”